By Thom Little, Ph.D.
More than two centuries ago, fifty-five men from across thirteen American colonies established a government like none other before, a government where power was bestowed not by birth right or by armed might, but by consent. A democracy. The governed had, by the power of their voice and their vote, the right to determine who would govern them and accordingly, the right to remove them as necessary. Thus began what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “the great experiment” to see if man was truly capable of self government.
With a lot of hard work, good leadership and a little bit of luck, this government has endured–it has survived some less than competent and noble leaders and irrational decisions made out of fear, racism, sexism, partisanship and just plain ignorance. It has survived wars–internal and external. It has integrated peoples of different races, ethnicities, identities and philosophies although not without pain, hardship and some serious missteps. The nation has moved forward in fits and starts, but it has moved forward.
And yet, the success of America’s democracy is not preordained, based on destiny or providence. What has been so long maintained can easily be lost if we as a people and our leaders lose sight of the institutions that have allowed it to prosper and served us well for so long: free and fair elections; an independent press; three autonomous branches of government; and strong and effective state governments. While not perfect, these four institutions have been the bedrock of democracy and must be maintained if this experiment is to continue.
Free and Fair Elections. A government that derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed can only stand if the governed have faith in the process by which they lend that consent: the elections. That faith has been tested from time to time, especially when no candidate for the US Presidency earned a majority of the electoral votes. Further, electoral reforms such as voter registration, primary elections, campaign finance regulations and limitations, and the elimination of numerous obstacles to voting have been implemented to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. In addition, the right to vote has been extended to Americans of all races and genders over the age of seventeen fulfilling the revolutionary vision of the Founders that indeed all are created equal.
An Independent and Trusted Press. While the relationship between public officials and the press has always been a tense one, the authors of the United States Constitution understood that for the infant government to thrive, freedom of the press, even the very partisan papers, pamphlets and fliers of the time, would have to be protected. The Founders so valued freedom of the press that they codified it in the very first amendment to the new Constitution. Ideologically driven journalism is nothing new, but the rise of electronic media, cable news, talk radio and social media have made it so difficult to determine what sources are to be trusted that faith in the press is being severely tested.
Autonomous Branches of Government. Separation of powers. Checks and balances. Power spread across three independent units of government? Preposterous – at least to most in the eighteenth century when power was given by God or taken by might. Kings or dictators made the laws, administered the laws and interpreted the laws. In America, each of those decisions is to be made by an independent branch (legislative, judicial and executive), with some oversight from each of the others to keep any one branch from getting out of hand. However, for this system to work, each independently elected branch must be strong enough to do their jobs and willing to stand against the others when they step beyond their bounds.
Strong and Capable State Governments. Perhaps the most unique contribution of the American system of government is federalism, a system by which power is shared. While the thirteen states were all part of a larger nation, each also retained significant rights by which they would govern themselves and, perhaps more importantly, address critical issues when the national government is unwilling or incapable of doing so. Strong, capable state governments, led by informed and independent legislatures are as essential today (maybe even more so in light of the gridlock and bitterness that has gripped Washington, DC) as they were more than two hundred years ago.
The responsibility to maintain this gift of democracy has, and always will be, in the hands of the people and the representatives they elect to serve and govern them. If we do not protect and honor these institutions, the government that has for so long been a beacon to the world could easily be lost like others before it. The challenge for all of us is to work diligently to make sure that the democracy that has served us so well for so long will stand for our children and their children and their children’s children.
For almost a half century the State Legislative Leaders Foundation has recognized the unparalleled significance of state legislatures and those who lead them in protecting our democracy and we stand at the ready to assist in making sure this experiment continues. To fulfill this commitment, SLLF will be teaming up with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University next Spring (2019) to host a program on the moral obligation of state legislative leaders to protect the representative democracy that has been entrusted to them. Look for further information on this program in the near future.