October 20th, 2015 // 4:09 pm @ Oliver DeMille
“Why can’t the two parties in Washington just get along?”
“Why can’t the politicians just stop bickering and work together?”
“With the factional divides in the Republican Party, no Speaker of the House can get anything done.”
“Shutting down the government is a failure of leadership.”
“I wish Washington would just stop fighting all the time.”
Sound familiar? I’m amazed at how often I hear these words. At the barbershop. At the store. Waiting for my car to get serviced. At a family party. Granted, not every conversation is about politics. Most aren’t, in fact. But when politics does come up in casual conversation, you can usually count on hearing these sentiments—or something very much like them.
Yet every one of these phrases shows a serious lack of understanding. The people who utter these words either don’t understand the Constitution, don’t like it, or have decided not to openly show that they understand the Constitution.
In a cultural sense, these words are false. They’re wrong. They’re ignorant. These statements are the opposite of the Constitutional culture established by the Founding Fathers and ratified by our forefathers. And this misunderstanding is literally a much bigger problem for America than anything happening in Washington. In fact, many if not most of Washington’s problems are rooted in this broad misunderstanding.
Specifically: If a lot of the regular people don’t understand the Constitution, our government will be dysfunctional. But not in the way the media portrays. In fact, the problem is almost precisely the opposite of what the media typically tries to spin.
I. Why the Framers Wanted Lots of Tumult
and Conflict in Washington
The U.S. Constitution is based on separations of power and checks and balances. The Framers clearly saw that, through human history, political power has been abused. Almost always, and by every kind of government. And this abuse takes a certain form: Power centralizes in one political entity (sometimes the executive of the nation, whether king or dictator or president; sometimes in the legislative or parliamentary branch of the government; and other times, in judges), and then the bearer of that centralized power abuses it.
This is the story of ancient Greece and Israel, of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and of the various Germanic, Asian, African, and pre-Columbian American tribes. The same plot is repeated numerous times in the island nations around the world, and in dynasties, feudal eras, and nomadic cultures. James Madison made special note of how this pattern played out in Western Civilization, particularly various Greek city-states and alliances, and a number of German, French and other European princedoms and commonwealths (Federalist 18,19,20).
Madison’s conclusion, which was adopted by most of the Framers, was that no single branch of government should have too much power, and that the only way—the only way—for a people to remain free is for the branches to have the power and duty to effectively check and balance each other (Federalist 47,51).
Madison warned that the people wouldn’t stay free unless such ongoing checks and balances, tumultuous and intense at times, were part of America’s regular fare (Federalist 37,38,53)–what we might call our cultural DNA. In fact, if the three branches of the federal government ever became less than jealously in conflict with each other, Madison warned, the people should be very concerned about their freedoms (Federalist 47,48,51).
In addition, the three major parts of the federal government were created to provide certain vital functions, based on different strengths. They were meant to be:
- The Decisive Branch (executive), to stop foreign aggression
- The Protective Branch (judicial), to maintain the inalienable rights of the people, especially against government abuse of power
- The Chaotic Branch (legislative), to argue, debate, disagree, deliberate, and ultimately pass only a few limited laws that nearly everyone can agree upon
This is the crux of the Constitutional culture the Framers established. Today it remains central to maintaining our freedoms.
II. The Constitutional Culture
the Framers Wanted
Under this system, freedom is in jeopardy if the executive, legislative, and judicial branches aren’t actively checking each other (ibid.).
One of the leading Founding Fathers, St. George Tucker of William and Mary College, called any government where the three branches weren’t at odds and actively fighting each other by the name “tyranny.” Madison said the same in Federalist 47.
The people can only remain free if each branch uses its checks and balances to keep the other branches in line (Federalist 47,48,51).
When the branches do this, it is chaotic. But it’s the kind of chaos that happens when the branches fight each other, which is much better than what happens when the branches stop bickering and work together to reduce the power and freedoms of the regular people.
In short, chaos in Washington usually means that the branches are attacking each other, instead of the freedoms of the people. That’s a good thing!
The major checks of each branch were, and are:
- executive veto
- judicial decisions concerning constitutionality
- legislative purse strings
Again, the Framers knew that the use of these checks would be hotly contested, turbulent, divisive, and often very upsetting to those on the receiving end of such checks.
The Framers realized that sometimes a presidential veto would feel disastrous to some people. They also knew that a Court decision of “unconstitutional” or “constitutional” would at times trigger a lot of frustration, and that the Congress using its power of the purse to shut down government if necessary would cause real discomfort.
