The Constitution

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The Constitution

Colonial resentment towards new taxes crystallized political and philosophical values in the colonies that had been evolving for some time. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton were heavily influenced by European political philosophies of the Enlightenment. John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government outlined his belief in natural rights - rights that are inherent in all human beings apart from any form of government and can be neither taken away nor given up. Locke's natural rights included life, liberty, and property. Government exists for the securing of these rights and must be built upon the consent of the governed. Furthermore, government must be limited. The Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Jefferson, is both political and philosophical, emphasizing many of Locke's ideas, which set forth many of the underlying assumptions of American government, then and now.

The Declaration of Independence merely created a voluntary union of the former colonies. The Articles of Confederation was the nation's first constitution. It created a national legislature that was unicameral, and each state had only one vote. Passing a new law required nine of the thirteen states to vote in favor. There was only a powerless executive and no judicial branch. Most power was reserved for the state legislatures. Among the notable weaknesses were: Congress had not power to tax, they could only request money from the states; Congress had no power to regulate commerce; The national government had no court system to deal with disputes between the states; Congress did have the power to maintain an army and navy, but lacked adequate resources. In 1786, a band of farmers in Massachusetts staged a rebellion to protest the loss of their land to creditors. They attacked courthouses, and neither the national nor state government was able to put down the rebellion. National leaders were convinced a new system was needed.

Fifty five delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles, but instead set upon writing a new Constitution. They were mostly wealthy planters, lawyers, or merchants. Some of the most difficult issues to solve were: 1. Representation: The Virginia Plan called for representation to be based on a state's proportion of the total American population. The New Jersey Plan insisted on equal representation for each state. The solution is known as the Connecticut or Great Compromise. The Senate would have two members from each state. The House of Representatives would be based on population. 2. Slavery: Should slaves count for the purposes of determining the number of representatives and for counting and tax collection. Slaves were allowed to count three-fifths in the population of the census, a compromise between southern delegates, who wanted slaves counted in their entirety, and northern delegates, who wanted slaves not to count at all. Congress was given the power to end the importation of slaves, though not slavery itself, after 1808. 3. Voting: The delegates left the question of who should be permitted to vote to the individual states. 4. Economic Issues: The extent to which their own economic interests influenced the delegates has been debated ever since the Constitution was ratified. Many features were designed to empower the national government to make economic policy and protect property. Congress was given the power to tax and borrow, to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, and to create currency. 5. Individual Rights: The delegates assumed that state constitutions would continue to assure individual rights. As a result, the Constitution says little about personal freedoms. The Constitution does prohibit the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, it prohibits bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and religious qualifications for holding national office. Treason is defined, and the right to trial by jury in criminal cases is guaranteed.

James Madison feared factions of self interested individuals banding together to create tyranny. To prevent the possible evils of powerful factions, Madison drew on examples from state constitutions and proposed the following: 1. Separation of powers: Each of the three branches would be given independent powers so that no one branch could control the others, yet no branch could operate with total independence. 2. Checks and balances: Each branch is able to limit or restrict the actions of the other. 3. Federalism: Political authority was divided between the national government and the various state governments. Madison assumed that this would check any tyranny by the national government. 4. Limits on the majority: Madison feared the power of the masses and worked to keep most of the government beyond their control. Only the House of Representatives had members directly elected by the majority. State legislatures elected senators, and the electoral college chose the president. Judges were to be nominated by the president, approved by the Senate, and serve for life. The delegates knew that it is impractical to have citizens make all decisions. Instead, the Constitution created a republic, in which representatives of the public make policy and exercise power.

The proposed Constitution called for nine of the thirteen states to approve the document at special state ratifying conventions. This was technically illegal because the Articles of Confederation, which was still in effect, called for the approval of all 13 state legislatures in order for there to be any changes, but the framers wanted to evade this requirement because they feared that some legislatures would resist the new document. Advocates of the Constitution called themselves Federalists. Their opponents, wanting to thwart the ratification, were Ant federalists, though they might well have been called "states' righters." To help persuade the public of the merits of the Constitution, Hamilton published a series of articles in New York newspapers and John Jay and Madison helped him in writing 85 articles that became known as the Federalist papers. Madison wrote two of the most famous: Federalist #10 offers Madison's warning about factions and strategies to deal with them; Federalist #51 elaborates on checks and balances as the solutions to factions. The Antifederalists countered with articles of their own saying that a strong national government would be too distant from the people and would abuse its power by absorbing functions that belong to the states. They feared that Congress would tax too heavily and that the Supreme Court would overrule state courts. They also feared that the president would become the head of a large standing army. Antifederalists also wanted a much more explicit guarantee of individual liberties than those found in the Constitution. The Federalists promised to add amendments to protect individual liberties. Using special conventions for ratification in each state, nine states approved it in six months (New Hampshire was 9), and eleven states approved the Constitution within a year, (Virginia was 10 and New York 11) and the Constitution was ratified. As promised, twelve amendments to protect liberties were proposed in 1791, and ten were ratified, known today as the Bill of Rights.

