Monday, November 21, 2011

November 22

Tomorrow is the date in 1963 that President Kennedy was shot.  Every American alive then can tell you where he or she was at the moment they heard.  We are getting old and it is history.  But the hatred that may be the real story of that day is not history. America has always had this deep vein of hatred running through it.  I saw this weekend a local production of a play about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.  The hatred goes back even farther than this.  It is rooted in our Declaration of Independence and our central lie that all men were created equal.  We had slaves, all thirteen states had slavery.  Slavery defined us and it still does.  At bottom, the hatred aimed at Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama is about the feeling that while we are slaves - to all kinds of forces beyond us - we have none.  It's about powerlessness and the inch-deep popular culture that cannot really sustain us.  It's about not really controlling ourselves or much of anything and not knowing what to do about it.  It's about being owned and having nothing we can really own.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Case for a Constitutional Convention

I wrote several days ago on the usefulness of rediscovering the Articles of Confederation. But it is clear that the crisis – economic, political and moral – facing the United States today cannot be resolved by simply returning to the past. For years now, things seem to have been getting worse. Income disparity has been increasing, wars proliferating, politicians squabbling. Government has become overbearing, inefficient and too beholding to money. The American people's growing sense that things need to be fixed has energized both the Tea Party and Occupy movement.

Change is necessary but we the people cannot trust others to do it for us. Our politicians seek nothing more than power. Once elected, they spend most of their time and energy raising money in order to get re-elected. Our leaders do not lead because taking necessary actions might lose this or that constituency. So we need to start the change ourselves.

We need to begin pushing for a Constitutional Convention to change the way our government works and to ensure it better serves the 99%. A government lean, more responsive to our needs in the 21st Century and more focused on achieving economic prosperity with justice and liberty.

The Occupy movement has been criticized for not having any overall objective. How about occupying the Constitution?

The Tea Party wants fiscal responsibility, free markets, and constitutionally limited government. Let's do that the right way.

The US Constitution in Article V allows for various ways to amend the constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; 

Leaving constitutional changes to the Congress would be to leave it in the hands of the professional politicians. The most reliable way to ensure real change would be to use the mechanism of a Constitutional Convention. None has been called since the first in 1787. But if the Occupy movement – perhaps alongside the Tea Party – focused now on electing in 2012 state legislatures committed to calling a Convention, a new era of American democracy could begin.

A Constitutional Convention would surely be a hotbed of democracy. Whether Occupy or Tea Party, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, everyone would come into it with different ideas. Reaching agreement on amendments to the constitution would probably be difficult and require equal measures of consensus and compromise. But such a convention would offer a real opportunity for the people to once again assume control of their government. The process of reaching agreement and then ratification by 3/4s of the states would offer further opportunities for democratic participation.

Some are no doubt afraid – whether they say so or not – of such direct democratic participation. They are comfortable with the way things are done today and do not want anyone to mess with that. But we, the great law abiding majority, the 99%, have nothing to fear from coming together to discuss and enact change.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Concluding Reflections

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4    Part 5

   The victory of the Founding Fathers in 1787 put the Articles of Confederation into the dustbin of American history.  But the debate between anti-federalists and federalists never entirely disappeared.  A fundamental difference in political vision has continued to run through the American political tradition like twin rivers.  The source of one river is the impulse, typical of Americans, to rise above local and individual differences to grasp the elements of a national, even global, commonality.  A rich and powerful mass democracy with universalistic pretensions has been built along this river.

   The source of the other river is the impulse, equally typical, to do it ourselves, to keep it small.  Upon this river have floated the various proposals and efforts over the years to reduce or limit the size and powers of the federal government.  Politics in America has often been the attempt to sail upon both rivers at once.  Those on opposing sides have had various labels:  Federalists and Anti-Federalists, unionists and states-righters, liberals and conservatives and now Occupy and Tea Party.

    Since the Articles were cast aside, the federalists have generally been ascendant. Those who have sought to advocate states rights or who have fought to preserve state powers against encroachment by the federal government have been handicapped.   The Articles were judged by its opponents to have failed.  Memory of the 13 years of confederal government faded.  This is not to say that the idea of state sovereignty has not returned at times to haunt American politics.  The southern Confederate States of America, in its mixture of states rights and an unholy effort to maintain slavery, was the final nail in the coffin not only of state nullification but of an historical consciousness of what was lost with the victory of the Federalists.