Madison warned in Federalist paper 1 (the introduction to the Constitutional system) that during such periods of “great national discussion”, the following would happen in America:
“A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose.”
Yet such checks—including vetoes, Court decisions, and Congressional tumult and government shutdowns—were the very basis of the U.S. Constitution. As Madison put it: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” (Federalist 51)
This bears repeating. The Founding Fathers knew the use of a check by one branch of government on another would bring controversies and adversarial contentions. Indeed, “controversy” is mentioned 25 times in the Federalist, and “adversaries” and “contentions” are discussed 40 times.
But for the Framers, the real worry, the big danger, was the “ambition” of people holding government offices. Forms of the word “ambition” appear 62 times in the Federalist. The Founders were willing to allow angry feelings about checks and balances, in order to stop abuses of power by government officials and agencies.
This is the very foundation of the U.S. Constitution. As mentioned above, it is firmly based on the idea that government officials, agencies, and branches that spend lots of time fighting each other will find less time to over-govern or over-regulate the people. Those who understand this reality understand our Constitutional culture. Those who don’t, do not.
III. When You Hear that “Government is Gridlocked,”
Remember that Jefferson and Madison
are Somewhere Cheering!
Today, however, when a discussion about Washington or politics arises, it often turns in the direction of politicians not getting along, or not getting much done. But let’s be clear: if the politicians start agreeing on a lot of things, our freedoms will be voted away more quickly.
The Founders knew this, and in response they purposely established separations of power with checks and balances to keep us free.
As Madison said, quoting Montesquieu, in Federalist 47:
“‘There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body…’ or ‘if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive functions.’”
That’s pretty straightforward. “There can be no liberty…” if the checks and balances aren’t used.
Unless government is frequently gridlocked, freedom quickly declines.
The checks and balances matter.
Yet when the House uses its Constitutional power of the purse to withhold funds or shut down the government to keep the president or Court in check, many Americans today somehow think that Congress isn’t doing its job. The truth is the opposite. If the House isn’t using its power of the purse to keep the president and Court checked, then Congress isn’t doing its job.
If the campaigns and debates to elect a new Speaker of the House aren’t heated, passionate, and tumultuous, then Congress isn’t doing its job very well.
If sections of the House aren’t fighting each other, Congress isn’t doing its job. Same with the Senate. Same with all the branches of the government.
IV. The Constitution Works—
We Should Try Following It
When did the majority of citizens stop understanding the Constitution? When did so many of us stop seeing that the separations, checks, and balances are key to our freedoms? Or forget what the actual checks and balances are?
For example, if your Congressman/Congresswoman won’t use the Constitutional power of the purse to fight for freedom, you should elect a new one.
Ultimately, the majority of American citizens have somehow stopped understanding the Constitutional culture the Framers outlined—with its intense, passionate, turbulent and rowdy conflicts between the three branches of government (and even within Congress). Somehow many voters have been swayed by the modern media view that everything should be smooth, friendly, and without struggle, that politics should be professional, gentlemanly, and efficient.
Indeed the media has convinced too many of us to see the latest political fights and shake our heads in frustration or disgust, when we should be smiling and carefully watching to ensure that the branches of government keep fighting each other—except when the national security is legitimately at stake.
That’s how our Constitutional system is designed, and the result is more freedom for the regular people. Most nations of the world, and of history, would give nearly anything to have such a Constitutional structure with its checks and balances and the freedoms and prosperity they engender.
If we ever actually adopt the type of civil, tranquil, administrative politics many in the media envision, we’ll live in a nation that has lost its freedoms. The fact that serious, vigorous debate and intense disagreement in Congress and other parts of Washington is seen as somehow…bad…is a national tragedy. Such fervent skirmishes and struggles are what the Framers wanted when they designed the Constitution the way they did. This is precisely what is needed to ensure that no one group or elite upper class controls everything.
Furthermore, the emasculation of Congress and its Constitutional power to check the president and Court by withholding funds as needed and shutting down the government on occasion is a major step in the direction of losing our freedoms.
If only more people understood the Constitution.
Next time you hear about chaos in Washington, smile. Smile widely. Grin and take a deep breath. The Framers got it right.
But if you ever hear about a lack of gridlock in the government and laws sailing through Congress in gentlemanly civility, you’ll know that we’re experiencing a massive loss of freedom.
We all need to help more people understand the Constitutional culture of freedom the Founding Fathers gave us, based on lots of chaos and bickering in Washington.