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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Restoring Balance And Harmony (Part One)

(Editor’s note:  This is the first segment in a new multi-part series which begins here today. …)

The Founding Fathers’ plan for the new central government is nearly flawless.  The power of the government derives from the people and is distributed to three equal but independent authorities.  The legislative branch is to make the nation’s laws.  The executive enforces them.  And the judiciary interprets their legality.  By a system of checks and balances, each authority a check on one or both of the others, a separation  of powers virtually ensures that no one individual citizen or branch can amass inordinate status.

Many thorny political issues which simply cannot be foreseen will arise in the future.  But the US Constitution is a remarkably flexible undertaking.  It is said to be a living, breathing, organic document that is built to stand the tests of time that have befallen the noblest efforts of bygone eras.  And despite the predictions of European cynics who consistently predict its demise, the great American experiment in democracy now well into its third century remains a remarkable success by any reasonable measure.

But with praise aside, 21st century America society is not akin to utopia on earth.  Ordinary citizens complain through hardened experience that what was once a land of opportunity is now hardly recognizable as such.  While excuses abound, explanations are not simple.  At present, wealth concentration in the hands of the privileged few is at a higher point than at any time in our nation’s history.  Wealth concentration and monopolistic tendencies do foreclose opportunity.

The numbers tell a chilling story.  The 400 richest Americans today possess more wealth than the bottom half of the US population (150+ million) combined.  This primary economic factor is morally indefensible.  It is apparent that our economic system is failing to provide a fair shot for the many, confounding us from completing our great unfinished business.  As a result, American society is plagued with unrest, imbalance and disharmony.

How did we arrive here is a key question.  And can it be fixed?  In order to answer these questions fully, we must trace the root cause of society’s unrest to the beginning. 

In the Founding Fathers’ vision, the three branches of government are created equal.  But in reality each branch is hardly considered to be on an equal footing.

The Founding Fathers’ familiarity with the British parliamentary system places the legislative branch at the helm of the ship, setting the national course.  Indeed, the Founding Fathers design a sophisticated steering mechanism, meant to be operated by the legislative authority, or Congress.  Execution of the plan depends upon Congress to steer the ship by the making of laws for the public good in its sole and ultimate discretion.

By contrast, the executive branch is viewed as little more than a puppet of Congress, although George Washington places a distinctive stamp on the office.  In reality, the power of the so called President is virtually non-existent. The executive acts merely as a rubber stamp of the proposed legislation passed on to it by Congress.  The executive “veto” power provided for in the Constitution dare not be exercised.

And as for the poor judiciary branch, nobody really seems to know, or care, what the proper function of that branch is actually supposed to be.  Considered the weakest of the three branches, the authority of the judiciary to interpret the Constitution is not yet clear.  Exactly zero cases are decided by the US Supreme Court in its first 18 months of its existence.  So lightly is the Court regarded and slight its prestige that when the government moves from Philadelphia to its new home in Washington, DC in 1800, no provision is made for it to be housed.  Neither is money provided nor plans drawn up.

Andrew Jackson later changes the conception of the executive branch in a high profile manner, putting the executive on an equal footing with Congress.  Similarly, John Marshall defines the judicial branch, establishing itself as the arbiter of constitutional authority and affirming the Constitution as an instrument of the people.  Under Marshall’s leadership, the Court is molded into a major force. 

As the power and stature of the executive and judiciary authorities increase over time, the legislative branch, in turn, begins a slow yet precipitous decline.  Ominous warnings sounded by such distinguished citizens as Benjamin Franklin go unheeded.  And so the wounds to the legislative authority are largely self-inflicted, in a decline that can be foreseen.  As a result, the ship’s steering mechanism is damaged and fractured, with no accountable authority setting navigational direction.  Disharmony becomes the rule.

In the second segment we identify and begin to analyze the specific causes of legislative decline which lie at the heart of early 21st century unrest.

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Blueprint for America's Future (Part Four)

(Editor's note:  This is the final segment in our four part series under title of A Blueprint for America's Future.  The prior segment (part three) highlights the psychic interlude which interrupts the weeks leading up to the 1912 general election. ...)

T.R. delivers a final speech in New York City in the days before the general election. 

Occasionally he attempts to raise his right arm, then winces and drops it.  The pain is intense from the wound as a result of the recent assassination attempt. Nevertheless, T.R. rises to a memorable occasion:

Friends, perhaps once in a generation, perhaps not so often, there comes a chance for a people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights.  The doctrines we preach reach back to the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount.  They reached back to the commandments delivered at Sinai.  All that we are doing is to apply those doctrines in the shape necessary to make them available for meeting the living issue of our own day.

The end result might have been a nation of individuals, cooperating intelligently instead of competing recklessly, with the requisite character to understand duty --- a democratic society that could reach new heights in both moral and material progress.  But it is not meant to be.

In the ensuing national general election, T.R., now the political third party outsider on the Republican left, actually outpolls the incumbent president (Mr. Taft) on the Republican right.  But it is to be little consolation.  The Republican Party vote is thereby split.  The election is thrown to the candidate who commands the center, former president of Princeton University and Gov. of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. [i]  Progressivism is to take on the newly developing image of the Democratic Party.

Twenty years, one World War and a Great Depression later --- the roots of the New Deal experiment may be traced here --- to T.R. in 1912.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda of 1932 adopts much of the 1912 Progressive Party platform in what will be the lynchpin of his four term presidency.   The New Deal conceives the social safety net, a constitutional delegation of power to the general welfare.  Hereafter, people come to expect the help of their government, especially in time of need.  Passage of its landmark twin pillars, the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act, furnishes the pathway for entry into middle class life for millions of American citizens, mainly immigrants.

In 1960, President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier follows. The torch is passed to a new generation of Americans.  Mr. Kennedy’s vision drives the important legislation of the day, including the historic Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of 1964, the Immigration Act of 1965, Medicare/Medicaid and the onset of the Great Society steered by Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. With the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, National Public Radio (NPR) is born, millions of listeners having come to rely upon NPR over the past 50 years.

President Reagan, an ardent New Deal proponent in his younger days, moves with good intentions to scale back the size and scope of the federal government. Once again, individual initiative has its day, unbridled by the constraints of government. But history teaches that individual initiative works best only within the framework of a collective social responsibility. One for all, and all for one, as the saying goes.

Presidents Clinton and Obama are direct lineal descendants of these historical figures in American History.  The enactment of President Obama’s signature 2010 Affordable Care Act, together with meaningful progress in the environmental battle to arrest the ill effects of global warming, stand as landmark achievements.

In closing, the accomplishments of the past 100 years have been many and must not be discounted.  But some insist we've yet to match the substance and passion of T.R.'s 1912 legacy.  With 2017 now upon us, that's worth remembering.

-Michael D'Angelo

[i]  The national vote tally in the presidential election of 1912:

Candidate:               Party:        Popular Vote:       Electoral Vote:     Voter Participation:

Woodrow Wilson      Democratic     6,293,454 (41.9%)       435                58.8%

Theodore Roosevelt  Progressive     4,119,538 (27.4%)         88

William H. Taft         Republican     3,484,980 (23.2%)           8

 Eugene V. Debs        Socialist            900,672 (6%)                -