    What has been lost can be seen most closely in the failure of government in the current United States to serve the majority, the 99%.  One could say that this failure was inevitable in the age of nation-states, superpowers and globalization.  Governing a large modern nation in a world of fierce ideological, political and economic competition must entail enormous bureaucracies and incomprehensibly large budgets.  In our case, the attempt to guarantee the “pursuit of happiness” of all citizens - as much a necessary requirement of centralized, representative government as the gladiatorial games were for Imperial Rome - requires great effort and considerable resources and organization.  It gives great scope to the power of money.  

   Yet the voices raised against “big government” and "big business" express true insights.  The role of the average citizen in government has dwindled to the vanishing point while that of big money has come to predominate.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans experienced the full range of challenges -- collective and personal -- associated with the growth of modern industrial society.  These difficulties included wars and cyclical economic downturns.  The growth of the central government in response to these challenges – especially during the Civil War and the Great Depression -- was dictated, at least in part, by practical necessity.  But the Constitution gave the government a mandate to provide for the “general welfare” and “common defense.”  It armed Congress with all “necessary and proper” power for doing so and vested in the president whatever "executive power” might be necessary.  With each major crisis, the focus shifted to what “government” could do to resolve the situation and, thus, from local efforts to the central government.  Along with the “welfare state,” the seeming imperatives of economic development made the government in Washington the ultimate provider  The Cold War, as well as the “hot” ones, levered the presidency into what can fairly be described as an imperial throne.  Meanwhile, as government receded from the people, it fell more and more into the hands of those with the cash to fund the politicians and manipulate the bureaucracy to their own ends. 

    In 1787, America reached a fork in the road.  It could have chosen to stay on the course it was marking out for the first time - confederal democracy - or it could return to the well-trodden path of centralized government.  Perhaps being “too young to know what we are fit for”, we chose the old road, and that has made all the difference.

    There are, however, two features of confederal democracy that might lead one to see in it a workable model for self-government.  First, by leaving decision making in the hands of those most directly affected, confederal democracy provides the citizens of the relevant community a public space in which to confront each other and work out jointly what is to be done.  They enjoy what Arendt called the pleasures and benefits of public life.  Tempered by the experience of mutual recognition and cooperation between citizens in the process of self-government, local government can become, as it was for the Greeks, an arena for collectively seeking the good life.  Politics in confederal democracy therefore would be vigorous and complex and would mirror the full range of interests, values and tastes in the community.

   Second, by leaving primary responsibility for living the good life where it most belongs, with those most immediately affected by the results of collective decisions, confederal democracy leaves less space for others to operate in the shadows.  Power flows not from beyond but from below.  Problems are solved at the level of government at which all affected can participate - town, county, state, regional, national - but no higher.  Citizens face each other directly in full transparency to solve their common problems and to resolve their differences.  A confederal polity requires citizen initiative.  Confederal democracy - built on active citizen participation in their polis - is the unrealized potential of the American tradition of local self-government.

    Certainly, the need to guarantee social justice and political equality amidst the strains of modern society assures that even a confederal central government would be an important political actor.  But perhaps the load might be more evenly placed, resting more directly where in a democracy it should, on the people.  However, the road chosen in 1787 followed the premise of maintaining government as far from the people as the new notions of popular sovereignty allowed.  Under the shocks of industrialization and war, Washington came to monopolize political space and government became someone else’s concern: citizens became subjects.

   The result is ironic.  The fate of over 300 million Americans - and essentially the entire globe that we have come to dominate - rests with a mere handful of people often far removed from the results of their decisions.  The Constitution that took the place of the Articles of Confederation set up a powerful central government and left we the people with no place else to turn.  But the call to resurrect the vision of that other, more democratic America still echoes.  Those who hear this call should ensure that they go back to the source to be sure they understand what they are hearing. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 5

Introduction    Part 1    Part 2     Part 3    Part 4

Confederation, Community and Bodies Politic

   The anti-federalists saw the question of power from the bottom-up.  The Constitution would establish a government with too much power, too far away from the people.  They feared the return of aristocracy.  To set up one government in place of thirteen, and to endow that government with the law, the purse and the sword, would be to destroy democracy.  No matter the supposed guarantees, the states would eventually be reduced to the administrative agents of the central government.  Without the intermediation of the states, the power of the central government could be brought to bear directly on the individual.

   The anti-federalists therefore opposed establishing a “great” power.  Instead, they favored granting power in small pieces, close to what they held to be the only reliable check, the people.  In place of one preponderant national government, they wanted to preserve the division of government among the states.  The state legislatures, more accessible to the citizenry, more closely tied to local politics, and with membership in the hundreds, could better reproduce the full variety of local interests and opinion than could a handful of representatives in a national legislature.

