Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Against Transforming America

On Principle, Spring 2010

May 2010

by Peter W. Schramm

The way the recent health care bill was passed is one of the most interesting—and revealing—things I have seen in American politics in my lifetime. And it will resonate with political consequences for many years to come.

When he was running for the office, this president made two things clear: he wanted to transform America, and he would usher in an era of bipartisanship. His supporters said he would be a post-partisan president. Yet, ignoring deep philosophical divisions about the role of government in society, this president—with not even the unanimous support of his own party and without the support of a single Republican—has radically expanded the scope and size of government. President Obama and the Democrats cajoled and pushed and shoved and forced—and effectively bribed—until the health care bill became law. And they did this despite the fact that public opinion was solidly against them. Ironically, every time the President spoke in favor of the bill, the public’s support for it dropped a little more.

The deep and steady opposition to the bill counted for nothing as President Obama and the Democratic Congress built their slim majority. By the end of this unattractive process—buying votes the way the farmer buys pigs at auction—the President of the United States was forced to argue that having public opinion on his side was not important; he would make the bill into a law, and then he would go out and persuade the public to come to the law’s support. This is much like Marie Antoinette saying—upon hearing that the people wanted bread—”Let them eat cake.” Actually, the Queen’s comment in historical context made more sense than Obama’s. A spoiled and sheltered monarch might assume that, in the absence of wholesome food, a sugared substitute would be acceptable and affordable. Marie Antoinette didn’t have modern media, polling services, and the recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts to tell her what people were thinking. Nor did she have the American constitutional structure to work within.

President Obama—in his cool, calculating, and aloof way—continued to repeat this mantra regarding his health care bill: “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.” This meant—for him and his political allies—that they no longer had to make an argument for expanded public health care coverage, because their progressive party had wanted it since 1912 and in their political universe, that was long enough. The consent of the people—what Hamilton called “reflection and choice”—was no longer necessary. The flow of history demanded that this big thing be done—after all, haven’t all the advanced countries in Europe already done this?—and so Obama will go out after the vote to try to persuade people to be in favor of it. But his poll numbers continue to decline, and the elections in November have not yet been cancelled.

In bringing change about in this way, Obama ignored something fundamental in American politics: the relationship between public opinion and legislation. Abraham Lincoln said that in a democracy “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

That the people have organized themselves into Tea Parties in opposition to the new legislation should remind us of something important about ourselves. The outspoken opposition of the people to things that they take to be affronts to their liberty and to the bedrock principle of American government—that it derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed”—are things that demand both our reflection and our admiration.

Isn’t it interesting that after over one hundred years of the Progressive project to transform America into something like a European administrative state—a centralized government complete with an “efficient” and powerful bureaucratic elite substituting for the individual judgment of citizens—after all this push and effort (and a good deal of actual success on the part of Progressives), Americans continue to stand up and resist? How is it that these Americans will not be pushed and shoved around, refusing still to believe that the job of government is to “take care of them?”

It is because of something good and serious about the American character (or political soul, if you like). Ordinary Americans still revere the Founding and the Founders. They not only continue to uphold it as an object of pride, but also an object of fascination. When the Founding is fairly presented, they buy books about it, watch HBO miniseries about it, and continue, however imperfectly, to use it as a standard by which to judge the work of today’s politicians. And they also know that—as Ben Franklin said in response to a lady’s question, “What kind of government have you given us, Mr. Franklin?”—that theirs is “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.” And consent is at the heart of this form of government.

In a regime of self-government, consent is both necessary and good, because in seeking it political men demonstrate their respect for their equality with those George Washington called his “friends and fellow citizens.” Seeking consent is an exercise in political humility and a restraint against the temptations of despotism. It helps statesmen see the outlines of their own political limitations and, in the limits of consent, the limits of what we can expect from government.

The statesman’s appeal for consent, as understood by the Founders, is an invitation to one’s fellow citizens to shake off what Lincoln called a “false underestimate of themselves” and instead “rise to the level of equality.” This means not only equality in political worth with their fellow citizens but also equality to the task of self-government.

To ignore this American aspiration is indeed to transform our politics. We do not need such transformation. Rather, we need to return to the old ways, those practices that conform to the principles Americans still believe in.

Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.

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