28 February 2010

Who Needs the Federal Government?

I've been ruminating lately over the seemingly increasing traction being gained by various conservative political ideas and organizations. A few nights ago I was listening to a radio newscast at the top of the hour on a conservative station. The story was about how millions of dollars had been squandered by the Federal Census Bureau, and the reporter introduced the topic by stating that the cited report was further proof "that the federal government isn't capable of running anything." This is just one example (and a rather mild one, at that) of the anti-Washington feelings that, to me, are just a bit over the top. Such sentiments are, of course, nothing new in this, our land of perpetual rebellious individualism. But the volume and rhetoric of the conversation over this past year has grown to a fever pitch that I find perhaps just obnoxious, but maybe even dangerous. I mean, honestly, why do we even need a national government?

Now let me clarify by saying that I consider myself a moderate conservative. But the vehemence and recklessness of those who are currently standing in as the most influential voices of conservative political thought in America has left me disappointed, to say the least. That these educated people truly believe that our nation is on the verge of Soviet-style oligarchy, that America could find itself under the heel of despotism any day now, is a notion I find hard to swallow. For those who place such a premium upon the founding documents and personalities of our American nation (which is, I believe, as it should be), I offer this bit of frustration from the pen of Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist no. 29: "Where, in the name of common-sense, are our fears to end if we may not trust our sons, our brothers, our neighbors, our fellow-citizens? What shadow of danger can there be from men who are daily mingling with the rest of their countrymen, and who participate with them in the same feelings, sentiments, habits, and interests?" Hamilton was writing with regards to the states' power of appointing officers to serve in the militia, which, of course, may be called into national service, but I think the sentiment may illustrate a broader issue. If we realistically expect to exist under the authority of a government with power sufficient to accomplish its purpose, we must of necessity grant that government a degree of trust. Indeed, the whole of The Federalist papers may be summed up as an argument in favor of granting the public trust to a democratic government, painstakingly created so as to protect the rights of the people.

No doubt some reader may think me naive or stupidly idealistic for seeming to pledge blind loyalty to our federal government. I propose nothing of the sort. As citizens of a republic made up of fallible and all too often self-seeking individuals, it is our duty to remain informed of the proposed solutions to our nation's challenges, to weigh the same according to their merit, and to ensure that the government which we have elected to represent us is acting within the constitutional sphere by which it is legally bound. But it seems to me that there comes a point at which the citizen must ask himself whether he is favorable to allowing the government to do those things for which it has been established; namely, things which individuals or profit-driven entities either cannot or should not hope to accomplish, but which are necessary to the general welfare. At such a point, I believe there can be found no better alternative than entrusting such work to a constitutionally-limited government popularly elected by a democratic society. But such a decision does certainly involve a degree of trust. And while I don't, strictly-speaking, have any sons or brothers in the federal government, I certainly have many fellow-citizens.

As a final reflection on the bent of our current political rhetoric, I again turn to Hamilton. In closing no. 29, he asks, "Are suppositions of this sort the sober admonitions of discerning patriots to a discerning people? Or are they the inflammatory ravings of incendiaries or distempered enthusiasts?" Might I tag "parties out of power" to the end of that statement?

22 February 2010

Happy Birthday, To His Excellency

Today marks the anniversary of the birthday of George Washington, a man to whom I feel perhaps no accolades can be exaggerated.  I believe no single individual approaches Washington's influence in the founding of our republic; quite simply, without him the United States of America would have been strangled in infancy, if not by the British during the War for Independence, then by our own domestic squabbles following our establishment as an independent nation.  

I join today with Henry Lee in affirming that George Washington, the General, the President, the American, was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman." 

04 July 2008

Forum Posting

In response to Independence Day: Counting the Cost, Hercules Mulligan writes:

I too have been pondering the sacrifice our forefathers made for their stand on the words of the Declaration. It may be easy for us to eulogize their devotion and sacrifice, but it will be very difficult to realize exactly all that that truth entails.

