Do Americans Understand How Our Government Works?
If you've ever seen an episode of Watters' World on television, where Jesse Watters goes out on the street asking people questions about America, our government and our history, you know that many Americans are, shall we say... challenged in their understanding of those topics. Some people interviewed could not say which occurred first- the Civil War or the Revolutionary War. Some blacks interviewed surprisingly could not name the U.S.President who freed the slaves. It is thus not a revelation that many Americans do not know- or have little understanding of how our government works.
The Founding Fathers were an enlightened crew. They understood that a republic needed a mechanism by which it could allow itself to function while respecting the inherent rights of mankind. They also knew that the government would need to enact laws which guided the actions of its citizens. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May through September 1787, they already had a basic framework to utilize: the British Parliamentary system. Most among the group were highly skeptical of too much power or authority residing in one person or group, so they created a tripartite structure to avoid many of the pitfalls of other governmental systems around the world, notably the British system with its all-powerful King.
|British King George III|
James Madison was one of several highly intelligent delegates to the Convention. His plan for the three branches of government- the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial Branches- allowed for "checks and balances" necessary to sustain a fledgling democracy. Many people today think that America is a pure "democracy". That is not accurate. We are a representative republic, whose citizens do not give an "up or down" vote on every issue or law, but vote for representatives who will decide those matters. Citizens concede that authority to their elected representatives and if they don't approve of their actions, citizens get the chance to vote them out of office. While some people may like the idea of having the power to make those decisions every day for themselves, such a system realistically could not function, as it would collapse under its own weight, ending in chaos.
|Decision in Philadelphia, which describes the creation of the U.S. Constitution|
The Legislative Branch consists of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members serve two year terms and the Senate, whose members serve six year terms. The House and the Senate make the laws of the land. The House was patterned after the British House of Commons, which has a direct tie to its citizens through regular elections. The Senate was patterned after the British House of Lords. The House holds "the purse strings", as all appropriations for expenditures and debt must be approved by its members. The Founding Fathers intentionally gave the House this authority because they wanted citizens to have regular input into how the country was being run. This structure allows citizens to vote every two years for those representatives who will be most prudent in their actions and spend taxpayer funds most wisely.
|James Madison, considered by many as the "Father of the Constitution"|
The Executive Branch is represented by the President. He executes the laws passed by Congress, acts as Commander-in-Chief of the military and the representative of our nation on the world stage. The President holds many powers which he can use by Executive authority, including the right to make treaties (approved by Congress), appoint Cabinet officers who will oversee various areas of government and the economy and also deal with foreign powers. The Founders specifically wanted to limit the authority of the Chief Executive because they were well aware that an overbearing King could act as a tyrant, taking away many of what they considered to be God-given rights.
The Judicial Branch consists of the Supreme Court, the District and Appellate Courts and others both in the Federal government and throughout all the states. The Judicial Branch decides what laws and actions are in accordance with the Constitution. It has the authority to decide what is, in effect "legal" or not. As anyone who's been involved in a lawsuit knows, the legal system in America can be a confusing and frustrating place. What might seem reasonable and fair to the average person can actually be illegal or disallowed under our system of justice. Example: many people believe all representatives should be under term limits, so as to prevent them from being in positions of authority for too long. Yet term limits were actually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court a while back. If you want term limits, you'll have to work for a Constitutional Amendment which puts them in place someday.
|The United States Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.|
There's one problem with a democracy: someone has to get the final say on what is lawful and how the government and citizens conduct their activities. Without this ultimate authority, the republic- any republic- would quickly devolve into anarchy, as competing factions disagreed and thwarted the efforts of parties they opposed. So the Founders decided to give ultimate authority not to the President... and not even to Congress, elected by the people themselves, but to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court technically holds more power and authority than either of the two other branches because it decides what is lawful- in accordance with the Constitution. In effect, its nine Justices have the final say over what laws are acceptable, what policies can continue and in some respects, how people can live their daily lives. If they decide that a law, a policy or an action taken by a government official, a business or a person is unconstitutional, they have the power to declare it so and make it illegal. This may seem unfair to some, since the Justices are not elected by the people and have no term limits on their service... but it's the best system we have...
Winston Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst form of government... except for all the rest." The Founding Fathers knew that those in positions of authority- like Kings- could sometimes abuse that power and take actions harmful to citizens and to the functioning of society. Alexander Hamilton stated it clearly: "Give all the power to the many, they will oppress the few. Give all the power to a few, they will oppress the many." Despite its flaws, the American system of government remains the best and most effective system devised by man. It is envied by hundreds of millions of people around the world who live under despotic regimes and brutal dictatorships. The Founders understood that over time, changes to the system would become necessary. That is why they allowed for Amendments to the Constitution. The first ten of those Amendments became what is now referred to as the Bill of Rights.
|Alexander Hamilton, delegate to the Constitutional Convention|
Thomas Jefferson maintained that a republic could not survive unless its citizens were educated, well informed on the topics of the day and made their voices heard. So, if you don't like the way our government works, contact your Senators and your Congressman. Write to the President and tell him how you feel. You'll be making your voice heard... and actively participating in this grand experiment we call America.