American Democracy: An Ongoing Experiment
At the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1776, the newly born United States had a very uncertain future ahead. Under the Articles of Confederation, which had led the colonies to victory against the British, the government was not entitled to perform the actions necessary to unify a nation. This central, yet limited government was an accurate representation of feelings toward government in the nation at the time. People were wary of executive power because of the unjust rule they had been subjected to.
Prominent leaders of the young nation, however, recognized the drawbacks of the Articles of Confederation and called for the drafting of a constitution. Under a veil of secrecy, a Federal Convention was called. Fifty-five delegates convened in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on May 14, 17871. These men enumerated the powers of the government under which we live today. The Federal Government was divided into three branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. Furthermore, the legislative branch was divided into a bi-cameral legislature.
The executive would take the form of a democratically elected president. Finally, the judicial branch would be known as the Supreme Court and be comprised of justices appointed by the president. Despite early opposition, this plan for government was eventually adopted by all thirteen states. Before ratification, however, this Constitution was subjected to amendments from the start. To appease a large and vocal group known as anti-federalists, a Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in order to guarantee those “unalienable rights” that have been endowed to all men by their creator.
Since its creation, the Constitution has been a work in progress. While it did provide a much-improved republic over the Articles of Confederation, it was written in broad and vague language. To compensate for the country’s future needs, a clause was included that allowed the document to change with the times. This was a framework born in a hostile environment. In a young, proud, and radical nation just freed from the grasp of war now facing the challenges of sovereignty. Our founding fathers answered this challenge as best they could, yet, let us not forget that American democracy was started as, and continues to be, an experiment. Read about similarities between federalists and democratic-republicans
Karl Marx once said, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please: they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. ” Without a thorough understanding of the circumstances of the birth of our nation and the prevalent ideologies of the day, we cannot hope to understand the world we live in. Upon his departure from office, George Washington warned of two perils which could forever endanger the success of the nation: involving ourselves with European conflict and partisan political parties.
His advice was quickly forgotten, however, as the nation divided into those who followed Jefferson and those who followed Madison. These parties have little bearing on government today. It was the American Civil War that prompted the inception of the prominent parties which run our modern government. Although its ideology may have evolved in years following the war, the Republican party was founded on the belief that no man should be the property of another. This was in obvious reference to slavery, but has carried over through generations.
Those who remained in the United States government, but did not agree with the Republicans formed an opposing party. Those with radical opinions, however, decided to exit the union rather than work within it to accomplish change. This led to the creation of two, closely related organizations. When the South re-entered the United States, they were forced into the existing establishment. As new conflicts arose, each would take a stance loosely based on its respective, founding principles. Issues became complex over time, however, and soon the line between sides became blurred.
Rather than reevaluate their positions, each party simply chose stances on problems as they surfaced. This led to the creation of two political parties that are conglomerates of convenience rather than unique ideologies. As matters of the modern world become more involved, the parties have formed opinions that, while quite clear on an isolated issue, contradict the reasoning behind other opinions. While two large and generally moderate parties offer convenience, do they offer adequate and consistent solutions? The two parties in power do not adequately address the political spectrum and thus contradict themselves.
The Republican party, through public relations and its members’ voting records, has established itself as a conservative organization. Translated to the American political system, they favor a direct translation of the Constitution. When considering an issue, it is looked at with its original intent rather than a flexible document. Evidence of this position can be seen in the overwhelming opposition to gun control legislation. A vast majority of Republicans site the second amendment as evidence to support their cause.
A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. ” Democrats would argue that this simply means that the government does not have the right to interfere with the forming of state organized and directed militias. Furthermore, they cite examples of modern violence which may have been prevented had guns been less accessible.
1 It is a progressive stance that identifies a possible solution to a contemporary problem and seeks to alter the Constitution in order to solve it.
Republicans find this an unacceptable infraction into the rights guaranteed to all Americans and adhere to an original intent standpoint. Although the Constitution called for several, liberal freedoms, the conviction to these ideals was not tested until nearly a century after its creation. In the period from 1880 to 1915, the country absorbed over twenty million immigrants, the majority of whom were Jews and Catholics from Southern and Eastern Europe.
2 This influx of immigrants was seen as a threat to Protestantism in America. They jeopardized the social norms instituted by the previous majority.
As pluralism became more accepted in the early, twentieth century, Protestants fought not just to preserve the predominance of their religion, many also battled to enforce the moral norms associated with it.
3 Though their numbers have grown exponentially in the past century, arguments made by the Christian Right based on the Bible are often dismissed as implausible for social policy. Refusing to resign themselves from a potentially corrupt society, the Christian Right attempts to use the vitality of its membership to bolster political power.
