We the People: Why the Government Cannot be Trusted
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
~ Excerpt from the Preamble to the United States Constitution
~ Excerpt from the Preamble to the United States Constitution
The first words of the Constitution of the United States are “We the people.” Abraham Lincoln spoke about “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The government IS the people. We are the government. Why, then, do we have so much distrust for the government? Why do we display so much animosity for the government?
The Constitution spells it out. This is the system that we fight and die for. This is the system that we proclaim to be a beacon of freedom for the entire world. Is that true? Does the United States represent freedom? We are not so sure about that anymore, thanks to a government that we can no longer trust, as our freedoms and rights are diminished.
Why do we not trust ourselves? We ARE the government. If we don’t trust the government, then that means we don’t trust ourselves. This is the system designed to protect our rights and our freedoms. This is the system designed to guarantee that the government works for US. When we say that we distrust the government, are we saying the system set up for us through the Constitution is the wrong system? If not a democracy, then what other system would do a better job of protecting our interests as individuals? If the system is the wrong one, then we oppose the Constitution as well as the government. Is that what we are really saying when we express such disdain for our own government? Are we really saying that we have no trust in the Constitution?
To be more precise, in our system “we the people” refers to the fact that we elect people to represent us in government. Our representatives are there to serve us, to serve our interests. When they fail to do so, we replace them with people who will do what we expect them to do. We have the ultimate power in our government. We, through our votes, are the power behind the government. We even have the power to run for office ourselves, so that we can have a more direct influence on how the government works for us. So again I ask: why do we distrust ourselves? A better question would be: why are we so powerless in a system designed to give us the ultimate power?
We distrust a government in which the Constitution gives us the ultimate authority. Is the problem really a fatally flawed constitutional system that needs to be scrapped in favor of a completely different system? Did our Forefathers get everything wrong? Most of us would not say that. We might think that we need to revise it somewhat through amendments, but we don’t think we should scrap the entire system. If not the Constitution, then what is the source of our distrust? Perhaps we simply disagree with the people our fellow voters are electing. Perhaps we, as individuals, believe that we are voting the “right” way, but the majority votes the “wrong” way. Is that what we are saying when we express distrust of the government? If so, then it goes back to the Constitution and the very nature of our system. For people whose distrust of the government is derived from a distrust of fellow voters who vote the “wrong” way, then how can we say that we believe in the principles of democracy? Aren’t we really saying that we don’t want democracy, but instead we want a system that serves “me”, not “everybody”? Is that what we are saying? I really doubt that very many people would use those words to describe their reasoning for distrust of the government.
Here is something that many people do say: “The problem is with career politicians, and we can fix it by electing outsiders.” This is an interesting philosophy, but hardly original. This is what challengers to incumbents have been saying throughout United States history. Today’s “career politicians” are yesterday’s “outsiders”. When we elect “outsiders”, we don’t gain trust in the government. The situation does not get better. This is similar to the philosophy of “kick them all out, and start over with people who will listen to us”. That sentiment also has been offered throughout history, but the situation has not been improved. Often, it is in the form of “they all need to be kicked out except for the one in my district.” Each of us likes our personal incumbent, but everybody else elects the wrong people. When we use that line of thinking, we are really saying that we oppose the concept of democracy. Is that what we really mean? I would say that the answer would have to be “no”. What we favor and what we oppose often depends on how the issue is worded.
So what is the source of our distrust of the government? If we support democracy; if we support the Constitution; if we have the ultimate power with our votes; if we can run for office ourselves and present our case to fellow voters on how we will change how government works; if a philosophy of electing “outsiders” or the “right” people doesn’t work – then what will work? What can be done that will eliminate the source of the problem? What is the source of the problem?
Regardless of our political affiliations, we seem to agree that our elected officials are not doing an adequate job of representing our interests. This is a clue in identifying the source of the problem. The system is designed to give us the ultimate power of government; we can elect representatives who will serve our interests; we can even become those representatives. Yet our representatives do not represent our interests. The logical conclusion is that the election process and the realities of incumbency mean that our votes and our interests don’t count as much as they were designed to count in our Constitutional system.