Have you ever read the Narrative of Joseph Plum Martin? He was a soldier in the Continental Army (not the militia; General Washington's full-time Continentals) throughout the entire duration of the War -- from the Declaration to the Treaty of Paris. It is astounding. It is also sad that too many Americans are not familiar with this fabulous work, and not familiar with the sacrifice they made.How much we take for granted!

So many times we see pictures like "The Spirit of '76," and we think that the fervency of the Revolution, the spirit of liberty, self-reliance, virtue, and responsibility were just for those people back then. We think of ourselves as being more sophisticated and advanced, and that now we can afford to have the government do things for us, and we don't need to be as devoted to the cause of liberty today.We need to understand that liberty is not fought for and won at one time. Jefferson once said that "eternal vigilance is the cost of liberty." We need to continue to guard the liberty for which our forefathers shed their blood.

On days like these, there is no greater time to remember that. There is also no greater time to remember how much God has blessed us, so that we do not have to pay such a heavy price generation after generation to enjoy our freedom.

Independence Day: Counting the Cost

On July 4th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, assembled in Philadelphia, adopted the Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America. The resolution to declare independence from Great Britain had been adopted, after almost a month of fierce debate, only two days prior, and it had fallen to a committe of five representatives (Thomas Jefferson, who did most of the writing, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston) to draft a formal declaration.

Jefferson's eloquent words have stirred feelings of patriotism ever since, not only in the hearts of Americans, but in all freedom-loving peoples. It should be noted that as they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors, they realized what their bold action could very well mean. Though their honor is forever secure, many did indeed lose their fortunes, and some their lives, or the lives of their loved ones. Below is a link to an article, provided by Dr. Murphy Smith, of Texas A&M University, paying homage to those whose signature was to cost them so much.

The Costs of Liberty

To those fifty-six, and to all the men and women who have sacrificed for the liberty of this country, I offer the tribute of a citizen's grateful heart. Happy Independence Day!

30 June 2008

Constitutional Proposals, Part V: Final Considerations

Other Considerations. Dahl makes mention of several other general concerns regarding the democratic nature of our constitution (written and unwritten) which he feels should at least become part of the discussion; I will briefly address two in closing. They relate to the nature of our presidential system and to the place of primaries in democratic elections.
Although Dahl states truthfully that the American presidency is almost wholly unique among the democracies of the world, he does not go so far as to directly call it undemocratic. To do so, as he no doubt well knows, would be untrue. He does, however, question the wisdom of maintaining such a system in which the roles of chief executive and head of state are combined in a single individual. Although I understand Dahl's misgivings, I believe that the American presidency has become so firmly ingrained into our national and political culture that any attempt to alter or abolish it would be not simply futile, but counter-productive as well. The President of the United States has become a symbol not only of the nation, but of the ideal of a democratic government that is at once strong and limited. In my mind, the idea of a separate head of state makes no sense for America. It is understandable in nations such as the U.K., where centuries of monarchy have provided a head of state that can be seen as both legitimate and relevant. But in the U.S., a separate head of state, having neither political power nor historical relevance, would be viewed as without purpose, and thus fail to serve as a symbol of national unity and pride, which is in large part the reason for the existence of such an office.
A final recommendation which I will mention, related to the idea of opportunity and campaign finance, addresses the system of voting primaries. Although they may be viewed as democratic in a strict sense, I must conclude otherwise. By virtue of their cost both to citizens and government, their tendency to cause inter-party strife, and the possibility that they provide to allow for the nomination of a candidate that is not representative of the majority of party voters, I believe that they are a detriment to democracy. Accordingly, I would generally call for the abolishment of primaries, or at the least a stated limit to their scope.
Conclusion. These preceding posts have addressed several aspects of the U.S. Constitution and American political culture which, I feel, could be improved upon from a democratic standpoint. Although I believe our constitution to be an incredible and historic document, it is intended to be, as Dahl states, “an instrument of democratic government – nothing more, nothing less” (39). As such, it should and must be scrutinized by every generation which cares about the implementation of true democratic principles in American society.

