As the energy, of hate and discontent, from the election subsides and the act of actual governance once again begins to be considered the job of politicians, we are now hearing calls from the left, the right and the middle about all the things that are wrong with our political system.
Should the two party system be changed? Should there be a constitutional congress to amend our fundamental political system in order to better reflect our modern societal needs and wants? Should we make more fundamental changes and move from the constitutional republic constructed by the founding fathers to a simple democracy? (elimination of the electoral college is one such idea)
People within the parties also have their long list of things they think should change. Depending on whether they fall in the winner, or loser camp, the changes are either based on frustrations or assumed justifications. To my amazement and dismay, I have heard, so called conservative, constitutional republicans arguing for the elimination of the electoral college, and I have heard so called progressive democrats espousing the need for more control over peoples rights to self rule. While this seems to be an unexplainable phenomena, it is neither unexplainable nor is it something new.
If one looks at the history of politics and more specifically at the platforms and ideologies of the two parties, you find that todays progressive democrats were once progressive republicans. You will also find that the original champion of minority inclusion and freedoms were not the modern liberal democrats but southern republicans. The pendulum of the political spectrum has swung many times in the past 223 years. Once again we are seeing a sea change of ideals.
So, the question once again is, should we change our system of government? While we have slowly allowed the change in the practice of government over the past 100 years, the core system of governance is still there and intact, and for some on both sides is now an impediment to the additional changes that they feel need to be made to achieve their current societal ideals.
The answer for now should remain an unequivocal NO!
We need to look no further than the current election to see that this system works. Once again for the 56th time we have had a relatively peaceful and orderly change of presidential leadership. If you look beyond the singular office of the president and include congressional election cycles there have been well over 1000 orderly changes of power.
Native born Americans tend to be the least appreciative of our system of government because we have never experienced any alternative. We are likely spoiled by our experience. As such, we believe that what we have now is not that special, and more tellingly, we believe that we are easily capable of improving the system to make it more appropriate to what “we” want. But it is the “we” that is the singular indication of our arrogance.
Ask any immigrant to America, and they will caution against change. Those who have come from truly ineffective and oppressive systems to our own know the consequences of forms of government changed to improve the ideals of those in power. For whatever reason, America, at its founding, was graced with a number of individuals who, regardless of their differences, came together to create a system that was designed specifically to limit their own ability for future changes. They designed into the governance a series of checks and balances; checks not just to limit the power of the nation’s leaders to oppress the people, but also checks to limit the majority from oppressing the minority. In effect, our government was designed to provide checks and balances on our ability to make self-serving determinations where one group of people can prey on another whether they are in the minority or the majority. On the whole, this is a remarkably well considered form of government.
So, once again we hear the calls for change. Both sides feel that the system is not working as they wish it would. Just, 70 years ago, America’s citizens had a strong belief in the exceptionalism of the nation, the goodness of its people, the primacy of our ideology and the prosperity of our future. Today both sides seem to be embroiled, in self -doubt, and frustration. What has changed?
What has changed is us, the American people. We have changed! Our Ideals and our values have changed over the past 75 years. We have so changed that we have lost our belief in our nation and our form of government. In losing our faith, we have become afraid. Many, of you will no doubt now argue this point, but there are many indicators. Instead of spending much of this article on the indicators, a debate that no one will win or lose, and which is not the point of this article; I offer one point of consideration.
We have become so afraid, that now we limit speech and the use of words. We ascribe very negative connotations to the areas we fear in order to stop uncomfortable dialogue. Recently this was driven home to me by a reader of my columns who wrote me that when people discuss the change in our national values it is simply code word for religious domination and the desire to impose religious views on everyone else.
I was a bit surprised by this comment. I do not see a discussion of values as code for imposing religion on anyone. Societal values may be influenced by religious beliefs, but they are not in themselves religion. Societal values are derived from the mores of a society. This discussion stimulated me to think further and to wonder if the current aversion that we seem to be building to religious expression may not in fact be predicated on fear driven by our loss of faith in our own society, our nation and ourselves.
I would agree that the imposition of values on a people could be, and throughout history, often has been the result of imposition by a certain religion or society. In fact I don’t believe there is one religion or society, despite their own particular high ideals, that has not fallen victim at some point in its history to intolerant imposition of its beliefs on a population somewhere. But today, we so fear the discussion of what we should hold deal as our national values that we are trying to damn even the discussion under the specter of religions imposition. Lastly on this point, I don’t think anyone would disagree that religion and its role in shaping our societal mores has significantly changed since the founding of our nation.
