With all the imperfections of our present government, it is without comparison the best existing, or that ever did exist," wrote Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington in 1787 (Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government, © 1995-1998, by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr., ME 6:227). Now 213 years later, the 2000 presidential election process afforded a test of that lofty claim. Is the U.S. form of government really "the best existing, or that ever did exist"?
Leaders who answer to no one have it easier than leaders in a democratic republic. Interviewed by the press after meeting with partisan leaders of Congress, President—elect George W. Bush commented that he would not want to live in a dictatorship—"unless I was the dictator," he quipped!
But, despots are easily corrupted. History is replete with the biographies of kingly leaders who were corrupt either before their coronation or were corrupted in time by the cheers of their subjects. Setting aside for the moment the despots who have forced the hands of their citizens together in applause, even well intentioned, democratic leaders have also fallen prey to the praise of those who surround them. Too easily, they begin to rate themselves more highly than they should.
Enter the American model of government. (By "American," I mean U.S.—apologies to Canada, Central and South America!) "The Founding Fathers knew well the kind of government they were trying to avoid, but could only project what their own experiment in government would become. They based this projection on their analysis of governments in the past, on principles derived from natural rights, and on an assessment of the nature of man" (ibid., Introduction).
Looking forward along the annals of time, Jefferson forecast, "Those who will come after us will be as wise as we are, and as able to take care of themselves as we have been" (Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1811, ibid. ME 13:40). Have the present leaders and citizens fulfilled his optimistic prophecy? Let's first consider how the U.S. founding fathers constructed the U.S. governmental structure.
Checks and balances
Theoretically, each of the three branches of government in the United States "checks" or restrains the other two. An executive (the president) administers and enforces laws that are made by the legislature (the House of Representatives and Senate). A court (the ultimate being the Supreme) speaks to the legitimacy of executive policies, based upon law, and the validity of new legislation, based upon the Constitution.
The hypothesis continues with the premise that every branch strengthens the other's performance. The mutual strengthening lies in the fact that no one branch is permitted to do the tasks of all three: create and administer law, as well as respond to challenges about both law and its administration. The system acknowledges the founders' assumption that any person or group of people vested with overly much power would become despotic.
A given division of the government that performs questionably in the discharge of its responsibility would face challenges by the other two. Thereby, orders, propositions and rulings would be made stronger than they would be if their issuers answered to no one. It's at least a partial application of the biblical proverb, "Iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17).
In idealistic terms, the ultimate authority of the U.S. government, the force that could and would stop all abuses of power, is its citizenry. The Electoral College chooses the president. How the college members vote is determined by popular vote in each state (not by the popular vote nationwide, as many were reminded in the daily civics lessons associated with the recent election contest). Members of the Congress are selected by popular vote, based upon a formula that was designed to insure a stable government. The president appoints members of the Supreme Court for life, but the Senate must confirm each appointee.
The American press evolved over the centuries into a "fourth branch of government," often called "the Fourth Estate," taking on the role of holding the nation's leaders to an honest commitment to the constitutional responsibility each occupies. (The media did not always enjoy the freedom and power it now notably wields. Once, in frustrated anger over the Washington press corps, President Jefferson had every member of it jailed over a weekend! How times have changed!) Ostensibly, the media is made up of "the people" and furthers the objectives of the U.S. founders.
So, it is ultimately the people's government. Common citizens can question the highest officials of the land. The sought-after result is a nation whose citizens would enjoy the greatest possible freedoms to pursue their personal goals.
Government of, by and for the people
Jefferson extolled the foundational role of the citizenry in a private letter to Richard Price in 1785. "The happiness of governments like ours wherein the people are truly the mainspring is that they are never to be despaired of. When an evil becomes so glaring as to strike them generally, they arouse themselves, and it is redressed. He only is then the popular man and can get into office who shows the best dispositions to reform the evil" (ibid., Papers, 7:630).
President Lincoln, in his renowned Gettysburg address, intoned, "...we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Has the United States been able to fulfill this noble, idyllic aim? As charges and countercharges were fired back and forth during the recent postelection challenges in the United States, many reporters observed that at least it was words, not lead, being fired. To be sure, this is good! The country's politicians lauded themselves that they resolved their disputes peacefully.
Did they? I referred to Proverbs 27:17 above, noting the sense of "iron sharpens iron" imbedded in early American thought. The rest of that verse reads, "so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." That is, challenges made with respect to people who are honored can engender better decisions, better thought, better policies. However, hostile opposition and rivalry will only reinforce a party spirit-as postelection events have demonstrated.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: "We have no interests nor passions different from those of our fellow citizens. We have the same object: the success of representative government. Nor are we acting for ourselves alone, but for the whole human race. The event of our experiment is to show whether man can be trusted with self-government. The eyes of suffering humanity are fixed on us with anxiety as their only hope, and on such a theatre, for such a cause, we must suppress all smaller passions and local considerations" (Thomas Jefferson to Gov. Hall, 1802, ibid.).
