According to Winston Churchill, the British–American British prime minister, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
That might be ironic decades later given that Britain is being criticized for exercising democracy in its referendum to depart the European Union last week. That’s the subject of one of our Letters this week in a country that has constitutionally guaranteed rights including freedom of speech, unlike Britain.
As this week turned out, this week’s Letters are appropriately timed for the 240th anniversary (see letter number four) of deciding to tell our colonial rulers what they could do with their unelected-by-us taxation-without-representation rule from afar, which has some similarities to the Brexit vote (see letter number three).
You can probably tell from the title of this page which of our rights the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper thinks is most important. That includes, of course, the right to disagree with the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper (see letter number two), or to oppose others’ constitutional rights, I suppose. You even have the right to denigrate those whose views you disagree with (see letters one, two and three), though demonizing your opposition seems unlikely to change points of view.
It is commonplace to claim that today’s politics is the most coarse, nasty and negative in our nation’s history, at least for those who ignore how some of the Founding Fathers treated each other (for instance, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who were friends, which is hard to believe when you read what their presidential campaigns had to say about each other), or the Civil War, or the protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. I’m not sure, though, that we have ever been at such a time where authority can mandate what you can and cannot do to the extent of today. I’m not sure either that we have ever been at such a time where others want to mandate others’ activities and possessions (see letter number two) as today.
Politics, even at the local level, has become a zero-sum game — one side wins, which means the other side loses. To use a recent local example (while not arguing about the merits of the issue), if you opposed city tax dollars being used for the Library Block project, you lost; your tax dollars are being used anyway.
The Founding Fathers set up this country as a republic in large part because they distrusted democracy, including, obviously, the dictatorship-of-the-majority parliamentary democracy across the sea. The Founding Fathers also set up a process to amend the Constitution, which gave us the Bill of Rights and 17 other constitutional amendments (or perhaps 15 given that the 21st Amendment nullified the 18th Amendment). That distrust of democracy resulted in a constitutional amendment process that requires two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of state legislatures, plus three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify a change to the Constitution.
The Founding Fathers did not include any constitutional protections for open government, such as mandating that government meetings be open and government records be available to the public. Nor did the creators of Wisconsin’s constitution, though 40 years ago the Legislature passed the Open Meetings Law and Open Records Law. I find it interesting that someone whose official actions were subject to those laws (see letter number one) now criticizes others for wanting their own elected officials to follow the Open Meetings and Open Records laws.
We still have the right to criticize our elected officials. I’d argue in fact we have the civic duty to criticize our elected officials, from the White House to the municipal offices of wherever you live. A meme floating around social media has an edited version of this Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him in so far as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country.”
This is the fifth year I’ve written a column here about the state of this country around Independence Day. Each of these past four years I’ve seen no evidence that things are getting better, and more evidence that things are getting worse. And that was before 2016 and the Presidential Election from Hell we’re suffering through. Maybe we could hope for independence from politics and politicians this year, but to paraphrase Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff, whether or not you’re interested in politics, politics is interested in you.