Sheehan is professor of political science and international studies at Iona College and author of “American Democracy in Crisis: The Case for Rethinking Madisonian Government” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021)
It was widely recognized that our political system is in trouble, long before the pandemic and the 2020 election. A Pew poll in late 2019 found that trust in government had fallen to an all-time low of 17%. That year, more than 60% of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they had little confidence in the government’s ability to tackle key national challenges.
While there is a tendency to blame the unease on those in office, management guru Peter Drucker warns that what we are witnessing could instead be a “symptom of systems failure.” This can be a sign that “the assumptions on which the organization was built,” he says, “no longer correspond to reality.”
US government students would be wise to take Drucker’s warning seriously.
The assumption on which our system was built is protectionism, in particular the protection of freedom. This is what the Framers saw as the object or purpose of a Free State, and it informed almost every decision they made when structuring government.
Their commitment to protecting freedom helps explain why the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, wrote in Federalist No. 10 that the greatest threat to popular government are majority factions. His concern was that the majorities could take control of the government and use their power to promote interests opposed to the rights and freedoms of the minority. While majority factions can be driven by a variety of shared interests, the Framers were particularly concerned about factions made up of people without property.
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As a result, when drafting the Constitution, the drafters went to great lengths to counter majorities, prevent their formation and minimize their impact. More importantly, they followed Montesquieu’s diktat that the best way to protect freedom is to separate power. To this end, they adopted our tripartite arrangement, with three equal branches. Not content with that, however, they added additional elements including a bicameral legislature and a system of checks and balances, among others.
As the Constitutional Convention drew to a close, Madison wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of his concern that the new system “will not effectively meet its national purpose or prevent the local misdeeds that have aroused the loathing of state governments everywhere.” .
From our perspective, it’s astonishing to consider that Madison’s main concern was that the Constitution had not gone far enough to protect freedom and prevent the tyranny of the majority. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that they have been too successful. In their quest to protect freedom, the Framers have created a system that protects against all majorities, both those that are oppressive and those that are not.
As a result, throughout history countless measures preferred by majorities have been thwarted, delayed, or watered down to the point where they are largely unrecognizable. This includes everything from basic civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s to more recent common sense efforts to reduce gun violence, greenhouse gas emissions, and prescription drug prices.
In almost all cases, the roadblocks built into the system to prevent tyrannical majorities hindered the success of majorities of all kinds and instead gave minority interests inordinate influence – from Southern Democrats in civil rights debates to the National Rifle Association, business lobbies and pharmaceutical companies today.
While the Framers may have agreed that the purpose of free government is to protect freedom – with the freedom to own property at the top of the list – the same can’t be said now. Polls show Americans disagree over the proper role of government, divided on questions such as whether government should do more to solve problems and whether it should take a more active role in improving the lives of citizens.
Even more important than the absence of such a public consensus is that a significant number seem to have an opinion almost diametrically opposed to that of the Framers. While in 1787 it might have made sense that the primary goal of government was to protect freedom, today many expect more – and some expect much more.
But anyone who expects the federal government to be majority receptive, responsible and capable of tackling the major challenges of the day is bound to be very disappointed with the current situation. Although it is tempting to blame the unease on the incompetence of elected officials, and to imagine that the problem would be solved if they could only be replaced, election after election, it has been shown that this is not the case. case.
Moreover, he misses the fundamental point: the problem is not the incompetence of the people in office, but the system itself.
It is the direct result of something that is little talked about or understood, but which has profound implications for the way we live – what the Framers saw as the goal of a free state.
Their commitment to protecting freedom explains a lot about the system they created, as well as what it does and doesn’t do. To safeguard freedom, they devised a system of blocking and stasis. This is why many are frustrated and, decade after decade, the government fails to address the main challenges they face. And who can blame them?
Likewise, we can’t be surprised if at some point they hit a boiling point – and decide to log out, fight back, or seek salvation from a demagogue or a strongman. .
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