The framers of the Constitution allowed for changes to be made in accord with the times. The formal amendment process has two stages, proposal and ratification, An amendment may be proposed by either a two thirds vote of both houses of Congress or by a national convention called by Congress at the request of two thirds of the state legislatures. (the national convention method has never been used.) An amendment may be ratified by either the legislatures of three fourths of the states or by special state conventions in three fourths of the states. (The special convention method was used once - to repeal the Prohibition Amendment) Most amendments have emphasized equality and voting rights. There are also several ways to change the Constitution informally. Judicial interpretation is one. Though the Constitution only implies the power of the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of a case, the Court has exercised such power since Marbury v. Madison in 1803. The power of judicial review enables the Court to settle disputes regarding interpretations of the Constitution. Changing political practices also change the Constitution. There is no federal requirement that an elector vote for the winner of the popular vote in a state, but this is now a tradition, and a law in most states. The president now commands a position in the world that has significantly increased presidential powers far beyond the powers described in the Constitution.

Federalism is a political system in which power is shared between local units of government - states - and a national government. Only a handful of the world's government are federal - the U.S., Canada, Australia, India and Germany. Most are unitary systems, in which the national government has final authority over all government activities. In the United States, federalism has endured mainly because of the American commitment to local self government and because Congress consists of people who are elected by and responsible to local constituencies. To some, federalism has meant that state government can block important national actions, prevent progress, upset national plans, and protect powerful local interests. Historically, federalism has allowed the perpetuation of slavery, segregation, and racism, especially in the South. Advocates argue, however, that the federal system has created a unique and beneficial separation of power between national and state governments. It allows for political flexibility and assures individual rights. In some instances, local control has led to ending segregation and regulating harmful economic practices long before these ideas gained national support or became national policy. One advantage of federalism is that the average citizen is more likely to become involved in local politics and activities.

The goal of the founders was to divide power between the national and state government. Because it was assumed that the federal government would have only those powers given to it, the Constitution does not spell out state powers. According to the Tenth Amendment, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Interpretation of the Tenth Amendment has been inconsistent over the years. Early Supreme Court rulings attempted to give states powers beyond the domain of the federal government, but those rulings were later contradicted. In parts of the Constitution, the wording is clear: states can not make treaties, coin money, or issue paper currency. Other clauses are far vaguer. Knowing that the Constitution could not provide a complete list of all things that the federal government could do, the Founders added the implied powers (often called the elastic clause) in Article I, which allows Congress "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers" This meant different things to the Founders. Alexander Hamilton viewed the national government as superior in political affairs with broadly defined powers. Thomas Jefferson held the view that the powers of the national government should be limited as much as possible. The Supreme Court became the arbiter of what the Constitution means.

In 1819, the Court ruled in McCulloch v. Maryland that Congress had the right to set up a bank, since Congress has the authority to do what is necessary and proper. The Court also ruled that the federal government is supreme, and that the state could not tax the bank, and such a tax might destroy the bank. McCulloch was a victory for the national government. Five years later, the Marshall Court gave a broad definition of interstate commerce in Gibbons v. Ogden. This again strengthened the national government. States claimed they could declare federal law null and void, but the Civil War decided against this. After the Civil War, the interpretation of federalism focused on economic issues and the commerce clause of the Constitution. Out of this emerged the idea of dual federalism, the idea that the national government is to be supreme in its own sphere and states are to be supreme in theirs. In the economic realm, interstate commerce was regulated by the federal government, and intrastate commerce was regulated by the states. As more modern transportation and communication techniques developed, however, this distinction blurred. The federal government was increasingly allowed to regulate a greater amount of commerce. In recent decades, a certain measure of state sovereignty has been reestablished. This trend is known as devolution. In United States v. Lopez, the Court held that Congress had exceeded its commerce clause power by prohibiting guns in schools. The rise of deficits as a major issue and the deficit reduction programs led by Congress also promoted devolution. Two of the federal government's biggest grant in aid programs, welfare and Medicaid, became block grant programs, even though they had not been created to be administered by the states. Currently, as a general rule, the most important activities of state local government involve public education, law enforcement and criminal justice, health and hospitals, roads and highways, public welfare, and control over the use of public land and water supplies. Many states also offer avenues to direct democracy through initiative, referendum and recall.

