One Sailor’s view of American democracy

It might just be an inaccurate recollection on my part, but I recall someone saying life aboard a warship, (or by extension, life in any military branch, means the rights and freedoms- the democracy we defend for civilian Americans, is not really what we experience ourselves in uniform. A military system runs on rules and obedience to the “Chain of Command”. Committees, convoluted language in instructions, back-room deals, and courting favor of those lead seem ludicrous to a military mindset. Yet this is what precisely motivated sufficient numbers of Americans to elect an outsider, without experience and without an emotional or ‘decorum” filter, to the Presidency. To half the country this was a threat to our democracy that had to be opposed by any means. To the other half of the country, his election was in response to the callous indifference, inattention, and elitist behavior of legislators, courts, and supporting institutions to “working Americans”. For years each side has warned that the other is destroying the constitutional democracy that was established by our Founders in 1787.

What does “democracy” mean to any of us? Or “Constitutional republic”? Why do these terms stir up such passions between election winners and losers and each’s supporters in the United States? It may depend on your culture, knowledge of history, experience, education and political ideology. An article on democracy written eight years ago and an opinion piece in the New York Times, published in 2019, illustrate how American democracy might be characterized.

The Principles of American Democracy

Author Joel Hirsh, writing in The Huffington Post (April 2, 2012) reminds politicians and laypersons that understanding American democracy requires context. Asking the average person on the street what they understand ‘democracy’ to mean and you might get any number of misunderstood concepts. He writes that Abraham Lincoln described democracy as having no slaves nor masters. Mahatma Gandhi believed democracy could not be imposed but required an individual’s guiding principles to change government positively. Aristotle thought that equality for all came by everyone governed to be actively involved in governance.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

The idea of representative government was to promote consensus among differing majorities in all the States and eliminate factions who might control Government to their benefit. As for the President, what the Founders envisioned in the Electoral College, the writer continues, was a system to obtain a competent and popular Executive that all the States could work with. Hirsh notes that America and democracy seem woven into our American identity. However, in the last half-century, what was once understood by every schoolchild devolved to slogans and bumper stickers. Today, we can add Twitter rants, Facebook memes, and street protests whose participants cannot attach context to nor define democracy. However, the entrenchment of career politicians, bureaucrats, and partisan media (social media and conglomerates) increase disenfranchised citizens. In the Huffington Post, Hirsh described five elements of democratic governance.

The first element is the mechanism of representative democracy. Hirsh goes on to describe how the term “direct democracy” came into being, where segments of a society unhappy with their elected leaders, “mob rule” he called it. These countries, like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia are run by strongmen who have “opportunities” for their citizens to participate in governance, but in practice tends to be only the well-connected and well-funded individuals and organizations that have access. However, he also applies this to groups and caucuses in the US, illustrating how some conservative groups exert more influence in certain areas and policies than others. But the progressive groups have exerted a great deal of controversial influence during their control of the Congress and the Executive, and in opposition, during the term of President Trump.

A second element to aid the citizens’ representative government, is a professional, non-partisan civil service that provide these services to the people. Hirsh states “Governments in unstable democracies all too often confuse and blur the lines dividing party, administration and state. This is bad for democracy. Activist governments attempting to socially engineer their citizenry using their civil service as partisan soldiers for their political project have been a serious cause of recent misery.” Depending on one’s political ideology, this might be applied to either Party. In recent memory, Americans have witnessed groups supporting tax reform described as hate groups, groups supporting legal immigration as racists, and social engineering particularly in gender and identity. Regardless of one’s opinion, the use of partisan bureaucrats, and the extraordinary focus of the House of Representatives to investigate a President, which revealed nothing substantive, after several years is a textbook illustration of Hirsh’s critique.

In a 2019 opinion piece published in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie wrote about democracy envisioned by the Founders as flawed. The writer of the NYT opinion, states that the Founders feared popular rule, using the Greek interpretation of “democracy”, a classical Athenian model where a small minority of citizens govern, in person. This lead to the Founders to incorporate representation where the interests of all the citizens would devolve to a representative. In practice, representatives often represent the views of the more well-funded and connected constituents and business interests than the majority. This is often illustrated by career politicians, who still win reelection after 20, 30, or 40 years in government through well-funded campaigns.

Hirsh continued with the third element of American democracy: the principal of separation of powers. In the United States this means three separate but equal branches of government, each with a clear role and with an equal claim to legitimacy. The Congress makes the laws, the Supreme Court interprets them (with an eye on the Constitution), and the president implements them. But his criticism of a President exceeding his authority – issuing Executive Orders and statements, conflicts with history, in that every President since Washington has issued them. That the Congress funds the operation of government and legislates is often at odds when the Legislators manipulate legislation to include unrelated, pet projects, or refuse to deliberate on them- to thwart their political rivals. As for the Judiciary to decide whether legislation is in keeping with the Constitution, “bench activism” has replaced constitutionality in decisions.

Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor.

James Russell Lowell, poet d. 1891

The fourth is the principal of limited government. This is something which, in 2020, neither political party representatives in Government pay lip service. This is at the center of much political tension in the United States. The author candidly states that the Government spends sums of money overseas to help foreign governments become more decentralized while in the USA, we become more bureaucratic and centralized. He pointed out that increasing federalization goes against the 10th Amendment of the Constitution, which says the States have responsibility for activity not expressly granted to the Federal Government (foreign policy, trade, war powers) .

The key to achieving a democracy that meets these elements successfully is a democracy built around a bill of rights, for every citizen that protects them from an overreaching government. Hirsh is correct in that he writes the American democracy has a foundation on a unwavering civil and political rights – “inalienable rights” — such as life, liberty, property, speech, assembly, religion, due process, and others. Other “rights”, such as the economic, social and cultural values, are all negotiations between free citizens as to what extent the Government provides them. He goes on to say, all inalienable rights compel duties from the federal government; and the duties these rights would compel directly interfere with the free market system as well as the bill of rights (such as the 10th amendment).

Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

Plato

The American democracy, has to resist the demands of those who continue to press for change, for loose interpretation and re-interpretation of an “outdated” Constitution. The institutional changes brought about by today’s social engineering may upset a system that has function albeit with mistakes and failures for two centuries. In contrast, other countries have weakened, become unstable, or worse, succumb to despotic rule. The necessity instead is for all Americans to be better educated about local, state and national issues, economics, foreign policy, trade and the mechanics of government. When citizens fail to become even moderately involved in their own government, we get the representation we have permitted. To blame democracy, the Constitution, capitalism, or social injustice only serves to enable a strongman to step in – and disenfranchise opponents.

Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.

Kofi Anan, statesman (fmr UN Gen Secretary)