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Column

Our nation is not a democracy

It is often ascribed to Benjamin Franklin that following the adoption of the constitution he was asked what the delegates had made. He responded: “We have made a republic, if we can keep it.” Franklin foresaw that many people would try to make the constitution say what it did not say.

You see, our nation is not a democracy. The United States of America is what is known as a “representative republic.” We are unlike ancient Athens, or, even today, small towns in New England, where the citizens gather(ed) to discuss and approve the conduct of official affairs. Even when our constitution was written it was impractical for all the citizens of each state to gather to discuss and approve laws. We were too populous and spread out for such a process. That is why we elect others to “represent” us in our cities, counties, states and the nation.

Within eight years of the founding, the United States developed partisan political parties. Since that time there have been many political parties. Each of these represent different ideas of how the United states should proceed. Sometimes these different ideas can, through compromise, become shared goals for the governance of our nation. Sometimes people become polarized to the point of turning government into a family feud.

At the national level we elect “representatives and senators” to actually make the laws on our behalf. At least they are supposed to. In truth, our “representatives” nearly always write only broad outlines of intent. Congress gives the executive branch authority to write the specific details of most laws. At this point the executive branch interprets the law and produces thousands of pages of “Administrative Code”, used to satisfy the requirements of the law passed by congress. Politics prevails throughout this process. This becomes messy.

Our constitution also clearly sets out specific duties and authority for the National government. The tenth amendment clearly says that any power not specifically delegated to the United States is “reserved” to the States or to the people. This produces a tension between the national government and the individual states. Over the years this tension has been widened and blurred by many, often conflicting, opinions issued by the Supreme Court. A strong case can be made that the power of the national government now greatly exceeds what the constitution, as amended, actually provides.

We have come to the point that even constitutional scholars disagree about what it actually says. The layman hardly understands it at all.

The response to the present health crisis caused by the current pandemic is confused because of our confusion of the power and responsibilities of the National government and the individual States. We hear claims and charges that the president has or has not made the appropriate response. We hear claims and charges that the governors of the individual states have or have not made the appropriate response.

We find a similar issue with the response to the present violence in our inner cities. Mayors are blaming the president for the violence. The president is blaming the mayors for the violence. People who want to make changes are unwilling to use the established constitutional process. They demand unilateral changes be made without discourse or deliberation.

People who have no knowledge of our history are demanding that it be erased. Ours is a great nation, with a great history. Are we perfect? Of course not! Could we be better? That remains to be seen!

In 1949 an English author, George Orwell, published his novel called “1984.” He describes a nation under the absolute control of the national government. Control is through television sets, used by the government to watch and listen to the citizens. I will close with a quote from this book.

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the party is always right.”

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