A Short Lesson in U.S. Government

This post is for my non-U.S. friends, and for my U.S. friends who haven’t bothered to learn.   I kind of get Britain, but Canada seriously confuses me.  I can’t even figure out how they arrange their postal zones or geographic divisions, much less their government.

So if you’re as clueless about the U.S. as I am about Canada, here goes.  Ahem.  (Drum roll.)  Long ago and far away, once upon a time, the U.S. was a colony of Britain.  (Wasn’t everything?) Then we fought a war and won.  Now what?

So the so-called Founding Fathers, who have been all but canonized here, came up with this document called the Constitution.  It lays out general guidelines for how we would govern ourselves.  We being new at it and all.

The chief idea is that power would be spread out amongst three separate branches of government, which are supposed to have equal power and act as a system of checks and balances.  The idea was not to concentrate power in the hands of one tyrannical leader, such as the hated George III.

These three branches are the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.   This means, the President, Vice-President, and Cabinet (Executive), Congress (which consists of two bodies, the House of Representatives and the Senate–seems to me like the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Britain), and the Judicial Branch, namely, the Supreme Court.  Each of these branches has certain controls over the other.  On the surface, it would appear that Congress has the most power, since they make the laws. But the President can veto them–but Congress can override the veto. There usually isn’t much appetite for that.  But the point is, that’s the first check.  The President can veto a law or sign it.  Nothing becomes law unless the President agrees.

Then, finally, there is the Supreme Court.  If a law gets past both the President and the Congress and someone challenges it, the Supreme Court decides whether it’s in keeping with the Constitution.  If not, in their opinion, the law is nullified.  Then, Congress can go make a new law and the process starts all over.  In essence, therefore, I’d say the Supreme Court wields the most power.

The people on the Supreme Court are nominated by the President, but must be approved by the Congress, so it’s all interwoven.

This brings me to gun control.  Sorry to sneak that in. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, verbatim, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.   The Supreme Court, most recently in 2010, confirmed that this includes individual ownership of guns, not just as a member of a “militia”. (Whatever that is or was.)

So why are we still talking about it?  I’ll tell you my opinion.  Sheer paranoia.  Because there is a segment of the population in the U.S. which is distrustful of the government, and believes without constant vigilance that we will turn into Nazi Germany tomorrow. That’s a disconnect from reality.

For the umpty jillionth time, let me say that I’m for gun ownership.  Not that anyone believes me, because I think there should be greater control and accountability.  That gets me lumped in with the “Ban Guns” people.  Another disconnect from reality.  But in the U.S., no one is coming to take away your guns.  Perhaps you are anti-hunting, which is your right, but technically you would have to be a vegetarian to be consistent. Ever seen how they kill cows?  Perhaps you’d like to be Ghandi, and die rather than commit violence against another person.  Not me.

The point is that we do live in a nation of laws.  This is not Somalia.  It’s imperfect, but as Winston Churchill pointed out in 1947, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  And technically, we don’t live in a democracy.  I think of democracy as mob rule.  We live in a Republic, with representative government.  Sometimes those representatives have to go against the wishes of their constituents to do the right thing.  And thank goodness for that. Otherwise we would still have slavery, women couldn’t vote, and we would still be killing Native Americans.

7 responses to “A Short Lesson in U.S. Government

  1. > a segment of the population in the U.S. which is distrustful of the
    > government

    Really? I’ve been part of that segment since about 1968, when I was in a minority. Now, I think the majority has little faith in government.

    The Constitution designed a government where it is easy not to get anything done. So let’s not be surprised that government often achieves the design intent. Most other governments use a Parliamentary form of government which is very accountable,. No veto, no filibuster.

    If the government does not achieve goals the party in power cannot blame the other other parry for obstructionism. I think we need to change to Parliamentary government.

  2. You make a point, sc. The system intended to check power also builds in the potential for paralysis. But as always, that depends on the people involved. It seems to me that we have more crazy people than we used to,and more poorly educated people. But those people will not win.

