I’ve been off the grid a bit lately, as a sista needs to be Dr. Moniquealicia sooner rather than later. To that end, I’ve been diligently studying for my comprehensive exams — reading and re-reading the philosphies that were critical to the creation of the United States, and its government.
There are a couple of things that stand out:
1. In my adult life, I’ve been ambivalent about the place America holds in the annals of world history. At worst, I’ve been completely resistant to the idea that the United States of America is “the greatest idea in the last 500 years” — I saw an author discussing this concept a couple of years ago, and I immediately balked at the audacity of such an assertion. The United States? With all its issues? Nah.
And then I gave heed to my favorite anecdote: I shan’t throw the baby out with the bath water. In time, I began to see the United States for what it was on paper, and how it has endeavored to bring idealism into fruition. And ol’ Mo got all soffe on the U.S. of A.
On that freezing Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009, I definitely grabbed one of those little American flags and walked around with it shamelessly. I bought hook, line, and sinker Barack Obama’s common refrain, “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” It’s all the more impressive, however, given United States history, that Barack Hussein Obama’s story did happen. You may fault or credit (depending on your politics) white guilt, the on again/off again romance shared between young people and politics, or the sheer absurdity of Black people during the ’08 campaign (My President is Black/My Lambo’s blue, and I’ll be gotdamn if my rims aint too… #sigh). Invariably, no matter your opinions about why Obama happened, the fact remains that the free and fair election of Barack Hussein Obama did happen. And in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty cool and I was pretty proud to be American on Election and Inauguration Day.
However, what’s happened in the wake of Obama’s election is made clearer to me by way of a little Constitutional and Founding Fathers context. Which brings me to…
2. I believe the debates, disagreements, and compromises which preceded the creation of the Constitution are the scabs we continue to pick at. Central government vs. state’s rights, Republican vs. Democratic representation, to address or ignore the slavery problem, and indeed the Black problem. What are the authorities and limitations of the separation of powers? What about the strength and influence of factions, and the rationales behind political ideologies that are led either by cooperation or individualism — public vs. private?
For example, during the Federal Convention of 1787, the Framers debated who should elect the national Executive (the President). Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed that the national executive should be a single person chosen by the national legislature. New York’s Gouverneur Morris disagreed, stating that the “public at large” should have the last say. It was Roger Sherman (of the Sherman/Connecticut Compromise, responsible for the bicameral U.S. legislature) who charged that the sense of the nation would be better expressed by the legislature because the people at large would never be sufficiently informed enough to make a wise decision.
The people would never be sufficiently informed. One could get all up in arms over Sherman’s lack of faith in our political aptitude. But would one really be just in doing so? I bet if you took a poll of average cats on the street, 3 in 5 couldn’t tell you who is Secretary of State, or the name of one of their state’s Senators, or the names of the candidates running for President in 2012. I’m not judging the average cat, as life requires us to multitask, and knowing who Rick Santorum is simply doesn’t put food on your table or coins in your pocket. Thus, being politically astute isn’t at the top of our task lists. To be sure, there’s no shame in not knowing. But not knowing and waltzing your ignorant ass into a voting booth and picking the guy with the most interesting name is a problem. And Americans are audacious like that. We don’t have to know, yet we feel entitled still to our say.
3. The state’s rights/slavery issue remains a hot one in American political life. However, it’s a little different now. The Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson debates hinged on how the governed should be governed, and on Jefferson’s insistence that the common man (agrarians — farmers, the middle- and lower-middle class) refused to be ruled by aristocratic, oligarchic government in America too. The colonists wouldn’t win the American Revolution only to be subjected to the American version of British authority.
The Anti-Federalists had legitimate concerns about the Constitution and the prospect of national power being concentrated in the financial and industrial centers in the northeast. However, what undercuts their argument and also undercuts the nobility of the Founding Fathers’ intentions is their disservice to the issue of slavery. Staughton Lynd said that in time, slavery will be recognized as “one of the two or three distinctive themes of the American experience.” Indeed, the Framers knew better; they knew it was impossible to juxtapose the institution of slavery with the Lockean concepts of natural rights and revolution. So they looked the other way, unwilling and incapable of reconciling slavery with their “ingrained capitalistic attitudes.” In other words, there was money to be made and the inhumanity of slavery hadn’t yet pierced the framers’ consciences enough to choose doing the right thing over stacking paper. Does this concept sound familiar in any way? Because it should.
Governing within the ever-present specter of competing interests, and the pursuit of capital and prosperity has been a feature of American politics since the beginning. It’s been interesting to see how these matters played out over the centuries, and how politicians have re-worked the Framers’ intentions to suit their contemporaneous political needs. Folks are gleefully inclined to hearkening back to the days of yore, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the Constitution and the contexts within which decisions were made. For example, modern state’s rights conservatives aren’t echoing the same sentiments the Jeffersonian state’s rights crowd did in the 18th century. The former feels less noble, more insidious, and more divisive. They are the SAY NO TO GOVERNMENT crowd…unless, of course, government is handing out checks to stimulate growth in a local economy, or to clean up natural disasters. In those cases, the state has the “right” pick and choose when they say no to government.
In sum, suffice it to say that American history lives and breathes and creeps up on us more frequently than we realize. Perhaps our lawmakers would be well-served by revisiting it from time to time, instead of making shit up as they go along.