As We Celebrate Another Fourth Of July, Let’s Remember That America’s Fate Rests On Our Shared Understanding Of The Common Good Our institutions have been created to make policy-making difficult. If extremists are too strong, they'll make sure that nothing gest done

By Paolo von Schirach

July 3, 2013

WASHINGTON – Yes, tomorrow is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and America’s National Day. On the eve of such celebrations we are often reminded that America is not a nation state in the European tradition. The Americans did not seek independence from Great Britain because they wanted to affirm their distinct historic, linguistic or religious identity.

Popular sovereignty

Indeed, the uniqueness of America is that the Founding Fathers with the Declaration affirmed that the political society they were determined to create was based on the revolutionary principles of equality among all citizens and popular sovereignty. And they clearly meant all citizens, regardless of national origin, religion or station in life. And this also meant that any new comer who would sincerely subscribe to these principles would be welcomed as a new American. 

Popular sovereignty would be delegated to elected representatives, but never relinquished. And the Founders asserted the novel principle whereby the primary purpose of government is to protect individual liberties. It was believed that in a regime of freedom and equality under the law, all individuals would be finally free to pursue their personal goals and blossom.

By the European standards of the late XVIIIth century, with kings by Divine Right and hereditary aristocracies that  owned almost all the wealth, the Declaration was truly revolutionary. It was not just about seeking Independence from an oppressive King. It was about seeking Independence so that a new type of free society could be created.

However, as the intense debates that accompanied the birth of America demonstrate, the Founding Fathers were completely aware of the fact that they had started an experiment with an uncertain outcome. And this was an  experiment in self-government. At that time there was optimism on its success because it was assumed that the population of the former English colonies did have sufficient maturity, restraint and tolerance towards others to engage in effective self-government, without turning the noble republican attempt into a messy anarchy or worse. Well, they were mostly right.

Shared principles

However, it is clear that America’s continuing success as a political society and as a country rests in large measure on the continuing nurturing and therefore viability of the basic principles of respect for the rule of law, protection of minority rights, separation between Church and State, and appropriate checks and balances so that no group or individual would be able, by design or by default, to exercise too much power to the detriment of the larger society. And, most of all, America’s success is premised on a shared understanding of what the “common good” is at any given time and what tools government, with the consent of the governed, should use to secure it.

Extreme minorities

All these principles seem simple enough and intuitively correct. And yet, if we look at today’s America, we see a somewhat diminished polity, featuring endless ideological fights resulting in policy paralysis. To say that “nothing gets done” these days is not just a figure of speech. Literally, nothing gets done. We clearly lost a shared definition of the common good, while minorities holding extreme views fight to see their plans implemented, no matter what the rest of the country feels. Second best, they fight ferociously to make sure that nothing they disagree with will get passed. Unfortunately, extreme factions are aided by the very system of checks and balances created to protect minorities from  majorities that may turn out to be oppressive.

And so, well organized factions resort to every possible tool to block, delay or derail anything they may not like. And there are plenty of tools. Take the Senate rules that permit a filibuster. In a nutshell the filibuster is a parliamentary procedure that allows a minority of 40 Senators to prevent a vote on most legislation. This may be appropriate in some cases, but it is insane when the filibuster is used with increasing frequency. By the same token, just one lonely Senator can do a lot to block the confirmation of any presidential appointee. And we could add more and more items.

The bottom line is that the American system of government is purposely designed to make legislation difficult. We need the concurrence of three separate entities –the House, the Senate and the President– that are independently elected. And there is a reason for this fragmentation of power provided for by our Constitution. Do remember that at the time of America’s creation the main preoccupation was not about smooth policy-making. The real concern was about preventing tyranny.

The system makes obstruction easy

But if we fast forward to the present we have a system that is ideal for ideological zealots.  If they are skilled in the use of the existing rules, small groups of extremists can delay, obstruct and even block almost anything they are opposed to. Well, how do we get out of this? There is only one way.

We should revisit the basic assumptions of our Founding Fathers and do our best to re-establish a truly shared understanding of the common good. This does not mean that we should strive for unanimity. This would be impossible. But we should be able to spell out and embrace, as a society and as a polity a basic understanding of the common ground.

If we fail to do that, Washington will continue to be in its current state state of paralysis, while the people will lose confidence in the viability and may be even the legitimacy of our institutions and of the office holders.

A new unity?

Let me dream for a brief moment. The papers today carry a beautiful picture of President Obama and former President George W. Bush together at a ceremony in Tanzania commemorating the terror attacks against the US Embassy that occurred back in 1998. It is a really beautiful picture. Its symbolism is intense. Here are two eminent Americans, together on foreign soil. One is our current Chief Executive, the other is his predecessor who peacefully handed over the reins of power to his successor in full observance of our constitutional rules. And there they are: Democrat and Republican, together.

My dream is that this picture of the two Presidents side by side, symbolizing unity, means also that we have the opportunity to come together –as a society–  in a purposeful and constructive fashion. We know very well that our Founding Fathers were no strangers to harsh disputes, personal feuds and name calling. But I would like to believe that they would welcome a new, sincere dialogue among reasonable Americans that will drown the extremes and restore confidence in our American institutions and in our ability to make real progress in the pursuit of the common good.

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