Page Two: Variation on a Theme
Following the logical threads of a revolution
They're throwing away the key
I wonder who it'll be tomorrow
You or me?"
– Arthur Lee's "The Red Telephone," Love, Forever Changes
The Day After
Imagine that today is the day after the revolution has succeeded. Since this is speculative, whatever revolutionary movement you prefer, the one of your dearest held dreams, has won. This morning, the sun is coming up on a brand-new world. The New World Order, the Socialists, the Communists, the Illuminati, the corrupt politicians, big business, international bankers, Marxists, fascists, Freemasons – whatever group is your particular boogeyman – has been driven from office. Out of power, its members are either jailed or in hiding. True patriotic citizens, as you see them, are now in power.
Everything is miraculously fresh. Junk from the past has been cleared away, the old bureaucracies are gone, and the two major political parties are no more. Evil has been banished, and good rules; the corrupt are gone; the righteous are in control.
Where do you begin? What needs to be done to make sure that this true and pure revolution brings about the short- and long-term changes you would like to see?
If there is real change, do we need lawmakers of great integrity, enormous courage, and almost superhuman vision? What form of government will they lead: a true participatory, democratic constitutional republic as the Founding Fathers envisioned or, if not, a government that is more a democracy than a republic? A benevolent dictatorship ruled by one main group or perhaps one led by those who score the highest in tests taken by all of us?
Whatever this group, if the very first law that is passed is one that so completely wins your approval, will you feel only optimism for the future?
What if the very first law passed by this group that you support is one you don't like? What do you do? Will you take it in stride, understanding that there is no form of government capable of consistently passing laws that are supported by the entire citizenry? Will you get together with other like-minded citizens to form a special interest group to try to get rid of that law? Will you contact those of the revolution who are now in the government to tell them you feel betrayed? Or will you immediately abandon faith in this new government, deciding that it already is too corrupted and controlled? If so, are you back to taking up the weapons that just won the revolution?
What if you like the first laws but hate the 20th or feel that the 25th is exactly the kind of law that caused you to support the revolution, in belief that you would never see its likes under your desired regime? What to do?
In the abstract, decision-making is easy and common sense is the perfect tool for ascertaining what needs to be done. Solving complex problems is so easy if you get to do it in your head rather than being forced to actually do it, as are members of a governing body. Interestingly, more often than not, armchair politicians, pundits arguing over coffee at a diner, and those nodding their heads in agreement with political talk radio show hosts know what is being done wrong, as well as the evil and stupid nature of those with whom they disagree. In terms of what actually needs to be done, they are often a lot less certain.
In our fantasy scenario, post-revolutionary lawmakers will find themselves in an uncomfortable position because the revolutionary victory is so fresh. Having helped overthrow the previous rotten government, supporters will expect the new government to reflect faithfully their spiritual beliefs, moral values, social ideas, and political convictions. Consequently, isn't it likely that even if some significant part of the electorate supports the actions of the new government, there will be an equally significant part that opposes them?
The Way It Is (Or at Least Is Supposed to Be)
The United States of America's form of government – a constitutional republic – is supposed to represent all of us. According to this model, the priority of elected lawmakers is not to respond to the changing (or even unchanging) will of the people but to do what they think is best for the country. This is the reason that this is a republic and not a democracy: The idea is not that the majority rules all the time. The majority elects lawmakers who are expected to be above the fray, following their principles in pursuit of what they believe is the best course for this country. Even if the vast majority of citizens is violently opposed, it is expected that elected representatives will stay the course.
Comes the Revolution
Without setting up straw men here, would not a modern revolution reflecting mass discontent with the government almost inherently reject the above notion? Would not one tenet of almost any revolution be that the new government should follow the beliefs of most citizens as to what's best for the country?
Representing the majority at the expense of the minority happens in a democracy. In a republic, the majority still rules, but the rights of minorities are institutionally protected. (Keep in mind that "minorities" includes not only racial and religious groups but those in political or ideological minorities, including Marxists, capitalists, Luddites, industrialists, environmentalists, urbanists, conservatives, and liberals.)
Again, judging from the rhetoric of many current revolutionary movements, a significant aspect of their opposition to the government has to do with the power of minorities. Often these smaller groups are adroit enough to derail legislation that the majority of the population supports. This may mean environmentalists who derail development or industrialists who establish clear ownership of endangered lands that they will develop. In some cases, labor's rights to organize are affirmed despite the position of owners, while in others, management's rights to make decisions independent of labor's concerns are made clear. On other occasions, courts will rule popularly supported laws unconstitutional, even in cases in which the overwhelming majority of lawmakers voted for them.
When the government or the courts, claiming to represent the Constitution, take different positions than those held by the majority of citizens, aren't they seen as ignoring the will of the people? Often these are exactly the situations that those believing in the necessity of revolutionary change cite as clear indicators of political corruption or evidence of unacceptable abuses of power.
The creation of the U.S. Constitution came out of the ideological conflicts and differing positions among many differing individuals and groups who were often in strident disagreement with one another. As a result, although there are certain policy positions in the document, it is primarily about political process and thus governmental structure. Consistently, process trumps policy, as there are few policy positions that can't be changed by constitutional process.
In a representative, democratic constitutional republic, those elected to power, in the most abstract, idealistic way, should represent all their constituents, not just those who voted for them. Even if the leader is elected on the basis of advocating a specific agenda, his or her responsibility is not to the agenda but to the good of the greater community. Of course, ignoring that responsibility by being hardcore and uncompromising is likely to elicit high praise from his or her supporters; leaders who do so will be able to count on the continuing support of those who elected them, even if by so doing they fail to represent their constituencies.
The Constitution and Its Imaginary Twin
There is the Constitution, and then there is the imagined Constitution. The first demands consistency, fairness, and equality; the latter is tailored to personal beliefs and represents conscious or unconscious prejudices.
This is because there is a widely shared disconnect between what is actually in the Constitution and what many assume is there. There is the intuitive belief of many that the Constitution guarantees each of us rights and grants each of us such representation in ways it clearly doesn't. There are laws the government passes that many feel so strongly about that they are certain they are being disenfranchised and that constitutional guarantees are being ignored, even when they are not.
Keep in mind that, when it comes to the balance between individual freedom and community responsibility, there is an inherent, irresolvable conflict at the heart of a democratic republic. Political ideas are too often set in a fictional world, where either individual liberty or social obligations are seen as dominating all other concerns. Many will argue that protecting the former severely limits the size of government and the number of laws. Others argue that meeting the latter requires reasonable restrictions on personal liberties.
What if perception is not reality? What if, rather than an apathetic citizenry, there is an unusually engaged citizenry? If, rather than the masses being disenfranchised, instead they are empowered? If, rather than the last century being a movement away from individual rights and toward fascism and complete government control, the movement was very much in the opposite direction? What if real authority was not in the hands of conspiratorial dictatorial cliques but instead was very much driven by the people?
Finally, what if the overall legal, political, and moral structure of the world we live in was not molded in order to oppress people but rather to come as close as possible to balancing the guarantees of individual liberty with the needs of the common good? In that light, let me question the postulation at the beginning of this column. What would a revolutionary attempt to sweep away everything that is and start over with a clean slate actually accomplish? Would the real-world results align with the revolution's philosophical goals? Since, regardless of perception, any revolution would result in a strongly divided civil conflict involving the citizenry rather than a unanimous action, would things conceptually stay the same, actually improve, or in reality get far worse?