[In government] the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other--that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. ~ James Madison, The Federalist, No. 51, February 6, 1788.
President Obama is expected today to announce an executive order with dramatic implications for up to five million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. He is taking this step, by many accounts, against the will of the American people as expressed in public opinion polls and through the results of the most recent election, which placed control of the U.S. Congress firmly in the hands of the Republican Party, where the debate over immigration policy is still unsettled.
The president himself realizes that unilateral action on immigration is politically unpopular, since he chose to delay action until after the election so the issue couldn't be used against Democratic candidates. It didn't seem to matter to the voters, however, who were apparently astute enough to recognize the delay as a purely political decision, and they sent a message that they want a Congress not beholden to the president to speak for them on the issue.
Despite the electoral outcome, the President seems determined to move forward with his immigration plan, setting up a battle between him and the Congress before the newly elected and reelected legislators have a chance to take their seats in January.
Not coincidentally, a recent Pew Research poll shows that distrust in the federal government remains near historic highs.
There is no great secret to the American public's lack of trust. The confidence we have in government is directly linked to the adherence of our public officials to its strictures. Whether it's checks and balances, separation of powers, enumerated powers, negative liberties, or even self-governance, the overriding concept that is supposed to engender trust in our system of government is restraint. In fact, to govern is "to hold in check" or "control".
The people do not trust the government because they do not perceive the control they exercise over their government through the electoral process has any effect. If the branch of government that most closely reflects the views and wishes of the electorate can be bypassed at the whim of the others, then there is no basis for trust.
The counter-argument we hear constantly from those who endorse unilateral action by the executive branch is that our leaders have no choice but to act. These enlightened souls are forced to ignore the constitutional constraints placed on them because of the inaction of those countervailing institutions which exist precisely for the purpose of expressing most directly the will of the people, and offsetting the possibility of sweeping decisions with widespread implications being made by a cadre of elites, or an elite. They call it gridlock, but it is a function of design, not whim.
As recent events have revealed, however, the people are perceived by many as uninformed or malleable, and therefore either warranting little or no consideration, or are ripe for exploitation to achieve the desired results. This is dangerous thinking, because it presumes wisdom and foresight are possessed by only a select few, and they must exercise their giftedness regardless of the people's demands because they are more advanced than the masses.
We recently concluded an election with historic implications. Think on this; when all the votes are counted, the GOP could have the largest majority in the House since 1930. The GOP needed six seats to claim a majority in the U.S. Senate; they won eight and are on the verge of winning a ninth seat in the Louisiana runoff election on December 6th. Four gubernatorial seats previously held by Democrats were won by Republicans while only one Republican seat flipped to the Democrats, leaving the GOP with control of 31 governorships. Republicans will control 68 of the 98 state legislative chambers nationwide, the most since 1920, full legislative control in 30 states compared to only 11 for the Democrats, and full control of both the state legislative and executive branches in 24 states compared to only six for the Democrats. Rarely in our nation's history has the will of the people been expressed so clearly and forcefully.
Despite that fact, today will be a watershed moment in the erosion of trust between a government and its people.
Some would argue persuasively that the people must bear their share of responsibility for this predicament. A scan of "man on the street" videos, one of which recently went viral and, unfortunately, involves my alma mater, suggests that Americans are ignorant of the structure and current composition of their government. Other studies have shown that civic ignorance is distressingly common. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice David H. Souter has publicly expressed alarm at how little the people know about their government:
Less than a third of adult Americans in the United States understand that the basic constitutional structure of American government is one of power divided into three branches that they can name…Two-thirds of the country doesn't have a clue about that.
Souter declared, "I don't believe that constitutional government as we know it in the United States can ultimately survive in that atmosphere of pervasive civic ignorance and majority dissociation from the basic process of American government." In that respect, he is aligned with James Madison who, in a letter to an associate in 1822, wrote:
A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Some would say that civic ignorance is just one failure to which the public must own up when it comes to the erosion of trust in government. Limited participation in the electoral process, leaving it largely to the activists and hyper-partisans on both sides of the aisle, and our inability or unwillingness to solve problems at the community level, or to govern our own behaviors, thereby inviting intervention by the state, have also been cited as an abdication of the obligations envisioned for us by our founders.
As much as we expect restraint and accountability from our elected officials, we are accountable for civic awareness, active participation in the political process, and local governance, and we are expected to show restraint in our behavior, what the founders called virtue, and all of these are essential to responsible citizenship.
We don't trust our government, and with good reason because they are acting in their own interests, but is it fair to ask ourselves whether or not we have we given them reason to trust us?
Are we now in the 11th hour, living in the last days before the Huxleyan vision of a "Brave New World" takes hold? Are we a government of the few, by the few and for the few? It could be argued that we are already, in effect, an oligarchy, and the oligarchs are challenging us, essentially asking, "What are you going to do about it?"