12 June 2008

Forum Posting

In response to Constitutional Proposals Part IV: Proportional Representation in the House, Wilf Day writes:

A proportional system for the House of Representatives need not reduce the level of regionally specific representation, if elected state-by-state, as I assume they would be. Indeed, with a 5% threshold California could elect at-large representatives proportionally in two districts.
You have not specified whether at-large representatives would be calculated as "compensatory" (to top-up the single-district results) or in parallel with the district results. The parallel system, used in Japan but not in Europe, gives a voters for a party who have elected more than their share of single-district representatives, and are therefore over-represented, still more congressional representatives, for no obvious reason. I assume, therefore, that you propose a compensatory calculation, but it would be clearer to say so.

Rob Scot writes:

Thank you for your contribution, and for allowing me to clarify my position. I am not familiar with the term compensatory in this context, but I believe I understand your point. In a system which seeks to combine both majoritarian and proportional elections in order to utilize the benefits of both, it seems most appropriate to have the proportional seats "compensate" for any inequality which may have been manifested by the majoritarian, or single-member district, elections. In other words, after the single-district direct elections have been tallied, the remaining seats are appointed by party based upon a second, general vote that will reflect voter demographics; the results of this second, proportional vote will serve to more fairly balance the representation. In this way, the benefits of majoritarianism via direct elections (i.e. simpler political process for voters and politicians, greater accountability to voters) are combined with the benefits of proportionalism (greater fairness and political equality in representation).

10 June 2008

Constitutional Proposals Part IV: Proportional Representaion in the House

Dahl takes issue with what he calls the “American hybrid,” that is, a constitution which is neither strongly majoritarian (by virtue of multiple majorities in a system of checks and balances) and yet has little consensual or proportional aspects to it; in fact, it “may possess the advantages of neither and the defects of both” types of systems (115). With regards to the first charge about the weakness of American majoritarianism, I am inclined to disagree with Dahl. I believe the American system of checks and balances as laid out in our present constitution is both democratic and practical, and Dahl himself admits that “the evidence is mixed” regarding the efficiency or inefficiency of such a system (111). With regards to the second charge about a lack of proportionality under our present constitution, I must agree that the single district, winner-take-all method of election, most notably in the U.S. House of Representatives, is neither very fair nor democratic. To rectify this problem, I would support the implementation of a system which combines proportional representation with single member districts, as suggested by Dahl.
The reason for such a combination is rooted in the idea that the elected members of the House are representatives, that they are inclined to more or less act on the behalf of the citizens back in their district who elected them. This is something of a hallmark of American government, as I believe it should be. A proportional system, for all its advantages of political equality, greatly reduces the level of regionally specific representation. For these reasons, a combination of the two may be most appropriate for our federal nation. In such a system, half of the seats in the House would be occupied by members elected by majorities in single-member districts, thus satisfying the representative aspect. The other half of the seats would be filled by party nominees, based proportionally upon the voting results from the election, ensuring that minority voters would be fairly represented in the House even if they lost in the single-member district elections, and thus satisfying the political equality aspect.
It should be noted that a criticism of proportional representation is that it is impractical and inefficient for a society which lacks a strong common culture, whether ethnic, religious, geographic, etc. I believe this is a fair criticism, and in a nation such as the U.S. is worthy of consideration. However, I also believe that a critic could logically predict that a two-party system, such as we now possess, is apt to strong discontent and eventual upheaval. And yet, American politicians for over two centuries have maintained a strong government under a two-party system. They have done this by forming coalitions within their own parties and with members of the opposition, and by the successful utilization of compromise, that vital element of any democracy. For this reason, I believe that a proportional system could be made to work in the U.S., for though Americans do indeed lack a common ethnic, religious, and geographic heritage, we possess a great political heritage.
A final note on proportional representation: given the very real possibility of single-issue or radical parties preventing efficiency in the legislature (another justified criticism), there should be a minimum threshold above which a party must rise in order to seat a candidate. For the sake of efficiency and as a bulwark against minority radicalism, I would propose that this threshold be set rather high, at a minimum of 5%, at least.