Tensions of Constitutional Government

One of the earliest things I learned in political science classes (I fell 4 quarter hours short of an undergraduate minor) was that the United States is not truly a democracy, but rather a republic, a representative form of government. It’s an important difference, and one that seems to fade in and out of people’s consciousness, depending on the issue. When an issue one favors is blocked, one finds a poll that shows that the majority support it, and then one complains that “this is a democracy, and the people’s will is being thwarted.”

Fortunately, however, the country is not ruled by polls, but by institutions, and those institutions are created by processes. The process often frustrates us, but it is very important in maintaining a free country.

As examples, there are frequently efforts to limit free speech by various legislatures, or to establish some form of religion as an official part of government. The Supreme Court has tended largely to stop these efforts, much to the dismay of their proponents. When they do so, people complain loudly against the Court. It’s not a legislature! It shouldn’t do that! The will of the people should rule. On the other hand, when the Supreme Court stops other meddlesome activities, such as the attempt to apply the RICO statutes to abortion protesters, the reaction is quite different.

When we had a Democrat for president, Republicans were all for the will of congress, desiring a role for congressmen in foreign affairs, for example. With a Republican in the White House, things were a bit different. Now the Democrats aren’t supposed to get as much involved.

Similarly with each election we hear both complaints about the results and about the election process. When there’s a possibility of an electoral victory without a popular majority, people start complaining and asking how it is that we can elect a president who is not supported by the majority of the people. The answer, of course, is that it’s the way our constitution was written. The House of Representatives tends to represent popular will of the moment more closely, since all members are elected every two years, and the representation is divided generally by population (gerrymandering aside). The Senate is not so dependent on the current popular will, with members elected every six years, and two senators per state. That means states like Alaska have one congressman and two senators.

As for the election process I’m reminded of the baseball umpire who, on being challenged on a strike call looked at his scorecard, noted that he had called it a strike and said, “No, it’s right here on my card. That’s a strike!” Similarly, once the rules have been followed, including the court challenges and so forth, whatever is ruled is the result. You can work to reform the system, but that’s it.

Bottom line, it’s not a democracy.

What set me off on this lecture on basic politics was this story from CQPolitics.com, in which many Democrats are complaining about Nancy Pelosi’s leadership as speaker. She’s letting bills go through congress that the majority of Democrats don’t support, but the majority of congressmen do. In this, she is being more open than her predecessor, Dennis Hastert. One major bill she has allowed to pass is the war funding bill without a timetable.

Now we can debate that bill forever. Personally, while I favor withdrawal, I don’t think a timetable is the best approach. I’d prefer a goal-table. What we need is to look at scaled down, attainable goals, and withdraw based on those. It will still look a great deal like defeat, but it will allow us to set our positions for the next conflict, which is sure to come. But that’s just my opinion, and nobody elected me, nor would they be likely to.

The reality in Washington, however, is that congress is in the hands of the Democrats, and the White House is in the hands of the Republicans. We can whine all day, from both sides of the aisle, but that’s how it is, and whether we like it or not, that’s constitutionally correct. The Democrats did not take over the government in 2006, they gained the majority in both houses of congress. Nancy Pelosi gets to decide whether to be a part of governing in the meantime or to simply obstruct things until the next election takes place. It appears she’s decided to be part of governing.

Anti-war forces need to simply realize that, as angry as you may be, it takes more than one election to change the course of the country. If you don’t have the staying power to carry this through the next election, you shouldn’t have bothered to start. (I use “you” rather than “we” here because though I oppose the war, I think it’s appropriate that policy be a compromise between congress and the president in a divided government. I’m not angry. Things are about as expected. To end the war properly we need a new commander-in-chief with a strong strategic plan. Unfortunately, I don’t see one of those asking for the job.)

Whether it’s the Republican hard right or the Democratic hard left, there’s a strong tendency to prefer yelling to governing. There are groups on both sides–large ones right now–who are simply not willing to accept less than everything. In our constitutional form of government, there are strong institutional processes designed not to let any of them get everything. I’m happy about that, even when some policy (such as a phased withdrawal from Iraq) gets lost in the aforementioned processes.

I’d like to conclude with a lengthy quotation from the Federalist Papers, #51, which I think is just as applicable today as it was when it was written:

There are, moreover, two considerations particularly applicable to the federal system of America, which place that system in a very interesting point of view.

First. In a single republic, all the power surrendered by the people is submitted to the administration of a single government; and the usurpations are guarded against by a division of the government into distinct and separate departments. In the compound republic of America, the power surrendered by the people is first divided between two distinct governments, and then the portion allotted to each subdivided among distinct and separate departments. Hence a double security arises to the rights of the people. The different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.

Second. It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. The first method prevails in all governments possessing an hereditary or self-appointed authority. This, at best, is but a precarious security; because a power independent of the society may as well espouse the unjust views of the major, as the rightful interests of the minor party, and may possibly be turned against both parties. The second method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased. Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful. It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Source: Founding Fathers.info. I have a printed copy in which that passage is marked, and I commend the federalist papers to anyone interested in our constitutional system of government. The site referenced has an excellent electronic copy.

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One Comment

  1. Whether our Founding Fathers were Christian or Diest or whatever, you can certainly say this: They had a healthy respect for the fallen nature of humanity.

    Everyone needed to be protected from everyone else. If anyone got too much power, they knew, it would be bad.

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