American Government
eBook - ePub

American Government

Constitutional Democracy Under Pressure

Cal Jillson

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  1. 362 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

American Government

Constitutional Democracy Under Pressure

Cal Jillson

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American Government: Constitutional Democracy Under Pressure highlights the necessary tension between our constitutional principles and institutions and the populist heat that sometimes roils our national politics, especially at the current political moment. Our constitutional democracy has been under pressure for some time, but few would deny that fears for its fate have deepened in just the past few years. We assume that our political institutions will limit and contain contemporary populism, just as the Founders intended and as they have in the past, but will they? An increasingly polarized electorate, urging their representatives to fight and never to compromise, may be stressing Constitutional limits. This new edition offers to help American government teachers lead their students to a nuanced theoretical and practical understanding of what is happening in the politics of their Constitutional democracy today.

New to the Second Edition

  • Further develops and highlights the distinguishing theme of the book, "Constitutional Democracy Under Pressure, " in light of Trump Administration events over the last two years.

  • Expands coverage of all media aspects including fake news, social media, responsible journalism, and related topics including foreign manipulation of the news.

  • Includes the most recent election results.

  • Addresses issues specific to the Trump Administration including unique coverage of the 25th Amendment, cabinet instability, election interferences, executive power and unitary action, and impact on the courts.

  • Updates in all tables, figures, suggested readings plus photo updates throughout.

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Chapter 1

The Revolution and the Constitution

Focus Questions and Learning Goals
Q1 What circumstances led Europeans to leave their homelands to settle in America?
Q2 What are the decisive events and arguments that produced the American Revolution?
Q3 What changes in institutional design and allocation of powers were reflected in the first state constitutions?
Q4 How did the Virginia and New Jersey Plans differ about the kind of national government that each envisioned?
Q5 What role did the debate over a bill of rights play in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution?

The Founders and the People

Preamble to the Constitution (in part): “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Article IV, section 4 (in part): “The United States will guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”
Most of the Founders, though not all, respected the common people even if they did not fully trust them. Because they were ambivalent about the political capacities of the common people, the Founders set out to build a republican form of government—not a democracy. Sorting out how the Founders felt about “the People” will help us understand why they favored republics and feared democracies.
The Founders believed that stable government rested on the consent of the governed, but most did not believe that the people could or should govern directly. The Constitutional Convention of 1787, which drafted the U.S. Constitution, debated the strengths and weaknesses of the people and the roles that they might play in government. One of the delegates most skeptical of the people was Alexander Hamilton of New York. On June 18, relatively early in the convention, Hamilton made a long speech in which he declared; “The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right.” Hamilton was not alone. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Delaware, in an extended debate on voter qualification on August 7, declared that, “the freeholders of the Country . . . [were] the best guardians of liberty; And . . . a necessary defence agst. the dangerous influence of those multitudes without property & without principle.”
Others took a more generous view of the people’s rights and abilities. In the same August 7 debate mentioned above, Benjamin Franklin favored a broad suffrage and “expressed his dislike of every thing that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” Virginia’s George Mason called upon his colleagues to see the whole question of voting rights in a new light, warning that, “A Freehold is the qualification in England, & hence it is imagined to be the only proper one. The true idea . . . was that every man having evidence of attachment to & permanent common interest with the Society ought to share in all its rights and privileges.”
James Madison, as he so often did, sought the middle ground. The people, Madison thought, should have the responsibility for selecting local officials, state legislators, and members of the lower house of Congress; but then, in his famous phrase, the people’s choices should be subject to “successive filtrations” in search of the best men to serve in higher offices. Madison advocated popular election of members of the lower house of Congress, but no more. State legislatures would select U.S. senators, the Electoral College would select the president, and the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, would select high officials of the executive branch, judges, ambassadors, and military officers.
Because most of the Founders doubted the people’s knowledge and judgment, they were opposed to democracy. They knew that democracy always had been defined narrowly to mean direct democracy—government immediately by the people themselves. Madison stated the distinction between democracy and republic in Federalist No. 14; writing that, “in a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. [Elected representatives] refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a ­chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” Everyone understood that the new nation was too large to be a direct democracy, but they worried that the democratic elements of the new government, limited though they might be, could produce tumult.
Over the course of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison and others came to believe that a written constitution allowed institutions to be carefully constructed to limit and separate power, to allow officeholders to watch and check each other, and to define and secure the liberty of citizens. In this chapter, we see the Founders move tentatively toward independence, and then, after a period of instability, confront the complexity of building their republican form of government—what today, after 230 years and several critical constitutional amendments, we call a constitutional democracy.
The Founders were an educated, accomplished, confident elite wrestling with questions and problems that they knew were unprecedented. A few, like John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, were deeply read in ancient and contemporary European history and politics and most were broadly familiar with these topics. All knew that human history was the story of the powerful—chiefs and warlords, kings and tyrants—ruling the mass of common people as they wished and for their own benefit.
As late as the seventeenth century, European monarchs claimed to hold their thrones by “divine right,” by the will and gift of God. These powerful claims left common people with a fearsome choice: obey or resist and, in resisting, risk the wrath of the king and of God. Most chose obedience until oppression forced another choice: fight or flee. Those who fought always looked for arguments to justify and explain their resistance and those who fled often gained the space to think anew. The English colonies in North America provided such space in abundance.
In this chapter, we survey the European history and colonial political experience upon which the Founders drew when tensions with England forced them to ask what social, political, and economic systems would serve their interests and protect their individual rights and liberties. We describe their initial fumblings with state constitutions and the Articles of Confederation before turning to a more detailed consideration of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Constitution has been tested throughout our history and is again being tested today.