More selfish than selfless
Has the United States demonstrated that "man can be trusted with self-government"?
What began as the world's best answer to despotism has become a complex tangle of conflicting interest. Presidents "legislate" by executive order, bypassing the lawmakers. President Clinton used this avenue to place thousands of acres into national parks, without going through legislative channels. Many conservatives already are calling on the incoming Bush administration to issue countermanding executive orders to rescind the Clinton directives.
Legislators have their own "creative" means of getting their way, by adding non sequitur amendments to critical bills. For example, a congressman may write an amendment that authorizes several thousand dollars to be paid to someone in his district for the study of methane gas produced by cattle manure (seriously!). He would then add that amendment to a crucial highway appropriations bill that has passed committee debate and is ready to go to the president for his signature.
Activist courts go beyond interpreting the law, adding precepts to existing statutes. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court, not the Congress, mandated busing. Vermont had no law acknowledging same-sex relationships, but the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that such "couples" were entitled to the same benefits as married couples. The legislature felt obliged, with the encouragement of the governor, to respond by creating the infamous civil union law. A more recent example of an activist court is the Florida Supreme Court, whose justices added new election law in the course of interpreting existing law. Another example of judicial activism is the action of the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the presidential election.
Nothing human could be perfect
"Perfect human government" is an oxymoron, for nothing "human" could be "perfect." Truthfully, Americans themselves make no claim that their government is perfect, but they often assert that it is "the best possible" form of government. We've already noted several imperfections. Breaking down the U.S. system further, we see more.
That ambiguous entity, "the White House" is synonymous with the presidency at the same time as it affords an illusory anonymity. "White House sources" attempt to mold and shape public opinion, amplifying the influence of the executive branch of government. An "unofficial" call from the White House, asking for consideration for a certain person or project conveys a weighty endorsement in itself.
The Congress is comprised of liberals, moderates and conservatives principally of the two major political parties, Democrats and Republicans. Each one theoretically represents his constituency, his ideological allies in both parties, his own party, his own conscience and his personal political ambitions for reelection or for higher office-at the same time! Additionally, congressmen respond to professional lobbyists who seek legislation favorable to their private interests.
Courts theoretically are made up of men and women who are not ideologues, but rather "pure" jurists who seek to adjudicate the law and the Constitution. The Supreme Court justices typify the "supreme" jurist-in theory, anyway. In practice, students of the high court know that the justices are selected for the bench, in part, on the basis of their personal ideology. Why else would people pose the oft-asked question of the presidential candidates: "Would you nominate a pro-life or pro-choice judge for the Supreme Court?" Further, many justices have been blatant about pursuing their personal political convictions at every possible turn.
Thomas Jefferson said he prayed that selfishness of the few would not obstruct serving the needs of the many. "A government regulating itself by what is wise and just for the many, uninfluenced by the local and selfish views of the few who direct their affairs, has not been seen, perhaps, on earth. Or if it existed for a moment at the birth of ours, it would not be easy to fix the term of its continuance. Still, I believe it does exist here in a greater degree than anywhere else; and for its growth and continuance...I offer sincere prayers" (Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816, ibid., ME 15:31).
His prayer might have been answered for a time, or it simply may have taken time for the innate selfishness of human nature to permeate the U.S. system. Either way, selfishness is more evident than cooperation for the common good. Even those who proudly claim "the system works" would not be so naïve as to posture that its participants act unselfishly.
The perception of the U.S. founders about the corruptibility of human nature truly was insightful, and the model of government they devised has been remarkably successful. However, Americans would be remiss to take undue credit for their triumph, given the state of their government's inherent divisiveness. It is to the credit of God's will and mercy that the country has endured so long.
If the U.S. form of government is truly "the best existing, or that ever did exist" and if the "eyes of suffering humanity are fixed on" the United States as its only hope, then the future of humanity is bleak indeed. Such a claim likely sounds patriotic to its citizens and, perhaps, self-congratulatory to other world citizens, but it actually is a presumptuous assertion.
Nonetheless, an answer to Jefferson's prayer will come-not in the way that he expected. The best is yet to come in the form of the government of God, which Christ will soon establish over the world. He alone will rule with unselfishness. His government will not be "of the people, by the people" for no human government could achieve what a government should accomplish. But, His government truthfully will be "for the people."
Of this perfect government, Isaiah prophesied, "And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might; the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. His delight will be obedience to the Lord. He will not judge by appearance, false evidence or hearsay, but will defend the poor and the exploited. He will rule against the wicked who oppress them. For he will be clothed with fairness and with truth" (Isaiah 11:2-4, The Living Bible). WNP