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Mar-31-2013 12:29printcomments

Our Government Appears to be in Disarray, But Democracy May be Working as Intended

If we regret today's politics, we should take a careful look at the values or non-values which prevail in the society at large.

U.S. founding fathers

(WASHINGTON DC) - In many ways, our government appears to be in disarray. Congress and the President cannot agree on a budget. The policy of sequestration----originally embraced because it was so extreme that no one would permit it to actually come into existence---is now in place. Government employees are, in some cases, losing one day of work a week. Air traffic controllers are being furloughed, and White House tours have come to an end. Is this any way to run a government?

The fact is, however, that democracy may be working better than we think. Democracy, after all, simply means that the people select the government. If the people's values are good, democracy reflects that fact. But if the values of the people are less benevolent and positive, democracy will reflect that fact as well.

The majority of Americans want two contradictory things. On the one hand, they want a vast array of government programs----from federal aid to education to Social Security to Medicare to a strong national defense. On the other hand, they want low taxes. Politicians, responding to these contradictory demands, provide both the programs----and the huge deficits which are necessary to provide them without raising taxes to pay for them. Anyone who suggests cutting popular programs----or paying for them---is likely to be defeated.

None of the founding fathers believed that limited government----which paid for itself---would survive without republican virtue, those moral beliefs that make self-government possible. Patrick Henry once observed that, "Bad men cannot make good citizens." In his Farewell Address, George Washington called morality and religion "the great pillars of political prosperity."

Many thoughtful Americans, from the very beginning, were worried about possible excesses in democratic government. Consider James Fennimore Cooper, who produced his first novel in 1820, and in thirty years wrote thirty three novels, two political essays, and an important political treatise, "The American Democrat."

Majority rule, Cooper pointed out, was never meant to be "unlimited," for, without limits, tyranny would surely result. He wrote that, "Were the majority of a country to rule without restraint, it is probable as much injustice and oppression would follow, as are found under the dominion of one. It belongs in the nature of man to arrange themselves in parties, to lose sight of truth and justice in partisanship and prejudice, to mistake their own impulses for what is proper...In democracies the tyranny of majorities is a greater evil than the oppression of minorities in narrow systems...To guard against this, we have framed constitutions, which point out the cases in which the majority shall decide, limiting their power, and bringing what they do possess within the circle of certain general and just principles."

Cooper feared that, "The disposition of all power is to abuses, nor does it at all mend the matter that its possessors are a majority. Unrestrained political authority though it be confided to the masses, cannot be trusted without positive limitations, men in bodies being but an aggregation of the passions, weaknesses and interests of men as individuals."

If we regret today's politics, we should take a careful look at the values or non-values which prevail in the society at large. Can we have a virtuous politics without having a virtuous society?

The fact that Americans, once in four years, elect a President, or once in two years choose a member of the House of Representatives, or once in six years vote for a Senator, should not confuse the fact that government power is, nevertheless, arbitrarily imposed. Despite constitutional limits on government power, what the majority wants, the majority finds a way of getting.

After the depradations of the French Revolution, Clemenceau said that, "Had we expected that these majorities of a day would exercise the same authority as that possessed by our ancient kings, we should have but effected an exchange of tyrants."

Clemenceau's words echo very nearly some spoken by Chatham in 1770: "Are all the generous efforts of our ancestors...reduced to this conclusion, that instead of the arbitrary power of a king we must submit to the arbitrary power of a House of Commons? If this be true, what benefits do we derive from the exchange? Tyranny is detestable in every shape; but in none as formidable as when it is assumed and exercised by a number of tyrants."

It was the view of the English statesman Edmund Burke that, "Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their own appetites, in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and honesty of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to counsels of the wise and good in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less there is of it within, the more of it there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

It may make us feel better to believe that the apparently dysfunctional government we observe in Washington at the present time represents a failure of democracy. Instead, quite the opposite seems to be true. Winston Churchill once said that every democratic society gets the government it deserves, We must carefully consider the possibility that he was right.

_________________________________________ contributor Allan C. Brownfeld received his B.A. degree from the College of William and Mary, his J.D. degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary and his M.A. in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland. He has served on the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland.

The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, Mr. Brownfeld has written for such newspapers as THE HOUSTON PRESS, THE RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH, THE WASHINGTON EVENING STAR and THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER. For many years he wrote three columns a week for such newspapers as THE PHOENIX GAZETTE, THE MANCHESTER UNION LEADER, and THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER. His weekly column appeared for more than a decade in ROLL CALL, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in such journals as THE YALE REVIEW, THE TEXAS QUARTERLY, THE NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW, ORBIS and MODERN AGE.

Mr. Brownfeld served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and was the author of that committee's 250-page study of the New Left. He has also served as Assistant to the Research Director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to such members of Congress as Reps. Phil Crane (R-Il) and Jack Kemp (R-NY) and to the Vice President of the United States.

He is a former editor of THE NEW GUARD and PRIVATE PRACTICE, the journal of the Congress of County Medical Societies and has served as a Contributing Editor AMERICA'S FUTURE and HUMAN EVENTS. He served as Washington correspondent for the London-based publications, JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST and JANE'S TERRORISM REPORT. His articles regularly appear in newspapers and magazines in England, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands and other countries. You can write to Allan at


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Amanda March 31, 2013 6:52 pm (Pacific time)

I agree, the Americans deserve the Government it has, as they know no better.

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