We know that our interests are not being served, no matter who we cast our votes for. If the voters’ interests are not being served, then whose interests are being served? That is the key question. Once we see whose interests are being served, we can identify the reasons behind the problem. Then we can take steps to fix the problem.
So, whose interests are being served if not the interests of “we the people”? There is an old saying that applies here: follow the money. Why is there big money involved in politics, and who is spending it? If you find out where this money comes from, and where it goes, then you have identified the source of the problem. Why would frugal people spend millions of dollars on politics? They don’t do it strictly out of generosity or public service. They expect a return on their investments. What about the people who receive this money? They have their own interests to serve, interests that cost money. Political campaigns cost a lot of money today. The special interests financing political campaigns expect a return on their investments. Politicians get the money they need only if they serve the interests of those with money to invest in campaigns. “We the people”, the individual voters, do not have enough money to counter the money from special interest political contributors – unless we are among the few with a massive fortune. Or unless we pool our money and collectively become one of the special interests that get attention. In either case, we do not solve the problem of politicians not looking out for the interests of “we the people”. If we have the resources and desire to spend large amounts of personal money on political campaigns, then we have a motive for using that money to serve personal interests, not democracy. If we pool our money so that “we the people” collectively become a special interest, then “we the people” become one voice out of many special interests. The interests that get served are the interests of the wealthy. The problem is money in politics. The interests of those who have the money and spend it on politics in America are the interests that get served.
Money in politics is not limited to political campaigns. The financial interests that get served become direct players in writing legislation that serves their financial interests. The politicians who depend on money from these special interests see the need to go along with this arrangement; otherwise they will lose the funding that is necessary in today’s political environment. The system feeds upon itself: the wealthy buy into the system, then use their wealth to see to it that laws are passed that will increase their wealth. Those who are not wealthy but are trying to “live the American dream” get left out of the process. Political parties become major players in this arrangement. A lot of money gets funneled through political parties, and the result is a system that finances candidates favorable to this arrangement, and opposes candidates who would fight it. Political parties often can and do pick their nominees through the selective use of financing. “We the people” end up with fewer choices, and votes that count for less. Legislators, along with the political parties that they belong to, pass election rules and legislative procedure rules that benefit not only incumbents, but the political parties themselves. These rules make it very difficult for a third party to win enough elections to compete with the major parties on a national scale. Floor procedural rules in the House and Senate chambers are designed with party affiliation in mind.
Political money also is being used to purchase the media in order to finance a massive public relations campaign of misinformation in order to convince ordinary citizens to support a government that favors the moneyed interests. As a result, millions of Americans are convinced that policies which benefit ordinary citizens are policies that take away individual freedom and rights, while policies that benefit the moneyed interests automatically support individual freedom and rights. Think about this for a minute. Which individual freedoms and rights do you feel entitled to but don’t have, and which freedoms and rights have you as an individual lost? Be specific; don’t be hypothetical; and make sure that your “right” isn’t merely the right to take away somebody else’s rights. The truth is that policies which benefit corporations and large moneyed interests do nothing to advance individual freedom or rights. Millions of American citizens are convinced that their financial interests are advanced through policies that benefit large corporations, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Despite what we are all being told by the corporate media, policies designed to benefit corporate interests generally do not benefit the interests of individuals, small businesses, or even American national interests.
Millions of Americans understand at least some of the basics of the problem, yet they support more of the same policies that created the problem. This is a direct result of a successful misinformation campaign in the corporate media. The interests of large multinational corporations and extremely wealthy individuals are being served, at the expense of a largely invisible (to their representatives) population, yet many of these “invisible” individuals have been convinced that they would lose individual freedoms and rights, or at least lose a chance to become wealthy themselves, if they don’t support policies that go even further in advancing the interests of the moneyed class. What they support is not something that is in their own best interests, or even in the interest of the overall economy, but more of the same policies that created the problem in the first place. Those who are not rich enough to benefit from the process are blamed for their plight – they are lazy and they make bad choices. Public support of these kinds of policies is precisely why the problem continues to worsen.
