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What is the Power of We The People?

The Globe’s editorial “People Power” (Dec. 28, 2011), touched on a number of issues that have bothered me for some time. Although I’m neither a Constitutional lawyer nor scholar, I have researched some of the questions raised there as well as many others that have concerned me over the years.

First, you might be surprised to learn that the three words that begin the Preamble of our Constitution, “We the People,” are misleading at best, and untrue at worst. That’s because the people didn’t and never have ratified this foundational document of our government. That was done by the legislatures of the original thirteen states. Even the amendments, including the Bill or Rights, were not voted on by the people, but, again, by the state legislatures.

Of course back in the day, the “We” in “We the people,” were, in truth, an elitist class that did not include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, or the poor; among many other groups. Our founders were the equivalent of European aristocracy in the eighteenth century. Not much has changed in the last two hundred years – we still have an elitist class running the country; although, admittedly, a more inclusive one.

There were 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, representing all the states but Rhode Island. Each delegate was selected by his respective state legislature, and was not, again, elected by the people. When it was all said as done, 39 delegates signed the new Constitution; a little over two-thirds majority, The Convention adjourned on September 17th, which became known as Constitution Day. But each year it goes virtually unnoticed. We the people celebrate our independence, not our form of government.

From its Latin roots, the term democracy means “people rule”. But under our form of government, the people’s involvement in democracy at the federal level is very limited. We can vote for only one out of the 435 Representatives in Congress and two out of the 100 in the Senate. (Up until 1913, U.S. senators were appointed, not elected.) We don’t even directly vote for president; we vote for “electors.” But even here, the electors in most states use the “winner take all” rule, which means that the votes for the runners-up don’t even count. But thanks for showing up anyway.

Further, those of us registered as Independent (24 million and growing according to USA Today) can’t vote in the primaries in most states, or have delegates to the presidential conventions. We’re stuck with having to choose between candidates selected for us without having a voice in the process. As more and more defectors from the political parties join the ranks of the unaffiliated, what little democracy we can cling to becomes more and more diminished.

So what we have, technically, is a Constitutional Republic, not a Democratic Republic. We the people were never given the power to establish our government in the first place, and we are extremely limited in selecting and then voting for people to run it for us. And how is that working out? Well, recent polls say that something north of 70% of us think the country is headed in the wrong direction, that over 90% of us think Congress is doing a bad job, and that more than half of us disapprove of the work of the Obama administration and the Supreme Court.

A good part of the reason for this difficulty, in my view, is that the framers grossly underestimated the influence of what they called “factions.” These groups would include outspoken dissenters including members of the political parties themselves, along with the Tea Partyers and Occupiers, plus the special interest groups, and, most importantly, those who have a significant financial interest in the laws that Congress enacts. And we can’t leave out the major corporations which now, thanks to the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC, in an apparent tribute to George Orwell, have now joined the ranks of we the people.

The founders had assumed that the mischief caused by these factions would be dealt with at the state and local level. But clearly this has not happened. As the industrial revolution mushroomed from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, the amoral desire for the accumulation of wealth has now become the Zeitgeist for our political philosophy and its power has been consolidated in Washington, D.C.

How culpable are we the people in all of this? I would argue that it’s not much. Our form of government makes us wholly dependent on our representatives (and appointed officials like judges) to deal with the numerous and highly complex issues of the day. And the ballot box is no match for multi-million dollar political campaigns.

Our only chance for relief, it seems to me, is the Constitutional Amendment process. Many have been proffered over the years to help remedy some of the concerns. Thomas Jefferson, for example, proposed that the Constitution be ratified by we the people every twenty years and that term limits apply to the president (which was done in 1951 through the 21st Amendment) and to members of Congress, which, as yet, has not been done. Of course, any Amendment that would help mitigate the power of those who hold sway in our government will surely be given short shrift and quickly buried in the graveyard of good intentions.

Meanwhile the current dilemma in Washington is getting worse. We’ll have elections in November of course, but as I point out here, that exercise is unlikely to produce anything approaching the significant paradigm shift needed to improve our current state of affairs.

So here we are in early 2012 with a critically ill economic system, a failing education system, an out-of-control public debt, a laughable immigration policy, a virtually non-existent energy policy, a ridiculously complex tax code, a bloated government, huge environmental and ecological threats, and an unsustainable appetite for natural resources; all being juggled by an ineffective president and an intransigent and inept Congress.

Who do we the people see about that?

Published in the Joplin Globe on January 10, 2012

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