The “American experiment” is on life support. We don’t realize it yet, or perhaps we simply don’t care, but as the most notable Founding Fathers feared, majority-rule democracy has created an America headed toward catastrophe.
Benjamin Franklin, when leaving the Constitutional Convention, was asked by a citizen: “Mr. Franklin, what kind of government have you given us?” Franklin famously replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin’s fears have become a sad reality.
The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable, almost genius-level document written by arguably a group of men the likes of whom the world has not experienced since. These men worked very diligently to create a series of subtle, yet straightforward, checks and balances to ameliorate their great fear of the kind of government and society that majority-rule democracy could create.
Sadly, they ultimately failed.
America’s government and political process today are dichotomies. The two serve the people both too well and not at all. The political process (the aim of which has become simply getting re-elected) grants the American people far more in entitlements than they’re willing to pay for. Yet it is totally incapable of solving the existential problems that will in an evolutionary (or revolutionary) process turn America into a country unrecognizable by most Americans.
The simple, extraordinarily ominous fact is that American democracy cannot be fixed. In the book “Beyond Democracy,”Frank Karsten and Karen Beckman write that “our politicians have a natural short-term outlook since they are only temporarily in office. They will overspend, overtax and overborrow knowing their successors will have to deal with the negative consequences. Besides that, they spend other people’s money anyhow.”
Or, as H. L. Mencken wrote, “Every election is a sort of advance auction of stolen goods.”
To put it simply: The overspending and overborrowing are done because we want it, and the politicians want to be reelected.
We the people are very often clueless about public policy and how the decisions that determine our future quality of life are made or not made. “Low-information voters,” a term of derision used by political insiders, allow all types of mischief to enter the body politic — a lack of accountability to name just one.
This has profound implications for the survival of our republic because a representative democracy absolutely must have involved, prudent, thoughtful and informed citizens to survive. Further, citizens must understand and defend the time-tested values necessary for a free, prosperous, tolerant, civil and happy society.
Instead, we are a nation of takers, always demanding more free things from feckless politicians who lack the courage to tell us the truth about the massive intergenerational transfer of wealth from young, struggling families to affluent seniors, all paid for with massive amounts of debt piled on children who can’t vote. (What’s not to like?)
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We don’t realize that abdication of our civic duties makes numerous groups and individuals ecstatic. Commonly known as the “elites” or special-interest groups, these groups are not our friends.
American economist and Nobel laureate James M. Buchanan theorized that these groups maximize their unfair advantages by seeking tariffs, carve-outs, tax expenditures, subsidies, anti-competitive rules, tax breaks or crony capitalist freebies that harm the average American. The legislative gears are greased by large — and yes, legal — contributions to the politicians handing out the goodies.
In 2014, a metadata study was released that tried to determine the relative impact on the formulation of public policy by the average voter and the elites. The study concluded that the American voter has a “minuscule, near zero, statistically nonsignificant impact on public policy.” Ouch.
Does this contradict the need for informed voters if their vote doesn’t even count? The answer is simple, but not just yes or no. We the people, by largely ignoring our civic duties and responsibilities, have created a democracy in which our vote doesn’t count.
Most likely the status quo cannot be fixed, the swamp will never be drained, the growth of government will continue to be impossible to stop, our national debt will continue to explode, a governing coalition with the goal of rolling back the entitlement state will never be successful, and our elected officials will continue to lack the political courage to do the hard things necessary to save America.
The Great Awakening was a series of religious revivals in the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. The election of President Donald Trump was the possible beginning of a 21st-century secular great awakening. He is a shot across the bow of the elites by the still slumbering, yet awakening American people who are ultimately the only hope to save our great country.
Tom Tillett, served as district chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, who represented the 16th Congressional District until Pitts’ retirement in 2016.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.
This originally appeared in the June 9, 2019 edition of Lancaster Online.