Political musings

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If you’ve picked up your copy of the Beacon this month at any of our 300+ sites throughout Baltimore County, you will find inside a Voters’ Guide to the Primary Election, prepared by the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County.

We feel honored to have been chosen to publish this important League product, and encourage you to read it, especially if you live and vote in Baltimore County.

If there’s no Guide in your Beacon, you can view it on our website, www.theBeaconNewspapers.com. And if you live outside Baltimore County, visit the League site, www.vote411.org, and enter your address to read about your district’s candidates.

I regularly get asked by readers and friends, “Who’s the Beacon going to endorse in the election?” Actually, we don’t issue endorsements. And, as long-time readers know, I seldom even talk directly about politics in my column.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes this year’s election different, and I want to share some of my musings with you.

First, I think it’s relevant to say that I learned some of the most pertinent things I know about our country’s government and our political system in a college public policy course.

That’s where I first read The Federalist Papers — not really a book, but a compilation of “anonymous” newspaper columns published in 1787 and 1788 to generate support for the U.S. Constitution, which was then being heavily debated.

The actual authors of the essays were Alexander Hamilton (recently of Broadway fame, posthumously), James Madison and John Jay, some of our country’s most significant historical figures.

It was James Madison’s “Federalist #51” — which defended the “checks and balances” so central to our Constitution — that helped me best understand why America has always had a system of government that seems to resist change and quick, effective action. The reason? It was designed that way, on purpose!

Yes, the “problem” that so many decry — the source of our government’s “dysfunction” in many people’s eyes — is the Constitution itself. Each of our three branches of government is selected differently, has a different mission from the others, and is designed to want to resist the prerogatives of the other branches.

Why would our founders choose such a counterintuitive way to run a country? Didn’t they know we’d have important decisions to make, that time is often of the essence, and that such a system would impede rapid progress?

They knew all this, and more: They knew that it’s human nature to want to exercise power over others. And that a simple democracy that put all power in the people as a whole, without dividing that power into competing branches, would have the tendency to ignore minority rights and interests, and had the potential to concentrate power in the hands of a demagogue.

Therefore, one of the chief goals of our Constitution, as described in “Federalist #51,” is that: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Our Constitution takes for granted that a government made up of free human beings will behave as free people behave if left to their own devices. Without a regimented, rule-bound system of checks and balances, a democracy has a tendency — as we have seen repeatedly reenacted throughout the world over the last century — to end up, as UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick famously said, “One man, one vote, one time.”  

The alternative to a democracy that has a tendency to elect a totalitarian leader (who promptly puts an end to democracy) is a government that may frequently be gridlocked. It can frustrate voters on both sides of the aisle, but it’s an essential element of a lasting democracy.

A government run by those who can snap their fingers and change a policy, who can propose a solution and institute it immediately without accounting for other points of view, is one that can, and will, ride roughshod over the rights of its own citizens.

We are a country of the people, by the people and for the people: “the people” as a whole; “the people” understood to consist of numerous factions with different interests and views.

Each of us wants to be the person whose views will prevail. We each think our decision would be the best one, the right one, the sensible one.

But my decision would not be your decision, and frequently the best decision is reached when all views are taken into account, and given a chance to mingle and stew, before a course of action is taken.

Some may take umbrage that I attribute ambition for power to all human beings, and I would agree that not everyone is ambitious. But I do think it’s fair to say that every politician is ambitious (even if they’re ambitious for their agenda rather than for their personal gain).

In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the job — especially for national office, and particularly for the position of president. Who would go through the effort and expense required to get elected in this country without a driving, burning desire to exercise the power of the office? Yes, let’s assume to exercise it for the public good, but exercise it nonetheless! 

I am not pointing fingers at any particular politician or candidate. My words apply equally to former President George W. Bush, President Obama, and current candidates Donald Trump and Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente. (Rocky who? I refer you to the Voters’ Guide. Mr. De La Fuente is a Democratic candidate for president.)

I wish more Americans today understood the reasons for our divided government, appreciated its value in preserving both their individual and our collective liberty, and would therefore have more patience for the seemingly slow pace of change and movement in our constitutional system.

My fear is that the absence of such understanding among today’s voters is driving our country’s apparently growing taste for strong-fisted, “the-rules-be-damned” leadership.

This is not really new. Many recent presidents have pushed the envelope of their executive powers. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with having a president who wants to exercise more control. That is, not as long as he or she can’t succeed.

Our system expects each branch to jealously guard their powers and to seek more. But that’s exactly why we need three competing branches, so ambition counteracts ambition, keeping us free from a totalitarian system that — as we unfortunately see in far too much of the world — generates tremendous suffering and unfairness.

So, in conclusion, I urge you to vote in the Maryland Primary on April 26, and in the General Election (for which we’ll have an updated Voters’ Guide in a few months) on November 8.

Our selection of a new president, and of members of the legislature, is both a right and a duty. And while we may well continue to find gridlock in Washington, remember that it’s designed that way to protect the freedoms we all hold so dear.

One final point. Just as your vote counts, so does everything you say to your elected representatives. Take advantage of this, and share your views via letter, email or phone call.

They really don’t hear from their constituents all that often. So what they do hear makes a difference in how they think — or at least in what they understand their constituents want, which is important to them if they desire to get reelected.

In America, power really rests in the people, and that means you.