  3. Interesting that you should chose to post a civic lesson. I have undertaken a “self improvement’ endeavor to study in far greater detail the origins of America. Although majoring in American Studies I have always felt inadequately knowledgeable about the guys that did this. They were all born as British Subjects but died as Americans (a previously non-existent nation). And the vision they created has influenced much of the world.

    So my first step was to read Jon Meacham’s book on Jefferson. 500 pages of mostly interesting stuff, but it made me realize how much I still did not know. So I moved immediately to Merrill Peterson’s (Jeffersonian Chair at UVA) Jefferson and the New Nation. I am half way through it’s 1,000 scholarly pages. I am enjoying it very much. It;’ s truly amazing how much politics has always been the same.

    Perhaps I will blog on it soon.

    Honestly I am starting to believe that all the only way to impact our cultural violence in America is with time and patience, I see no quick fix. I get very anxious when anyone begins talking about changing the bill of rights. It is the fundamental guarantee of our heritage, “natural law” the foundation of our society. I have seen no convincing argument to modify those rights. Nor have I seen a convincing argument that justifies civilian ownership of a BAR.

    The right to form and maintain armed militia is our guarantee against tyranny from our own standing army, the first step in losing that is to pass regulatory law restricting a portion of the right. Clearly it won’t reduce mass shootings ((the available existing weapons provide an inexhaustible black market arsenal ) , but having set the precedent, then the call will surely come to pass more and more restrictive law. That’s what makes me anxious.

  4. Good for you, pt, that you are taking a comprehensive look at Jefferson. I know so little personally, but from what I do know, Jefferson seems like a really good place to start. I disagree with you about the intent of the 2nd Amendment. It isn’t to protect ourselves from our own standing army. At the time, there was no such thing as a Department of Defense. An “army” during the Revolutionary War was formed from citizens who had to bring their own guns. The FF’s wanted to maintain that right in case such an army had to be formed again…for the purpose of protecting themselves against outside attacks and tyranny. Not attacks from inside. When you think about it, it’s ludicrous to believe that you and a bunch of your neighbors, no matter how many guns of what type you owned, could protect yourselves from the military might of the U.S. government. The rationale seems to have morphed. The right of gun ownership seems therefore to me to be the same as it always was–the right to protect yourself from outside attacks.

  5. Au Contraire FN. History shows how much Americas Founding Fathers hated the British Monarchy and it’s standing peacetime armies’ occupation (and war). They were not at all sure that the government they were designing would always operate beneficently. I would state the purpose of the second amendment even stronger after reading more in depth.

    “the entire rationale of an individual right to keep and bear arms is to defend against a tyrannical government.”

    “Traditional republican theory held that the great danger to liberty lay in the relentless efforts of
    scheming rulers to aggrandize their power at the expense of ordinary citizens. The great
    safeguard against such threats was believed to lie in the virtue and vigilance of the people”

    Jefferson drafted much of the bill of rights while in Paris and forwarded his thinking to Madison and Monroe who helped incorporate it through congressional and state ratification.
    There are “constitutional” debates about which weapons are legal and which are not………i.e. Nuclear weapons,, chemical/biological, wmd’s, tanks, battleships. But those are really spurious debates.

    As to your point about populations protecting themselves (or revolting) against modern military, take another look at the middle east. And those folks aren’t even well armed.

  6. This not the Middle East. Never has been. But I concede that guarding against tyranny and occupation was a part of the picture. Ergo, the 3rd Amendment. What disturbs me is the Constitution being used for all sorts of paranoid conspiracy theories (I’m not including you in that group) and as justfication for dangerous and harebrained suggestions, such as that teachers should carry guns.

  7. “This is not the Middle East. Never has been.”

    No, but there are some portions of Appalachia, Texas and the far West that might prove rather militant if pushed 🙂

    As for conspiracy paranoia I witness it abundant in both political parties. One of MY hot points is the constant “demonization” of one for the other, it is never productive and always inflammatory, contributing to constant acrimony in politics and the general population.

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