The European Roots of American Politics

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, traditionalists argued that social order required hierarchy and privilege while new voices proclaimed choice and opportunity for more, if never all, people. The steady rise of ­individualism, first in religious thought, then in politics, and later in economics, was the solvent that weakened and ultimately dissolved privileges and hierarchy as the dominant ways of thinking about social organization. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Charles Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), represented the growing commitment to freedom and progress that would come to dominate thinking in Europe and America. Once the battle was won, this period became known as the Age of Reason. The idea that freedom has an order and structure of its own found its brightest moment in the era of the American Revolution.1
individualism The idea that the people are the legitimate sources of political authority and that they have rights that government must respect.
Francis Bacon believed that science, discovery, and invention work to the eternal benefit of human society. Human history need not always collapse back into tyranny and barbarism. Rather, social, economic, and political progress—perhaps interrupted now and again by backsliding and slippage, but always tending toward discovery and improvement—could be the new future of humanity in the world. Two centuries later, Bacon’s optimism endeared him to Americans like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Unfortunately, English politics in the half-century following Bacon’s death in 1626 seemed to mock this vision of peace and progress. England’s rising middle class and its representatives in Parliament challenged the monarchy and landed aristocracy for the right to guide the nation’s future. England’s ruling elites fought back and the nation suffered the misery and violence of civil war. For many, including Thomas Hobbes, the constant political conflict and frequent violence inspired such fear that absolute monarchy seemed the only way out. Hobbes’ classic work, Leviathan (1651), argued that individual self-interest, unconstrained by political force, would produce a war of all against all in which life would be, in his memorable phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”2 Only after an all-powerful monarch had established and assured peace was it even reasonable to think about social and economic progress. Hobbes thought that individualism without hierarchy would result in chaos. He was wrong. After nearly fifty years of political conflict and civil war, peace finally came when Parliament and England’s new commercial middle class triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
social contract theory Argument identified with Hobbes and Locke that the legitimate origin of government is in the agreement of a free people.
John Locke thought that the Glorious Revolution offered the opportunity of peace and security based on freedom and equality...

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