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Were the Founders Wrong? They bet big on democracy

When our founders launched our noble experiment in democracy, they did it with trepidation. In effect, they were placing a large bet on the ability of a large group of people to govern themselves effectively. Up to that point in history, in virtually every culture around the world, men had been ruled autocratically by kings, dictators, or a small cadre of men wielding absolute power over them. The earliest attempts at democratic rule (in ancient Greece and the Rome Republic) failed, and the next cracks in the authority of kings appeared in 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed in England.

This historic document transferred limited power from the king to the feudal barons, and after several hundred years of foment and struggle, forms of constitutional law emerged in England, with power gradually moving to the Parliament. So when the first settlers came from England to the New World in 1620, they had tasted the concept of freedom at least in a limited way, and having tasted it, they wanted more.

While the idea of freedom was appealing, the unanswered question was whether mankind could learn the self-discipline that true freedom requires. Our founders intensely debated the issue and ultimately concluded that the rewards of personal freedom under a carefully constructed democracy were so appealing that launching this form of government was worth the risks. But to give it its best chance of success, they made a strong effort to design a structure that would control the tendencies of men to seek power over others; the Constitution distributes power between the states and the federal government and among the three branches at the federal level. This was an inspired solution designed to prevent any pocket of power from emerging that would dominate the competing groups.

Gradually, however, the system of checks and balances among competing interests has been eroded, and this erosion has accelerated in the past 50 years until we now find that our federal government is largely dysfunctional. People have found that by combining into groups with a common purpose, they can apply strong pressure on elected officials and thereby win concessions for their group at the expense of the general population. A close synergy has developed between those special interest groups and elected officials, which overpowers our democratic processes. As a result, our democracy has atrophied and now only offers a parody of its original shining promise.

So, were the founders wrong in creating the republic? We still can’t say with certainty, but in baseball parlance, we’d say it’s the bottom of the eighth inning, and team democracy is trailing by a score of 5-3.

But we still have the resources to pull out a win if we step forward with assurance and execute a strong plan. Our best hope to recover lost ground and return to a democratic path is with a major reform effort by We the People, and that means you and me. The special interests and the politicians they have in their pockets will fight hard to retain their control, but the Constitution gives us the power to take charge and demand the reforms that will save the country.

We need a plan for non-partisan, comprehensive reform of the federal government that offers creative solutions for long-standing problems.

Frank Keeney

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