Our values have changed! Or more accurately, the percentage of our population that believes or adheres to any specific set of values has changed many times in our history. This can be seen in the change in what our various parties core principals have been throughout our history. In the late 1800s, progressives rose to dominate over traditionalists. Then, traditionalists rose to become dominate over progressives. Once again traditionalists have found themselves in the minority. The pendulum continues its oscillations.
As strongly as traditionalists believe the policies gaining prominence are misguided, those prosecuting these ideals believe they are more desirable and offer an improved future. At such an impasse these arguments default to moral justification but once again there is little sway between the opposing views. One sides argument for something does little to change the other sides argument against the same something. Perhaps it is just our human nature that we are of at least two minds on most things.
The founding fathers clearly understood that there were two natures in our humanity. Their constitutional construct understood that there was this dichotomy and put in place a system to account for its benefits and protect against its detriments. Underlying all that they codified in our new constitution was the principal of tolerance. The concept of tolerance was seen as so important to our founding fathers that even before the propagation of the revolution they began to increase the understanding and practice of tolerance by commissioning articles and writings to foster the expansion of the practice of tolerance in the colonies.
They understood, that if we did not become an integrally united people then the revolution, the national America, would fail. Tolerance is a conscious act! The act of tolerance is the purposeful allowance of a behavior, practice, or belief by another that one finds objectionable. In other words for me to show tolerance, I must let you do what you want to do, assuming that you cause no physical or economic harm by doing so, despite the fact that I don’t like it or don’t want to see it. The founders new that if we did not let others live their lives as they saw fit, then when the going got tough, we would fall apart as a united people. They also knew that tolerance was a bilateral agreement. They knew that the unwritten rule was just as I tolerate what you want to do you must equally tolerate what I want to do. This is not a minority-majority calculation it is a societal balance.
For centuries, it was tolerance that formed the basis for America’s promise: tolerance of religion, tolerance, of lifestyle, tolerance of methods of practice in society, tolerance in the practice of commerce. One group may believe that the bible is predicated on a new testament and that Jesus is the savior. Another may believe that Jesus was just a profit and that we are yet to be saved. One may call the supreme being God, another Jehovah, another Allah, another Krishna, and still another believe their is no god at all. For centuries, Americans have allowed each to worship, speak, publish and practice as they saw fit. While I may object to what you believe as it conflicts with my own philosophy, conversely I have to allow you the same freedom as I want for myself. We have historically practiced bilateral tolerance.
Really what has been going on has been MALT. Mutually Assured Lack of Tolerance. In effect, as long as we allowed each to do that which we did not like, we all have been free to do as we wished in relative peace, quiet and freedom. We all new that once we said you can’t do X then you would say that we can’t do Y and pretty soon we would become a divided people and the grand American experiment would fail–MALT.
We clearly have changed. One group does not like that another group is building a house of worship that has minarets and domes. Soon the argument gets couched in the framework that the building just does not look like the architecture that is characteristic of the majority of the town. Hearings are held, lawsuits are filed and in the end regardless of the decision the act of tolerance has been diminished. Another group does not like the celebration of Christmas because it celebrates the life of a man called Jesus Christ and he is a religious figure. So they argue that such a celebration in public is offensive and should be prohibited. Hearings are held, lawsuits filed and regardless of outcome tolerance has been negated.
These should not be majority nor minority decisions, vocal or otherwise. These should be principled decisions based on the mores, ideologies, and values of our society. While there are many things that are in flux in the current debate on both sides that I agree with and equally disagree with, it is this fundamental change that I worry about. It is the loss of this grand bargain that has formed the basis of our society and success that I worry is laying the ground work for our own destruction. It also seems that it may be one of the easiest things for us to address. All we need to do is set our fears aside and have the discussion as to what we now believe our societal values should be. From that point then perhaps we could once again review the nature of our republic and its underlying political system. And re-learn about tolerance.
It seems today the only thing we tolerate is intolerance! For centuries we have watched the pendulum swing and our ability to be tolerant has allowed us the stay well above the pit and avoid harm. The founders knew of this pitfall and crafted a system to avoid the sharp edge of the pendulum while we continued to exist in the exalted realm well above the pit. But our system was predicated on the practice of tolerance. Will we relearn the value of this practice and once again re-embrace it or suffer the fate that the founding fathers knew without tolerance was our inevitable result.
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