Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fourth Branch

We are the fourth branch of government and thereby must act accordingly.

“You cannot fool all the people all of the time.” We take this statement, attributed to Abraham Lincoln, as a basic premise of our government. Another is that we have protected our freedoms for over two hundred years though a balancing or separation of powers; therefore, we are in no danger of losing our bases.

Due to the widespread belief in these two secure dicta, let us consider that we excuse one another and ourselves from doing our duty. We do not examine ourselves as to the possibility of our own mistakes. We do not see the signs of our own failings. Simplicity and convenience will always entice us humans when life requires the harder work of study and informed decision-making. And a democracy, especially a representative democracy such as ours is, calls for us to do more than trust and rest.

Yes, we are at fault. We elect people to high office who are not up to the task; and then, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, we trust them enough to elect them again. Why do we do this, and how can we do better once we find and admit the error of our ways?

We have missed a major point. Three branches structure our government, we have consistently been taught and told. Those three branches can go about their business, and we can relax. A close reading of the Constitution shows otherwise. Article I vests all legislative powers in Congress. Article II vests all executive power in a President. Article III vests judicial power in the federal courts. However, from the preamble’s statement, “We the people do ordain and establish” onwards, the Constitution throughout its provisions vests us as citizens with our role. We generate the rest of the government.

You have heard that the Constitution separates powers between its branches. Actually, power is shared; functions of those powers are separated. The Constitution separates and specifies the functions of the branches, but the powers overlap. For example, citizens elect their officials; presidents appoint judges and the Senate confirms them; Congress establishes and funds the lower courts, with the approval or veto-override of the president. Citizens contest laws and court judgments, including appeal, and seek other redress and changes in unsatisfactory laws, and so on. While each branch has extended its powers over the years, our most significant question is whether the power of the public has kept pace with those of the other three branches.

The separation of functions and sharing of power makes our particular form of government a deliberative one in which process precedes action. When past actions do no stand the tests of time and reflection, later deliberative processes can change them. In deliberation, the most salient matter is knowledge. Historically, extension of public participation, such as emancipation, direct election, and suffrage came in conjunction with the growth of education and the public provision of educational opportunity.

However, education and the opportunity for it do not translate automatically to knowledge. Education provides some basis for knowledge, but a living and useful knowledge results from personal, individual intention with and attention to one’s own need to know. We have to want to learn and then seek to learn; learning takes more than being a passive bystander. The rudimentary introduction to knowledge that comes in childhood and youth must lead to a life of constant desire to know and consequent information-seeking behavior that gains that knowledge. Otherwise, knowledge erodes, loses applicability and resiliency, and goes out of date with its continuous displacements by new knowledge. Without critical awareness, we become fooled too easily, usually by our own ignorance.

Many signs that general public knowledge is not up to the task of democracy exist; one of them is especially horrific. The widespread current practice of election by raising and spending fortunes to convince the voters exemplifies citizens’ abdication of their function in democratic elections. Another is low voter turnout, only 62% in the recent national election. Not only does the ability to raise money threaten democracy more alarmingly than the indirection of the Electoral College but also it flies in the face of citizen responsibility. It is not any more the candidates’ responsibility to make themselves known than it is the citizens’ responsibility to know and determine choices between the candidates in primaries, conventions and general elections.

As we are the fourth branch of government, discernment is our major citizenship responsibility. The third week in March that includes March 16, James Madison’s birthday and Freedom of Information Day, is Sunshine Week, celebrated for decades in my state (Minnesota) as in few other states. We all believe in open government that is equitable and honest, free access to information, and the systems that support these democratic values.

The proponents of open access to government information point out a variety of polices, funding issues, and restrictive practices that obstruct access. Yet the basic problem is public ease and disinterest and the continuous preference for what we think we know versus examination of the unknown portions of our ignorance. Accordingly, we must all wrestle with these very human limitations. Otherwise, as Lincoln also said, “We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.”

Revised from an article previously published on

© 2008, 2009 by Roger Sween.

No comments:

Post a Comment