We Don’t Live in a Democracy Part I

By Cliff Springs

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.  When I was in school, I had absolutely no interest in history.  To be honest, I didn’t have a real interest in many of my classes.  It was only after college and my involvement in political campaigns that I became enthralled in the deeper meanings of human history, the patterns of human behavior, and the origins of the greatest country the planet has ever known.


The truths I have discovered are both fascinating and unsettling.  As I am a student of history—and by no means yet a scholar—I’m going to keep the purpose of this installment simple.  From ancient Egypt to modern times, one fact is clear and indisputable: (and this is important for those of you who may believe the world must have begun about 10 years before your birth) people are the same today as they were 5000 years ago.  Human nature has not evolved at all.  Society’s tolerance for what is deemed acceptable has certainly devolved, but our inclinations as a species are identical to those of our ancient predecessors.


It is with this knowledge that I find the second truth so phenomenal and Divine:  the founders of our country were a group of men so brilliant, so inspired, and so focused on goals beyond their immediate desires that we do ourselves harm to veer too far from their wisdom.  They rightly feared too much power in a central government. 


Federalism as defined is a system of government “whereby the states are not merely regional representatives of the federal government, but are granted independent powers and responsibilities. With their own legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch, states are empowered to pass, enforce, and interpret laws, provided they do not violate the Constitution. (American Heritage Dictionary).”


Let’s think about that.  “The states are not merely representatives of the federal government.”  How many of you would say that our current governmental structure is a pretty muddied version of that principle?  It would actually seem that states have become mere distribution branches of federal programs and objectives.  How often do we hear of Congressional legislation that “persuades” the states to cooperate with federal initiatives by threatening to hold back or deny much-needed federal money?  A more accurate description might be that the states are regularly subjected to federal waterboarding: “Go along with our program or drown in debt while we give your piece of the pie to states that acquiesce.”


As I stated previously, I am no scholar of history.  It is my hope, however, that the simplicity of my historical knowledge will actually serve the simplicity of the points I am about to make.


1.  We don’t live in a democracy.  Some of you know this and some of you don’t, but it’s oh, so important.  We live in a representative republic.  That means we elect or appoint people to represent our interests in both state and federal government.  Making good decisions about legislative issues should not be the choice of the masses.  A clear—perhaps significant—majority of eligible voters in our country don’t have a clue about what or for whom they’re voting.  And with the current insufferable trend of cycle-to-cycle campaigning, we face the very real possibility that many voters will tune out the rhetoric as a result of becoming numb to the never ending process.  That’s why we elect a select few to become informed and make decisions on our behalf.


I know the idea of a pure democracy sounds beautiful—one man, one vote.  Every voice heard.  Should the completely uninformed voter carry the same weight as one who is knowledgeable about the subject matter?  I’m not calling for a voter litmus test, just pointing out the dilemma of pure democracy.  We vote for representatives—not policy.


2.  When you mess with the balanced system, the system risks failure.  Three branches of government:  Executive (the President), Legislative (Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives), and the Judicial (the Courts—namely the Supreme Court).  Each was designed to carry equal weight, but with very distinctive roles.  Congress creates legislation.  The President can veto the legislation—which Congress can override if a significant majority of the members vote together to do so.  The Supreme Court interprets the law and makes sure it doesn’t violate the Constitution.


That is the system as it was designed.  And we’ve butchered the holy crap out of it.


Beginning in the early 20th century, Supreme Court rulings began to side with the federal government over states.  This movement also resulted in the Court’s horribly flawed interpretation of the “Establishment Clause” of the 1st Amendment—which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Note that it says “Congress”—not “government” or “state government”—shall make no law.  Many states did have religious preferences and were permitted to do so by the Constitution.  But with the addition of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the Bill of Rights were essentially applied to states, binding state governments the same as they do the federal.  A 1913 Supreme Court ruling extrapolated this to mean that states—like the federal government—could no longer have state-sanctioned religions. 


Then, they were off to the races.


With a shift toward the federal balance of power, the virtues of populism took root and democracy for and by ALL the people became the utopian ideal.  Also in 1913, the 17th Amendment established popular election of U.S. Senators.  What?  It wasn’t always that way?  No.  Here’s where our collective failings (mine included) as history students have really hurt us as a population.


I’m going to digress for a moment to set up this point with a bit of a tangent.  A proud liberal friend of mine curses the Electoral College system at every opportunity.  He swears—and I do mean swears—that it should be abolished in favor of a simple majority vote.  This contempt for the Electoral College really hit the fan for him in 2000 when George W. Bush won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote (not the only time that this has happened in U.S. history, by the way).  He even quite mistakenly suggested that I would share his belief if the shoe was on the other foot.  Even my limited knowledge of U.S. history knew better.  I know the states matter.


If you believe in popular democracy, abolishing the Electoral College sounds noble, empowering to the individual.  But one simple important fact cemented my resolve:  the 17th Amendment.  Prior to the 17th, U.S. Senators were appointed by state legislatures.  Our 100 Senators answered directly to their states—more specifically the legislators, the representatives (there’s that word again)—elected to make wise decisions for the citizens they represent.  Okay, so what?  Big deal, right?


Stop and think about this:  the House of Representatives is and always was elected by popular vote—every two years.  Majority rules.  If Joe Congressman isn’t doing his job, then we only have to put up with this joker for two years.  Then throw the bum out, and replace him with someone who’ll do the job right.


Senators, however, are elected for 6 years.  They are meant to be more deliberative, less subject to the whims of a fickle electorate.  Answerable to the legislatures of their home states. 


And Presidents are ultimately decided by the Electoral College.  Three different methods for electing the electable components of the U.S. government (the Supreme Court is appointed, so it doesn’t count here).  Wow!  Those founders were smart guys.  Such a balanced system was designed to prevent fads, trends, public resentment, economics, etc. from abruptly steering the country rudderlessly into who-knows-what.


In light of this revelation, even my Electoral College-hating friend had to acknowledge that it suddenly made more sense to him.  Our current system has resulted in Senators who never leave office—even as their state legislatures have evolved and changed in political identity.  How much more money and payola has this need to campaign on a statewide level injected into the political system?  How much has the ability to woo the public at large resulted in 30, 40, and 50-year Senate terms?  And how much has all of this resulted in a complete concentration of power in Washington, D.C. instead of an equal balance in state capitols across the country?


A third—and frightening—component of this subject matter is the problem of judicial activism.  For those who don’t know the term, judicial activism is the practice of creating or altering law from the jurist bench—a clear breach of judiciary responsibility.  This practice has resulted in the introduction of numerous laws and legal principles that would have never—and I mean never—had a chance in Hades of being passed by Congress.  But because of an overreaching, idealistic interpretation of their obligations as jurists, these power grabs now exist as established law.


Judicial activism requires its own article or three, so I’ll leave that topic for another day.  But with the current economic climate and the federal intrusion into private business, banking, and healthcare, it’s important to note the hows and whys of the incredible structure our founding fathers established.  We’ve already tinkered too much with the system, and I fear that if we don’t pause to recall where we started, we may venture so far from where we’re supposed to be that it may take a generation or more to undo the damage.


Next:  We Don’t Live in a Democracy Part II



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