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Democracy, Federalism and
the Fundamentalist Constitution

August 14, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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The Tea Party may be able to win the occasional Republican Party primary, but its views are way out of the mainstream. People like to complain, and may join the complaining of anyone who whines about the economy and government these days, but most people will reject Tea Party solutions to our problems. On the other hand the mainstream has been a big failure; Tea Party ideas are worth examining, even if we ultimately reject them.

The Tea Party is diverse; I don't mean to say that they all think alike on every issue by making some generalizations here. However, I believe it is fair to say that in general they are for low taxes, a decreased role for federal government, and a rolling back of the U.S. Constitution to its fundamentalist form, still including its first ten amendments. They also favor a republican form of government over democracy.

I find it strange that they are so in love with the U.S. Constitution and act as if it was written by their God, however they imagine that entity. Historical reality clearly indicates that the Tea Party folk of the Constitutional Convention era were in favor of keeping the Articles of Confederation, and with good reason. They did not like taxes imposed on them for other people's benefit either.

Who is a conservative? The word conservative is a tricky word to use in the era between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the imposition of the Constitution upon the early peoples of the United States of America. Conservatives in 1776 could be defined as those who wanted to remain a set of colonies of England; the signers of the Declaration of Independence were radicals. Yet most of the 1776 leaders were economic conservatives within their communities. Were those who wrote the Constitution radical because they broke with those who wanted to keep the Articles (including Patrick Henry), or were they conservative men who felt that radicals were getting the upper hand under the Articles and in their respective sovereign States? I favor the later interpretation, but when using labels like conservative, one has to know what era one is talking about.

Now, take taxes. It is true that by going back to the original Constitution the Federal Government would lose its ability to collect income taxes (granted in the XVI Amendment). But that does not mean the government would collect or spend less money. It certainly would not stop the military industrial complex. Taxes could be raised by a Congress that "shall have the power to collect Taxes, Posts, Duties and Excises" (Article I, Section 8) constrained only by the phrase "No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census." (Article 1, Section 9). Instead of paying income tax, you would pay more for goods and services. So for low federal taxing power you need to go back to the Articles.

Now consider the idea that the Constitution was explicitly undemocratic. It was not written by the people themselves, so it is not surprising that its democratic elements are minimal. The various states were, on the whole, more democratic in structure. The Constitution was largely written because of concerns that the people of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were pushing too hard for democracy and justice for all.

Yet the Federal Government under the original Constitution had strong democratic elements. Those elements were shored up by the growing idea that all people really are created equal and should have an equal say in government. The trend towards perfecting what was mere propaganda in the Declaration of Independence would lead to a lessening of the republican Constitutional elements, and increasing of the democratic elements, over the next two centuries.

First, the House of Representatives "shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States." Chosen by the people. That is democracy, especially when you admit that every human is a member of the people, not just property-owning white males.

Second, "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives;" note they did not give this, the taxing power, to the Senate or President or Courts. That is because the historical experience then, as now, is that it is the fat cats who want to raise taxes to enrich themselves. To keep taxes low for most people it is safer to keep that power in the democratically elected lower house of Congress. It isn't fool proof, but it is better than allowing the Senate to run amok with that power.

But no constitutional framework can, in and of itself, guarantee justice and prosperity. People can, and some will, act badly within any system. We reached a point in after 2000 where business and political ethics just about completely disintegrated in the United States. People where so angry at a few dozen crazy Islamic militants that they took their eyes off what was happening in the U.S. We can't all be governing all the time; we need elected officials. But the people need to keep a close watch on their officials and the jackals (mostly corporate lobbyists) who beguile them.

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