Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Distrust of Government

Distrust of Government.

Distrust of the government is a venerable American tradition. Recall the opening paragraph of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience: “that government governs best which governs least.” Thoreau later amends this to “that government governs best which does not govern at all.” Today the suspicion of government and hostility to government action have once again reached a peak. Tea party protests against the Obama health care reform are frequent and noisy. States' rights advocacy is widespread; various states have passed laws trying to limit what they regard as interference by the federal government.

But the widespread sense that the government is the enemy is a serious matter because it is at odds with our traditional conceptions of our democracy. The preamble to the Constitution begins with the words: “ We the people...”. If you ask anyone about democracy, they will tell you that in our country the people are the source of all power and that they, therefore, control the government. But the message of many of the protests against the government is that the government is out of control. The citizens do not determine government policy. The government determines policy and does not respect the wishes and needs of the people. Our democracy is not working.

We should not take this idea literally that the people are supposed to control the government. The so-called checks and balances in our Constitution were all designed to put a distance between ordinary citizens and the government. While the founding fathers were meeting in Philadelphia to write the constitution, farmers in western Massachusetts staged an armed uprising because a financial crisis had forced many of their farms into foreclosure and the state government refused them any help. Known as Shay's rebellion, this uprising re-enforced the suspicions harbored by the many aristocratic founders against ordinary people. They made sure that the influence of these common citizens on the government would be buffered by various institutional protections such as the electoral college, or the two chamber legislature.
The Constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 was not intended to give ordinary citizens the power to control the government. But it did give citizens the power to have a say, to be, on occasion, listened to. Citizens do have an influence—on rare occasions a significant influence on government. If this were not true, our government could not be as corrupted by money as it is. There would be no room for lobbyists to conduct their dirty trade if the Legislature were not open to external influences.

Complaints that the government is not controlled by citizens are destructive when they portray the government as the enemy, as the tool of totalitarian bureaucrats. When American democracy does allow ordinary citizens a voice, citizens can preserve that voice only by raising it. Once citizens limit themselves to complaints, to hostile sniping, they give up what ever little power is left for them after the lobbyists of multinational corporations have done their work.

Clearly our democracy is very corrupt. The concessions to drug companies, insurance companies, medical equipment companies, hospital acquisitions, associations of physicians and others which masquerade as the health reform bill show very clearly where the political power lies today. The health care bill is not so much a power grab by the federal government but a series of concessions to various industries and private interests by that same federal government.

American citizens need to struggle against the influence of money in politics, against lobbyists, against private interests and now against the Supreme Court which has made itself the spokesperson for those private interests. The restriction of individual citizenship and its power must encourage us to redouble our efforts to salvage what little is left of democracy.

The groups complaining about power grabs by the government not only misunderstand our political system but they detract attention from the real threat to democracy: moneyed private interests. What is worse they encourage abstention from political action, fostering instead sniping from the sidelines, feeling victimized and sorry for oneself, and a pervasive feeling of powerlessness. The groups complaining about power grabs by the government remove citizens from the political arena and thereby do the work for lobbyists and those who pay them.

Working to establish what is left of our democracy or perhaps even strengthening it is difficult and often very frustrating. Being cynical about the government, by contrast, is easy. It takes no effort at all. But it is giving up hope on American democracy; it is substituting self-pity for the commitments of citizens. The complaints of the tea party adherents, of the advocates of states rights, of the enemies of all government, are self-fulfilling prophecies . Only participating in the political process and trying to change it so as to come closer to our ideals, has a chance of salvaging a bit of our democracy. Giving up on it seals its fate.