A Government of, by, and for the people?

By Bobbie Kirkhart

Pho­to Cred­it: “Unit­ed States Capi­tol” by Phil Roed­er is licensed under CC BY 2.0

We Amer­i­cans har­bor a huge dichoto­my in our atti­tudes toward our coun­try. We dis­play our patri­o­tism in bor­der­line chau­vin­is­tic man­ner, play­ing the nation­al anthem before every major sport­ing event, and church ser­vices fre­quent­ly include impas­sioned praise of our nation and some­times pro­mote the idea that loy­al­ty to god must include equal loy­al­ty to the country.

We Amer­i­cans, myself includ­ed, love our coun­try. It’s sur­pris­ing that many of my fel­low cit­i­zens hate our gov­ern­ment. It’s a pejo­ra­tive to call some­one a politi­cian. Can­di­dates for office who have no gov­ern­ment expe­ri­ence proud­ly run as ‘out­siders’ and often eas­i­ly win a seat. Amer­i­cans do not rec­og­nize pop­u­lar pub­lic pro­grams as gov­ern­ment cre­at­ed and spon­sored by Wash­ing­ton. I’ve heard more than once the demand, “Keep gov­ern­ment out of my Medicare,” which is, of course, a gov­ern­ment pro­gram. Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan was cheered when he told us, “Gov­ern­ment is not the solu­tion to our prob­lem, gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem.” Amer­i­cans per­ceive cor­rect­ly that the gov­ern­ment does not rep­re­sent all the people.

The seeds of this ani­mos­i­ty were plant­ed in our found­ing doc­u­ment, the Con­sti­tu­tion. The gov­ern­ment claims to rep­re­sent the peo­ple, but it was nev­er set up to reflect the pop­u­lar will. To assure the south­ern, agri­cul­tur­al states that they would not be over­run by the indus­tri­al North, our founders made a bicam­er­al sys­tem, in which the low­er house was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pop­u­la­tion and the upper house was allowed two sen­a­tors for each state. More­over, the exec­u­tive offices are decid­ed by des­ig­nat­ed elec­tors, who are now select­ed by pop­u­lar bal­lot with­in the state, and their pres­i­den­tial vote is count­ed. Each state is allo­cat­ed a num­ber of votes based on pop­u­la­tion (vary­ing from 1 to 53) and the 2 sen­a­tors. Since 1982, the only Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in which a Repub­li­can won the pop­u­lar vote was 2004, George W. Bush’s sec­ond term. In Bush’s first term and Trump’s term, they were elect­ed although they came in sec­ond in the pop­u­lar vote. Bush gave us the Iraq War and Trump gave us, well, Trump.

These flaws in our sys­tem have been aggra­vat­ed in recent years by social and demo­graph­ic changes. Rur­al, white Amer­i­cans have always tend­ed to live in areas where they enjoyed extra­or­di­nary priv­i­lege. Our econ­o­my was built by slave labor in a sys­tem in which slaves had no rights at all. After the Civ­il War, south­ern Black Amer­i­cans were free in name only, and equal in no way, espe­cial­ly not at the bal­lot box, where they were often turned away and fre­quent­ly phys­i­cal­ly pun­ished for attempt­ing to vote.

Years lat­er, much had changed, but for some, Obama’s pres­i­den­cy seemed too much to bear. In addi­tion to demon­stra­tions against him that includ­ed armed pro­test­ers, there were numer­ous threats against his life. The Repub­li­cans were quick to take advan­tage of this ani­mos­i­ty. Sen­ate Repub­li­can leader, Mitch McConnell, vowed, “The sin­gle most impor­tant thing we want to achieve is for Pres­i­dent Oba­ma to be a one-term pres­i­dent.” He did not suc­ceed in that, but he was suc­cess­ful in estab­lish­ing the idea that par­ty comes before country.

This set the stage for Don­ald Trump, with all his shenani­gans, cul­mi­nat­ing in his absurd claim that he was cheat­ed out of the pres­i­den­cy in the 2020 elec­tion and that his sup­port­ers must fight to get it back. This is con­trary to all infor­ma­tion, all legal deci­sions (includ­ing those made by judges whom Trump had appoint­ed to the bench), and any com­mon sense. After the dis­as­trous insur­rec­tion of ear­ly Jan­u­ary 2021, it’s unlike­ly they will again find it nec­es­sary to take the coun­try by force. In addi­tion to the exist­ing bias in our elec­tion sys­tem, state leg­is­la­tures draw the bound­aries of leg­isla­tive dis­tricts, which often result in either Democ­rats or Repub­li­cans being under­rep­re­sent­ed in Con­gress. Now, per­haps more than ever, the gov­ern­ment does not rep­re­sent the people.

Even if the peo­ple are will­ing to sup­port the gov­ern­ment, they’ll face more obsta­cles in the next elec­tion. Based on their false asser­tion that the elec­tion was stolen from Trump, (called by much of the press “The Big Lie”), states with Repub­li­can lead­er­ship have passed laws to sup­press the vote. The Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice posts that between Jan­u­ary 1 and Sep­tem­ber 27, at least 19 states enact­ed 33 laws that make it hard­er for Amer­i­cans to vote.

Biden and lib­er­al Democ­rats have pushed major reforms, which the polls show to be very pop­u­lar with the pub­lic. If they were to pass, Amer­i­cans might rouse around our gov­ern­ment and, in spite of the odds against them, regain a gov­ern­ment of, by, and for the peo­ple. How­ev­er, in this sys­tem, only a few of these reforms will pass, at best. In that case, the peo­ple will con­tin­ue to see the gov­ern­ment not rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pop­u­lar will

So, it’s a major under­state­ment to say that the odds are against the Unit­ed States’ pre­serv­ing democ­ra­cy. There are ways this could be turned around, but it would take great polit­i­cal courage on the part of our politi­cians and enor­mous polit­i­cal wis­dom and will on the part of our people.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al and of Athe­ists Unit­ed. She is a founder and past vice pres­i­dent of the Sec­u­lar Coali­tion for Amer­i­ca. She is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.