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Socrates Exchange: What does government of, by and for the people really mean?

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bigberto/2764464101/">~MVI~</a> via Flickr/Creative Commons

Citizens have a role to elect their representatives in, but then what is the role of the representative? Where should federal power end and state power begin? And in the end, who is really in charge, the citizen, the representative or the courts? The country, the state, the town or the citizen?


  • Max Latona, Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Anselm College


Background Reading 

Four and a half months after one of the bloodiest battles on American soil, our 16th President Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic Gettysburg Address. The speech was short, just over two minutes long, but its significance was great. Given at a time when the nation was ripped apart from war, Lincoln’s speech addressed the tenets of equality based in the Declaration of Independence and defined the Civil War as not only a battle for the Union but one that would bring a new freedom to its citizens. Outside of “Four score and seven years ago…” probably the most famous lines to come from the speech was one that defined our founders’ mission for the country, “…this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom and that government: of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from Earth”. It’s been said that Lincoln had borrowed that line from Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, specifically from a speech given in January of 1830 when Webster described the U.S. Government as “…made for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people”. Today what “of, by and for” the people is pretty clear, at least it its most literal sense. Of the people: We are the people who govern us. The governing officials come from the same pool of citizenry as those who elect them in. No one is born to govern and there are no kings, queens or aristocracy. By the people: We the citizenry made our government. It's a government run by the people to this day through their Representatives, Senators, The President, the judges etc. who they've designated to act on their behalf. For the people: The whole purpose of the government is to act for the peoples’ good, be it individually or collectively. But dig deeper than literal translation - and ‘of, by and for the people’ can get a bit fuzzy and philosophical. The first question you may ask is “who ARE the people”? The founding fathers had a very different idea of who should run the government than we do today. They felt that only a very few were really qualified to govern. Blacks, women, Native Americans were definitely not ‘of the people”. Neither were those who didn’t own property or were not considered ‘intelligent enough’. In the days of the Gettysburg address, those seen “of the people” loosened a bit, and over time the 13th amendment (race), 19th amendment (women) and 26th amendment (over 18) allowed more and more people the right to vote and the right to be ‘of the people”. Today, we may say that everyone of voting age is ‘of the people’, but still the debates come in. How about prisoners, illegal aliens, big business, the church or advocacy groups? Are they of the people? How about gays and transgendered who are not protected by all laws, is the government less ‘for’ them? How about if you don’t vote? Do non-voters have less of a say in how we govern that those who step up to the ballot box, write their congressperson and/or protest? Many say that “of, by and for” the people means we are a democracy… but are we? The founders - it’s been said - did not like idea of democracy. In fact, the word ‘democracy’ is not mentioned once in our Constitution. Many say our country is a Republic, not a Democracy. Others today would call what we have a Republican form of government with most of the vestiges of Democracy. So unlike a New Hampshire town meeting in which majority rules no matter what, the US government works by having us (the people) elect our representatives. They in turn write and vote on our laws. The courts in turn, (with either elected or appointed judges) interpret that law. Many say that having a Republic allows our government to actually be more of, by and for the people because it allows for the minority to get its say as well. The founders were not the only critics of democracy, at least the true “Athenian” form. Plato worried that Democracy would lead to 'mob rule', to 'rule of the stupid' and would 'lead to disagreement and conflict and hence a weakening of the government". Others from John C. Calhoun to Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the “tyranny of the majority”. So this leads to other Socratic questions when it comes to the question of “What does government of, by and for the people really mean”. Does that mean the majority should always have the final say? How about if the majority is wrong? If we are a government by the people, shouldn’t we then respect the will of the majority? If one party is voted in over another… why should it ‘reach across the aisle’ to the minority if ‘The people’ voted in the majority party? But are the people the majority? 2008 broke all records in the National Presidential election when 64% (less than 2/3s of America) showed up to vote during a very politically contentious time in our history. Generally midterm elections get a smaller percentage; town-wide elections can draw only 10-20 percent of the electorate. So are we really a government of by and for the people... when in most elections less than half of those people even show up to participate? Does the fact that Americans generally don't participate in their own democracy create a problem with the question? If we are a government of by and for the people, then do we have a responsibility to it? Finally when we say that we are a government ‘for’ the people, what does that really mean? When does the citizen’s voice end? Citizens have a role to elect their representatives in, but then what is the role of the representative? Is it to do the true bidding of the person who elected them in every way? Or once in, do we trust that they then make the best decisions for the nation, even if at times it goes against the beliefs of those citizens who voted them in? How far does the peoples’ role go past the ballot box, or does it? Does the representative’s role go past the judiciary? Where should federal power end and state power begin? Although marijuana is not legal for medical purposes federally, it is in certain states, a flagrant violation of federal law – or “government by the people”? And in the end - who is really in charge… the citizen, the representative or the courts… the country, the state, the town or the citizen? That’s what we’re discussing this month… Tell us what you think then respond to others. Challenge each other, question each other and get Socratic! 

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