The concept of dual federalism (layer cake federalism) is outdated, and cooperative federalism (marble cake federalism) now prevails. (Although some say that cooperative federalism could have been called regulated federalism by the 1960s, and that today's policy is the "new" federalism. Nonetheless, these two are variations of cooperative federalism.) Policy, costs, and administration are shared by the federal and state governments. Today, the cornerstone of the federal and state government relationship is the provision of federal grants to the states. Grants in aid, or funds designated by Congress for distribution to state and local governments, are the main way the national government helps and influences states and localities. Three major forms of aid are: 1. Categorical grants - funds for a specific purpose - an airport or road. Sometimes states have to put in money to match part of the grant. They are narrow in scope. 2. Block grants - aid given to states and localities with few strings attached in order to support broad programs in areas such as community development and social needs. 3. Revenue sharing - federal aid with no requirement for matching funds, and the freedom to spend the money on nearly any purpose. With billions of dollars of federal grant at stake, states and cities compete with each other for a larger share. More and more grants, however, are based on distributional formulas, which provide grants automatically and objectively, often using census figures.

The federal government continues to hold control over the states. There are two kinds of federal controls on state government activities. Sometimes the federal government tells a state government what it must do in order to receive grant money. These stipulations are called conditions of aid. Conditions of aid can be attached to grants in aid. When the federal government imposes its will outside the context of grants, these requirements are called mandates. Most mandates concern civil rights and environmental protection. States may not discriminate in their programs. States must comply with federal standards for clean air, pure water, and sewage treatment. Some criticize the vague language of mandates. Medicaid (health care for the poor) is a good example of the problems mandates can create for state governments. Beginning in 1964, Congress moved to expand Medicaid, requiring states to cover certain children, pregnant women, and the elderly poor. By 1989, states could not keep up with the expanded coverage, and states called for the federal government to stop expanding Medicaid.

At times, Congress passes laws that create expenses for the states but provide no funds to meet the expenses. These are known as unfunded mandates. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Accessible facilities for individuals with disabilities were mandated. No money, however was given to implement the new law. The Clean Air Act of 1970 is another law that created an unfunded mandate. National air quality standards were established, but states were required to pay for the administration and implementation of the policy. Gun buyers have also received unfunded mandates. They must bear the cost of background checks. States currently complain about the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal effort to improve education, as an unfunded mandate. The Obama Administration introduced Race to the Top, which provides over $4 billion to states that satisfy certain educational policies, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, complying with nationwide standards, promoting charter schools, and computerization. States love getting the money, but have complained about the requirements to get it.

The federal government did give states more control over welfare reform starting in the 1990s. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced by TANF - Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF limits welfare payments and tries to get people to work. Part of the program is paid for by federal block grants (see description above) given to the states.

Political Culture

Political culture is a distinctive and patterned way of thinking about how political and economic life ought to be carried out.

American political culture is based on certain assumptions: 1. Liberty - Americans are more fiercely protective of their rights. They believe they should be free to do as they please, with some exceptions, as long as they do not hurt other people. 2. Equality - Americans believe everyone should have an equal vote and an equal chance to participate and succeed. 3. Democracy - Americans think government officials should be accountable to the people. 4. Civic duty - Americans believe that people should take community affairs seriously and contribute when they can. 5. Individual responsibility - Americans believe that individuals are responsible for their own actions and well-being.

Americans believe that everyone should be equal politically but not necessarily economically. Americans tend to make these assumptions about the economy: 1. Liberty - Americans support the idea of a free-enterprise system within certain boundaries. People support government regulation of business to keep firms from becoming too powerful and to correct specific abuses. 2. Equality - Americans are more willing to tolerate economic inequality than political inequality. They believe in maintaining "equality of opportunity" but not "equality of results." Americans will support education and training programs to help disadvantaged people, but they are opposed to anything that looks like preferential treatment. 3. Individualism - Americans believe individuals have personal responsibility. They will support people truly in need but are skeptical of aid given to those who can take care of themselves. These values are quite different than those of many other nations. Foreign governments often support programs that stress economic equality of results over opportunity among citizens. Americans are more likely to think that freedom is more important than equality and less likely to think that hard work goes unrewarded.

