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Wednesday, May 09, 2018


America today appears as divided as ever. It seems our divisiveness and disunity has never been worse.

Not so. America was born in discord and never outgrew it. This is as good a time as any to offer perspective – historical perspective.

Democracy takes on different meanings. We usually think of it as “government by the people.” In Plato’s “Republic” the state could not contain more citizens than could assemble and hear the voice of a speaker. We have far transcended that criteria. The point remains that government should be small and local.

In a parallel sense democracy can mean a form of government in which smaller units have the most power and the central government is weak.

The Declaration of Independence proclaimed “the power of the people.” Actually, the people do not govern themselves directly but they do have the power to change lawmakers as well as change the form of government.

In the first sense, government “by the people” was more of an ideal than a fact. We do not have anything near 100 percent democracy. In the second sense, democracy as a form of government in which smaller units have power was never the ideal of the framers of the Constitution. The views of many framers tended toward a strong central government. The opinion leaders of the day did not trust the people. They wanted to ensure the government did not equate to “mob rule.” Consequently, they wanted a strong central government at the expense of the states. Federalists believe a strong central government was essential to prosperity and national defense. However, provisions limiting federal power were written into the Constitution to allay fears of the opposition that centralization would evolve without limit.

A corollary of federalist motivation was the aristocratic bent of several framers. The aristocratic disposition favored keeping government as far removed from popular control as possible. Federalism and its corollary were so closely bound together that the Bill of Rights was not conceived of in the first Constitution. It was added later as a concession because the purely federalist approach jeopardized ratification. Obviously, conflict and struggle have been inherent in our government since our founding. The brilliance of the Constitution has always emphasize how to resolve contentious issues.

Over time the tie between federalism and aristocracy weakened evolving into more popular control. Slavery and tariffs separated the aristocracy in the South from business interests in the North. As seen below, this was one of many issues from the beginning that served to make the government more centralized on the one hand while giving more power to the people on the other.

This checkered past of American democracy over a century and a half resulted in just such a paradox. Democratic government has become more centralized while at the same time furthering more popular control over government. For all intents and purposes, this understanding of democracy would seem a contradiction in terms.

Much of America’s history of divisiveness centered on States’ Rights and popular control over government. Following the Bill of Rights the next controversy focused on the breakdown of the Electoral College. That institution was originally conceived as a free assembly of leading citizens (aristocracy) who would choose a President. The people ultimately benefited in that centralized control of selecting a President was thwarted.

We all know in 1861 the States’ Rights controversy flared into the Civil War resulting in the expansion of Federal power to deny secession. That was countered by amendments to the Constitution further enlarging the rights and privileges of the common people.

In 1913 the Constitution was amended to transfer election of US Senators from states’ legislatures to the people by popular vote.

In the same year the income tax which had been held constitutional in 1860 and unconstitutional in 1896 was finally validated by constitutional amendment. The graduated income tax levied a greater tax on those with the ability to pay. Both amendments increased power and influence to the masses. These were soon followed by granting women the right to vote.

For a democracy to be successful the government must be strong enough to meet national necessities but as close to the people as to be their servant and not their master. For better or for worse, the American government today is an historical paradox. It is closer to being an expression of the will of the people but at the same time succumbing to an established ruling class.

Think about it.


Dennis M. Patrick can be contacted at (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).



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