What can be done to get Americans to trust their government again? I have only touched upon some of the main, general issues involved. I could have written a much more detailed essay, with more relevant topics included, but doing so would not fit well into a blog post. I plan on including a much more detailed explanation of this topic in an upcoming book. However, I can list the things that I believe would “fix” this problem.
- Reverse the unfortunate Citizens United ruling. This ruling has the effect of making it impossible to actually fix the problems that I have listed here. The entire concepts of “corporations are people” and “money is speech” must be understood in the context of the damage that they are doing to our rights as citizens, our well-being, and our entire economy. Unfortunately, reversing Citizens United is not something that is easy to do. There are only two possible ways to do it, and neither one looks likely to happen soon. One way would be to wait for a different Supreme Court, then find a way to get the right kind of case in front of that Court in order to give the Court a chance to make a different ruling. The other way is through a constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, the amendment process requires widespread support from many different segments of the people. This amount of support does not appear to be forthcoming. To get the amount of support needed would require a much broader awareness of, and opposition to, a well-financed misinformation campaign that supports the status quo.
- Term limits. I have long been an opponent of most proposals for limiting the terms of representatives. It appears on the surface to be an idea that is contrary to the idea of democracy, the idea that we the people should be able to elect who we choose. I can understand when people disagree with me on this point, because I used to be on your side. However, recent events have led me to believe that nobody should be allowed to serve more than one consecutive term. After we are able to completely eliminate the undemocratic effects of money in politics, then perhaps there would be no real advantage to enforcing term limits. But as long as money IS allowed to corrupt the democratic process, I think limiting representatives to only one consecutive term is in order. This would allow lawmakers to spend all of their time performing their constitutional duties instead of being in election mode all of the time – campaign speeches, time away from work, passing laws for the benefit of financial contributors, divisive rhetoric with re-election in mind, and the like. Perhaps we could have statesmen to counter the partisan rhetoric that we have become accustomed to. Term limits would not be effective if enacted at the state level, but can work at the federal level. Having a one-term limit would eliminate personal campaigns for the same post by incumbents who have the people’s work to do. Allowing non-consecutive terms would allow voters to continue to support their favorite representatives, but only after a period of time in which those representatives serve in the capacity of “loyal opposition.” Longer terms could be part of this, allowing for fewer elections and giving representatives more on-the-job experience, but that would require a constitutional amendment.
- Campaign finance reform. Anything that removes “big money” and makes the financing of political campaigns more transparent would go a long way towards restoring political power to the voters, and respect of government from “we the people”.
- Make it illegal for federal elected officials to benefit financially during their times in office. Any outside income is a potential conflict of interest. Their net worth upon leaving office should never be greater than the sum of their net worth upon taking office plus their taxpayer-funded salary while in office. Any additional gains should be taxed at 100%, with a public explanation. They should serve taxpayers; the taxpayers should not serve them.
If we were to take these steps, then we would be in much better position to enact laws that deal directly with the damage that has already been done to the economy and to “we the people”.
I want to add a few final comments. The misinformation campaign by proponents of the status quo includes arguments that any position other than theirs is an argument for “big government.” That is a red herring. In our constitutional system, the size and structure of government is a separate issue that has nothing to do with the issue of providing political power to “we the people”. The distribution of functions between different levels of government is a related red herring issue. Often, these kinds of red herrings are used to hide motives relating to partisan positions, and involve code words. For example, people call policies they oppose “big government” but not policies they support. People also use the “it’s not what the Constitution says” argument against policies they don’t support even if the same people don’t know what the Constitution actually says, or what its history is all about. Media misinformation feeds on these red herring arguments.
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