Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Back to Basics: What Type of Government Are We, Anyway?

Hello, readers! I'm Rosa, and I'm going to try to make sense of all the political turmoil we've got going on these days. This is my first post, so we'll see how this goes. Some things to remember: I am well-read, but not a history major, and this is a blog, not a thesis. I use historical facts, but feel free to verify what I say and correct me. I'm not going to reference everything; that would take forever and I have kids. I have a copy of the Constitution on my iPhone, and use it frequently. The purpose is to understand what is going on, from the point of view of an educated citizen who pays taxes and votes. Keep that in mind as you read and if you want to know how I know something, it may take some time for me to remember how I got that piece of information, but I will try my best to refer you. Also, I'm going to insert my opinion and you don't have to agree with me, but be courteous. Politics tends to bring out the worst in people. Let's be civil.

Before we can even begin to analyze our current political situation, though, we have to be on the same page about a few things. I see so many arguments and debates where opponents are attacking each other, and they are basing their arguments on completely different assumptions. So let's get our facts straight first and go from there. To begin with, and to discuss the politics of the USA and how it relates to the rest of the world, we have to know what type of government we have here. Well, that's easy. The United States is a Democracy, right? Right? Um...right?

Well, let's think about this for a second. What is a democracy? The word comes from Ancient Greek and means "rule by the common people." This is equivalent to "one man, one vote" on not just elected officials but on most major issues as well. Ancient Greece was a pure democracy. This type of government did not work very well because it led to what is known as "mob rule," and the swaying of the masses by well spoken demagogues who would say anything to get votes from those who were less educated and more trusting of empty words. Every individual vote counted directly toward the election of officials, so appealing directly to the people was a common practice. Democracy was a slow, inefficient form of government, since every major issue had to be voted on as well. The inefficiency of their form of government eventually led to the fall and conquering of the Ancient Greeks by other, perhaps less enlightened, but more efficient (read: tyrannical) societies. Many countries today are still democracies of some sort, since they have individual votes counting directly toward the election of the officials in a central government, though the populace does not vote directly on individual issues. However, the United States is not one of those countries.

Wait! I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, ok, but didn't I just vote for President last elections? Doesn't that make us a democracy? Well, no. You didn't actually vote for the President, and your vote didn't count directly toward his election. In fact, did you know that even if on a given popular election day in November, a presidential candidate in the USA "wins" the election, it's not guaranteed they will actually be elected to office? The real election actually takes place in December, when the Electoral College gets together, and THEY can elect whomever they wish. So far in our history, their choice has not been different from the candidate that wins in November, but our system of government allows for them to choose differently. More on that later, though, and I promise I will explain.

Back to the original question: what type of government do we have? Actually, we have a Constitutional Republic. To understand this, we must remember that we were formed unlike any other country in the history of the world. Thirteen independent colonies realized their need to band together as a single nation, but each of these colonies, who had just fought a bloody Revolutionary War and was now an independent state, was also very wary of tyrannical central governments like the one they had just defeated. The people of each state also strongly identified with their home state, not necessarily with the nation as a whole. It was an alliance of convenience. The patriotic feeling of being an American came much later. People then were Virginians, or New Yorkers, or Pennsylvanians, first. Each state already had its own government, and the alliance was between the governments, not the people, of the states. They formed a central, or federal, government to handle matters that single states could not handle on their own: common defense (military), infrastructure across state lines to facilitate commerce, legal matters across states, etc. They modeled this government after the Roman Republic, with three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, with checks and balances between branches to keep everyone in line. The members of the Republic were and still are the States, not the people. The people of each individual state are responsible for electing the officials for their local and state governments. When it comes to the Federal Government, the States, not the people, elect the Executive Branch (and also appointed the members of the Senate until the 17th Amendment). When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they gave the Federal Government limited rights and responsibilities. Before the state of Virginia would ratify it, they required that the Bill of Rights be added (the first 10 Amendments) which further clarified the rights of the people and the States, and also added clearly in the 10th Amendment that any right not given specifically to the Federal Government by the Constitution would fall to the States. So wary of the potential for tyranny were these new sovereign states that they had their rights spelled out very carefully, but they also struck a balance for the common good of the fledgling country. The finished work was pure genius. If you want to read more on the first Constitutional Convention and the principles that formed this country and changed the world, check out the book "The 5000 Year Leap" by W. Cleon Skousen.

So...now twice I've alluded to the fact that you didn't actually elect the President last elections. Or ever. The States did. So why did you go to the polls? Well, you elected the officials from your state that elected the President. Every state, depending on its population, gets a certain number of representatives to the Electoral College. When you voted for Barack Obama or John McCain, you actually voted for Democrat representatives or Republican ones. Each state can actually have different rules as to how it sends representatives to the Electoral College, but in most states, if a party wins in the majority of its counties, then all its Electoral votes go to the winning party. When you see on the TV news channels that the US map lights up in red or blue according to state, that means that the representatives from that state in the Electoral College are going to be Democrat (blue) or Republican (red). From this information, the media can predict with some accuracy which candidate is likely to be sworn into office the following January, but it's definitely not a done deal.

You see, when the College meets in December, they still have to verify the candidates' eligibility, and they can also change their minds about whom to elect. Each State, according to the party that wins the popular election, sends their best and brightest, and they are entrusted with the task of appointing the President at their own discretion.

So as you can see, the Federal Government of the United States is far from being a democracy. We vote, but our votes don't directly influence what happens at the Federal level. We are a Constitutional Republic, unique in our history and our formation. There has never been any country like us. Even Rome, which was the Republic after which we were modeled, did not have a constitution, so laws were drafted and passed at the whim of every new elected official. This made Rome's system inferior and failed to give its citizens basic rights the way our Consitution does for us. The members of our Republic are the States, and they appoint and command the Federal Government. It is important to remember that as we go forward in our discussions. It is the basis for everything that I will review in writings to come.

Until next time...