   Those who supported the Articles tended to see the representative in the legislature as a delegate (or ambassador) - as someone bound to vote as his constituents would if they could be there - rather than as a trustee - who would be free to vote according to his own judgement.  The delegate model could not work in a national parliament because of the great size of the country and the correspondingly greater number of people each legislator would represent.

   The national congress envisioned by the federalists would not represent the views of the citizens but pass them through a chosen few who would end up doing whatever was to their own advantage.  The anti-federalist view of representation as a simple transmission of the wishes of constituents fitted with their reliance on state and local politics, where interests are more immediate, communication more direct and government more subject to majorities.

   The Articles were based upon the assumption that people live in communities that mean something to them and reflect what they hold in common.  They supposed, in other words, that the natural community of man is not a mass of competing individuals but real local groupings based upon shared activities and characteristics.  Such groupings were not abstractions but were well within the reach of each person, where he lived his everyday life in his town, village, city and region. 

   In building a national government based upon sovereign entities within the traditional sphere of life of their people, the Articles kept government from becoming a Leviathan confronting individuals as something above and beyond them.  Real politics took place at the local level.  What mattered, happened there, where people could see it and directly participate in the decisions affecting them.  If democracy works best when people actively participate in government, then keeping government as close to them as possible to facilitate participation would assist the development of democracy.

   One may argue that confederal government is less “efficient” than unitary government.  Under even the amended Articles, if a majority of the states resisted a particular requisition or other action proposed in Congress, nothing would happen.  If a majority of states agreed and complied with a congressional decision but a minority did not, there would ultimately be nothing beyond moral suasion to enforce compliance by the holdouts.  Thus an action that many might judge rational and necessary might fail to be adopted.  It might also be that a majority (or minority, for that matter) might desire a particular course of action with considerable intensity and feel corresponding frustration on being unable to gain collective agreement or compliance. 

   But in practice, confederal government may be, in its own way, more efficient by allowing a greater range of political spaces.  Based on the premise that the expression of self-interest is unavoidable, the confederal government embodied in the amended Articles would have allowed for cooperation at various points along a continuum of mutual commitment and judgement of interest.  Finding the right node for achieving consensus takes its place along side intensity of interest in resolving political issues.  All states might agree and actively participate in joint national-level decisions.  Or, a majority of states might decide to act anyway, either through bearing the costs of collective action unequally - i.e. by themselves - or by acting as a subgroup outside the mechanism of the national congress.  A minority might well decide to do the latter as well.  Politics would no doubt be dense, as states jostled for both advantage and, at least occasionally, to avoid being left out.  But in a flexible and fluid situation where there was more than “one game in town,” things that needed to get done would mostly likely get done and lone holdouts or interstate differences would not necessarily block all further action.  

   The Constitution of 1787 sought to ensure that the body politic would speak only when a sufficient number and diversity of interests had sufficiently checked-and-balanced each other to be able to say one thing.  As we now know quite well, this leaves the Leviathan either powerless or impelled by intensely interested minorities. 

   Confederation provides for many voices to be heard on many levels.  The Continental Congress was a forum for the states but the states could act outside that forum, in groups or singly.  The Articles also left entirely unregulated the political forms that might exist within states.  A confederal united states offered the possibility of a structure of multiple bodies politic.  Government or associations could exist at each level - local, state, regional, and national - to exercise authority on specific matters delegated to it from the level below.  This meant local approaches for local issues, regional for regional and national for national.  Local government, possessing the sovereignty of immediacy, would anchor a framework of legitimacy and decision-making built from the bottom up.

   In the continental-sized federal system that grew out of the Constitution of 1787, final authority - exercised in the name of the “people” - is far away from where the people actually live.  The government in Washington has understandably come to feel alien to many, who have been reduced to being political spectators assembled once every few years to cheer from the stands.   The states remain, but as political “backwaters” bypassed by the present constitution.

   Is it not, however, inevitable that as we become ever more immersed in the emerging global context, we will require more and more that government make sense of the resulting web of complexity?  And who will trust the government to do that if it seems more a part of the external environment rather than something that belongs to us?  And as the World Wide Web and economic globalization connects us in ever more complex ways, does a sovereign “central government” per se still play a necessary role?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taking Back The Articles of Confederation - Part 4

Introduction   Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

The Federal Leviathan

   In the debate over what to do to go beyond the Articles, the issue, for confederalists and federalists alike, was power.  Both shared the belief that great power, concentrated in one place, is an open invitation to abuse.  However, the Federalists did not object to centralized power.  For them, a strong central power was a necessary element in holding together and directing a continental-sized nation.  In a large, powerful and wealthy society, preponderant force must exist as the basis for rule.  The Federalists sought only to check the powers of a strong executive with a strong parliament.   They proposed, in other words, to grant this great power to the center but divide it.