This groups sees the pluralism and social liberalism in our society as a direct assault on their way of life. Since the 1970’s, this religious minority has attempted to regain its status as the moral majority. It is where religion meets politics that consistency is muddled. While conservatives are quick to site the text to protect the right to bear arms, they do not see the same clarity in the stipulation that the church and state shall remain separate. Voting records suggest that most Republicans favor some form of religious teaching or practice in public schools.
These schools receive public funding, however, and are thus considered part of the state. How is it that on one issue, original intent is so vehemently adhered to, yet on another the current sentiment of the public should be allowed to influence policy? This is a blatant attempt to govern morality. In the sprit of prohibition and the censorship of various movies and novels, religious fervor finds its way into the political spectrum. The first amendment guarantees religious freedom. If any religion is allowed to be practiced in a government facility, the same opportunity must be opened to all.
This fact is overlooked in the religious fanaticism of some conservatives in Congress. This conflict shows the lack of consistency in our two party system. Where original intent is sacred in one arena, it is a stumbling block in another. This is the underlying conflict in the Republican party. In the last session of congress, representatives and senators had the opportunity to vote on some aspect of abortion (partial birth, abortion in military hospitals overseas, insurance coverage, ect. ) at least 30 times. Through analysis of these votes, it was determined that nearly 93% of Republicans oppose abortion. Read about similarities between federalists and democratic-republicans
4. Pro-life activists site the founding ideology of the Republican party as reason why all should fight against abortion. They feel that the unborn fetus is not the property of the mother and thus the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed
5. This argument is religiously fueled. The Republican agenda has always been to shrink government and avoid intruding on the private lives of its citizens. On this issue, however, they contradict this philosophy by imposing the views of their “moral majority” onto the rest of the nation.
It is not just enough that those who are able to abstain from this practice do, but because it is allowed to occur, our society is worse for it. A party that generally stands for expanding the civil liberties of its citizens, in this case, seeks to take them. Controversy over this issue stems from the debate over when life begins. Legally, this does not occur until birth. Some would argue, however, that the soul is fused to the fetus while in the womb, thus abortion is the murder of a human. This argument quickly casts aside the veil of the rights of the unborn and shows itself to be religious.
There is an assumption that all believe in this spiritual entity known as the soul. While America has a strong religious current in its society, the Founding Fathers recognized the danger in allowing this to inhibit the freedoms of the minority and thus called for a separation of church and state. With this issue the two have become entangled and the Republicans are pushing personal beliefs with legislation. Regardless of religious sentiment, sanctity of life is claimed as a reason to abolish abortion.
Is this consistently carried through all other social matters by the Republican party? In 1976 the death penalty was reinstated after careful consideration by the Supreme Court. Initially, a moratorium had been placed on the practice because of a disproportionate amount of minorities being sent to death. Many Democrats, however, suggested that capitol punishment should be abolished altogether arguing that it was “cruel and unusual punishment”. Republicans, citing original intent, argued against the ban and eventually had it overturned.
Because execution was a common punishment at the time of the Federal Convention, it was determined that the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause could not be in reference to capital punishment. It is in this facet that Republicans adhere to a key philosophy and create some sense of philosophical stability. It is argued by its supporters that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to criminals. If the most violent offenders are killed, then those contemplating similar crimes will refrain from committing them for fear of the punishment.
Some also suggest that individuals who commit crimes punishable by death are not fit to be reformed and thus simply occupy space in prisons and cost the government money in terms of food, shelter, and clothing. This argument is put forth by the same group that praises the sanctity and innocence of life when talking about abortion. They claim that no life should be the property of another man, yet, they advocate killing in the name of justice. On one hand it is offensive to end life, and on the other they feel it is the most fitting form of punishment.
These contradictions show the limitations of our two-party system. The Republican party markets itself to the public as a proponent of social and fiscal conservatism. The problem lies in the fact that the only real alternative to this system of beliefs is a party that advocates a liberal position in both of these arenas. Furthermore, while in some cases the Republican party fights for original intent and to protect the rights of every citizen from the government, where religion is involved they not only vote their conscience, but attempt to force others to live in a way that is acceptable to their beliefs.
Rather than commit wholeheartedly to a position that would alienate moderates, concessions are made. What has yet to be determined, however, is if the party is truly a religious group masking its Christian intentions or if they are committed to the rights and freedoms of the citizen yet aim to appeal to a religious audience. In either case, concessions are made that sacrifice ideology for political expediency. A core set of principals has long been out of sight in American politics.
In an age where campaigns depend so heavily on finance, parties can little afford to offend potential supporters. Moreover, while some compromises in ideology are made, change is accomplished in smaller steps by moving the opinion of the moderates rather than by sweeping, radical effort. Unfortunately, this speaks poorly of American politics. It suggests that dogma has been defeated by the dollar and that convictions have lost out to convenience. It is apparent that two political parties, with broad, moderate views, cannot satisfy all issues with a consistent set of ideas.
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