Forward thinking: Reflecting on politics this Constitution Day

Constitution Day is observed each year on Sept. 17.

It commemorates the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. In short, this day marks the 231st anniversary of that commemorative signing. It is dedicated to all U.S. citizens.

It is this writer’s opinion that our Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution that is sufficiently powerful to secure the right of its citizens, but strictly limited so it would not infringe on those rights. The Constitution’s central feature is the separation of powers, or the division of government into three separate but equal branches: the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Each has the power to check the others.

But today, our government doesn’t operate according to the Constitution – again this is my personal opinion. Over the past 50 years or so, powers have slowly but surely been transferred or centralized in a fourth, unconstitutional branch of government – the federal bureaucracy, made up of independent agencies like the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) staffed by non-elected and, ultimately, unaccountable bureaucrats.

The questions that beg to be answered are how and why this new way of governing came about. How do we return our government to working as it should – under the Constitution?

Before I attempt to address the questions I have raised, please know that I do not claim to be an expert in government in general or the Constitution in particular. I am a citizen, not unlike you, who is probably concerned about our nation as a whole and its various levels of government – national, state and municipal. My personal experience is limited to sixteen years on the Lynnwood City Council (1999-2015).

For openers, I found myself going back to the days prior to the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Much to my surprise, I discovered one of the most heated topics of discussion, behind closed doors, was the subject of “Political Parties.” I repeat, “Political Parties.”

What I discovered were strongly differing thoughts and opinions among the most revered of our Founding Fathers on the topic. Some in favor, others opposed. Permit me to share a few examples.

To begin with, the Constitution did not and does not provide for any political parties. It’s not that the Founding Fathers did not think about them however, to them, even the word “party” was anathema. In other words, they viewed political parties as “factions” dangerous to the public interest.

The above perspective was short lived. The first American political parties began to form by some of those who helped craft the Constitution while George Washington was still the president. The early ideology of the Founding Fathers was that politics was supposed to be rational and collaborative – not competitive; the subordination of narrow interests to the general welfare of the community.

The Founding Fathers got this one wrong. They completely missed the boat on political parties. Or did they? They were convinced that political parties or factions only destroy representative government. However, we have since become dependent on political parties. For the past two centuries, they have become a staple in both the political and governing processes… for better or worse.

One of the timeless observations and concerns that George Washington expressed was in regard to the political party wrangling that “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party against the other.”

The practical outcome, or so it would seem, confirms Washington’s perspective. Consensus is very difficult to build and nearly impossible to maintain for the very simple reason that people change their minds, disagree about the issues and the entire electorate is unable to unite behind a common vision. This is particularly true when you have a fast growing, ethnically diverse population that impacts policy and practice at every level of government.

It’s true… As hard as it is to believe, political parties were not originally present in the U.S. government. In fact, George Washington had a very ideologically diverse cabinet – something you would never find happening today.

If you are a student of early American history, you, too, know the Founding Fathers condemned political parties as self-serving factions detrimental to the good of government.

However, the winner-takes-all presidential system used in United States, naturally leads to two parties because votes and issues become either-or questions and people feel their votes are worthless if they do not vote for the front-runner or nearest challenger.

The first two parties evolved in the 1790s around two major issues. The first was “centralization of government.” Today that debate would be couched in terms of “states’ rights vs. federal power.” The second issue was whether to support Britain or France – a topic for another time.

The first of the original parties were the Federalist led by Alexander Hamilton who pushed for a strong central government. It was pro-England and centered in the Northeast. The second party was the Republican (officially the Democratic–Republican Party). It was led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Its emphasis was to limit the power of central government and expand individual and states’ rights. It tended to be pro-France and centered in the South.

Identification with parties has changed little in recent times with the exception that a steady increase in people who identify themselves as independents. Party members and representatives convene every four years at a “national party convention” during the presidential election year. The party chooses a presidential candidate and adopts a “party platform” that outlines the party’s position on a variety of issues.

Over the years, there have been various changes in party names, platforms and allegiances. Some examples are the Whig Party, Populist Party, Progressive Party, Socialist Party, Libertarian Party, Green Party and Reform Party. However, when the dust has settled, we are for all practical purposes back or down to two major parties – Democratic and Republican Party.

Currently the Democratic Party is the more “liberal/progressive” party and recognizes it roots in the initial Democratic-Republican party. Before the Civil War, the party found its core support in the South and was the party of slaveholders. Industrialization later pulled the party toward social causes as workers were increasingly exploited without redress.

The party underwent a major transformation in the 1930s during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, when Democrats began to embrace a more aggressive and involved role for federal government. FDR’s so-called “New Deal” policies cost the Democrats the support of the South – their traditional stronghold – but won them the support of blacks, farmers, urban workers and women. This resulted in the formation of a “New Democratic Coalition” and this support base remains largely in place today.

Today the Republican Party is, and has been, the more “conservative” and “pro-business” party. Dating back to the late 1850’s its core support has been in the North. In 1860, the party successfully elected Abraham Lincoln president and continued to dominate national politics during the civil war and early Reconstruction Era. It held the black vote for more than 60 years because of its origin as an anti-slavery party until the New Deal policies caused a shift in alliances.

In wrapping up this column, I would remind you that it is once again an election year — a “midterm election” year. Political pundits from both the Democratic and Republican Parties will try to convince you that the problems in America are the making and result of the other.

In similar fashion to George Washington, Founding Father John Adams warned us against political parties as well. He said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures into opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

There you have it. Adams feared that political parties would “lead to formal and permanent despotism” and serve as “the greatest political evil under our
Constitution”. He clearly warned us that the “disorders and miseries” which result from a system of political parties would cause us to seek peace and security in the absolute power of an individual.

He later went on to remind us that the Constitution is not a self-enforcing document. In his own words, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Could it be that the American people are no long a moral and religious people?
Are our elected leaders in the House of Representative and Senate merely reflecting who We the People really are at heart?

Until next time…

–By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.

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