American political culture is also influenced by religion. There is some evidence that Americans are becoming more religious, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 54 percent of Americans attend worship services more than once a month. Eighty-two percent of Americans consider themselves a "religious person," more than in any European country. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are the country's major source of volunteer and community services. Recent religious movements-for example, the Moral Majority of the 1980s and the Christian Coalition of the 1990s-have overlapped political movements.

Sources of Political Culture: Americans have an emphasis on rights and a long standing mistrust of authority and power. This is rooted in the colonial experience in Britain. Because the United States was founded through a war fought over liberty, the American emphasis on rights is understandable. The ongoing friction between liberty and social control has created an adversarial spirit unusual among the countries of the world. Another key to our political culture is religious diversity. The Constitution protects religious freedom. Puritan and later Protestant traditions have existed alongside other views since colonial days. Despite the lack of an established church, one Puritan idea-the work ethic-has transcended American history. This stresses that an individual has an obligation to work, save money, obey the secular law, and do good works. This work ethic goes far in explaining the rise of capitalism in the United States.

All aspects of culture, including the political, are transmitted primarily through the family. Early on, Americans often learn from family that every person has rights deserving protection and that a variety of interests have a legitimate claim to consideration when decisions are made. This has created a relatively low degree of class consciousness among Americans. If almost all Americans share some elements of a political culture, why is there so much cultural conflict in American politics? It is simplistic to say that there are two cultural classes in the United States, but to say that there is a culture war is not an exaggeration. Areas of disagreement include abortion, gay rights, drug use, school prayer, and pornography. This culture war differs from other political disputes in several ways. For the most part, money is not at stake. Compromise is virtually impossible. Emotions tend to run much higher than on topics such as taxes or foreign policy. A simple model divides the culture war into two camps. 1. The orthodox - On this side are people who believe that morality is more important than self-expression. They hold that moral rules are derived from the commands of God or the laws of nature and thus cannot be altered. The orthodox include fundamentalist Protestants and evangelical Christians, though many who are orthodox do not hold deep religious views. The orthodox can also come from Catholic and Jewish traditions as well as a secular background. They support two-parent families, condemn pornography, denounce homosexuality, and believe the United States is generally a force for good in the world. 2. The progressives - People in this camp think that personal freedom is more important than traditional moral rules, which should be reevaluated constantly in the light of modern life. Progressives include liberal Protestant denominations, some Jewish denominations, and people with no religious beliefs. Progressives believe that the rules of proper behavior are contextual. They suppose that there are legitimate alternatives to the traditional two-parent family, that pornography and homosexuality are private matters protected by individual rights, and that the United States has been no better than a neutral force in world affairs.

Two characteristics differentiate the modern culture war from earlier conflicts of this sort. The first is that far more Americans now see themselves as progressives than earlier generations did. The second is the rise of popular media, which makes it easier to fight a culture war on a large scale. The tensions of the culture war affect our views of how well government can work, how much impact an individual can have, and how much freedom we should grant our opponents.

Mistrust of Government: Since the late 1950s the nation has seen a continual decline in the level of trust that Americans have for the government. For instance, between 1952 and 1992, the fraction of Americans who said public officials did not care what the public thought doubled from one-third to two-thirds. However, people are commenting on government officials, not the system of government. Some attribute the declining faith in government to the turbulence of the 1960s (Vietnam) followed by Watergate, in the 1990s, the scandals of the Clinton administration, followed by the Bush invasion of Iraq. The tragic events of. September 11, 2001, created not only a wave of patriotism but also a unified spirit not felt in the country for decades. However, recent polls have shown another decline in confidence in the government, perhaps because of the inability of a partisan Congress to agree on nearly anything, especially the budget.

Political efficacy: Perhaps an even greater problem than the issue of mistrust is the sense Americans now have that the government will not respond to their needs and beliefs. A citizen's capacity to understand and influence political events is a concept called political efficacy. Efficacy has two parts-internal efficacy, which is the ability to understand and take part in politics, and external efficacy, which is the ability to make the system respond to the citizenry. Since the 1960s there has been a fairly sharp drop in the sense of external efficacy, though not much change in internal efficacy. Unlike the issue of mistrust, few specific events can be cited to account for the drop in efficacy. Americans may have gradually come to the conclusion that government is now too big and pervasive to respond to citizen preferences.

Citizens must allow for the discussion of ideas and the selection of leaders in an atmosphere free of oppression. Regarding the tolerance of the average American citizen: Most Americans are willing to let people they disagree with politically have great latitude in expressing their views. Americans as a whole have become more tolerant. However, many Americans believe that serious civic problems are rooted in a breakdown of moral values. Most citizens worry that the nation is becoming too tolerant of behaviors that harm society.

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