   The Federalists’ fundamental charge against the Articles was that they provided for a government both too weak and inefficient and too open to local majorities and interests.   It could be argued that even the confederation of the amended Articles would continue to depend on the voluntary compliance of its member states and thus remain fatally flawed.  Without the ability to enforce compliance on the states, the central government could not perform that one function necessary in a community of individual entities each seeking advantage, to enforce cooperation and contribution to the common good.

   Throughout the brief confederal period, some states failed to fulfill commitments to the central government and there were always inter-state and inter-regional rivalries.   Clearly, without the states’contribution and active participation, the confederation could not prosper.  The Articles, even if amended, would not have done away with this problem.  Indeed, the Constitution of 1787 did not do so.  The Civil War had to be fought, hundreds of thousands of Americans had to die, and the federal government had to settle by force-of-arms the question of where ultimate authority resided before the Constitution could be “perfected.”

   Seeking the common good is a classic political conundrum that has called forth various responses.  The most obvious, and the one perhaps most used, is the Hobbesian option, constituting a “Leviathan” which can force obedience.  Although not all supporters of the Constitution of 1787 were so motivated, the option for creating a strong central authority had great appeal to many of the Federalists and their supporters, and most clearly for Hamilton.

   According to the Federalists, the government of the Articles did not create a national polity that could manifest the broad interests of the people.  Rather, it represented the states.  Dividing America into localities, it allowed local majorities to hold sway.  Holding power in the states, these “local interests” – or “factions” – did not seek the public good but their own.  Thus, the Federalists argued that the confederation lacked not only efficiency but also representativeness.  The new government that the Federalists proposed would merge these many local majorities together into one polity where they would have to contend with each other on equal grounds, i.e., as minorities.  Through the several institutions of government, the public view could be “refined” and a national will -- stripped of factionalism -- could emerge.  The Constitution would, in effect, arrange the political machinery so that a “nation” would form around the polity.

   The Founders as much as hoped to create “America” as to supply it with a government.  In this sense they were indeed “nation builders.”  The confederation stood in the way of this intended act of creation.  That in some cases the local majorities that governed in the states used their power against their “betters” -- such as in the chronic confrontation between debtors and creditors -- further motivated some of the Federalists to look to establish a federal government out of the reach of these local majorities.

   The Constitution of 1787 was a document of predominantly nationalist, not democratic, sentiment.  It took the politically necessary tact of presenting in republican form the Hamiltonian vision of an imperial America.  The Constitution stripped the states of sovereignty and established an what was in effect an “elective monarchy” with a president/commander-in-chief – chosen by a collection of local notables called the Electoral Collage – and checked by a national parliament.  In establishing a separate executive branch, the Constitution also provided the new federation with a nascent bureaucracy.  

    Because the contemporary political reality was based upon the sovereignty of the thirteen states, the Federalists did not highlight the issue of the states’ relationship to the proposed federal government.  But the anti-federalists were aware of the potential in the new document.  The Constitution sought to submerge the states within the framework of a national government that largely dispensed with them as localized aggregators of political input or prime vehicles of political output.  It established a national government with broad undefined powers and with legal precedence in those areas in which it was given authority.  It provided for taxes raised independently of the states and gave the central government a standing army and control over the state militia.

   To the confederalists, the changes proposed by the Federalists did not seem to guarantee the continuance of the political preeminence of the states.  If their fears were often exaggerated, the subsequent shift of the political center of gravity to the central government has supported their fundamental concern.  The states have not completely disappeared, in large part because of the strong American tradition of local government and a concomitant fear of big government.  But the growth in the size and importance of the federation’s central government -- and the increased power within that government of the president -- have filled in the mere outline of electoral monarchy established by the Constitution.

   It was the “genius” of the Founding Fathers to move beyond the states to structure the basic political dynamic around the contention of “faction” writ large.  Implicit was the notion that the “natural” community of man was the mass of individuals competing in the “state of nature.”  In the face of this abstract “community”, the states added nothing and, indeed, got in the way.  As long as the central government followed its own rules, there would be nothing between it and the individual and little role for state governments.  It is not surprising that even some Federalists were alarmed enough by this prospect to push through the first ten amendments to the Constitution of 1787 even before it was adopted.