Over the past several weeks, most Americans were appalled and frustrated as we watched our government struggle to avert a financial crisis of its own making. In my view, however, Americans should be heartened by recent events. What we witnessed was our government operating exactly as it was designed to work by the founding fathers. When our country was first organized after having shed the domination of the English King and Parliament, America’s founders were mistrustful of a strong central government. As a result, they designed a system of federal government based on separation of powers coupled with checks and balances to induce the competing interests in our society to compromise in order to effect change or be reconciled to the status quo.
The resulting federal government has successfully sustained itself for almost 225 years, but, other than in times of great crisis (Civil War, Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, September 11), has been slow to resolve even the most fundamental issues facing our society. Even when the body politic, on rare occasion, hands the reins of all branches of government to a single party, the consensus is short-lived and the pendulum swings quickly back toward divided government, if not all the way to the other party. Fundamentally, we are, and have always been, a nation that is skeptical of government and resistant to change.
The only difference now is that we watch the process 24/7 on cable TV and the internet. In the old days, the legislative process unfolded behind closed doors in smoked filled rooms and we had little access to the machinations of government. Today, we can (if we choose) see interviews with our leaders and representatives and hear constant analysis of the issues, tactics, trade-offs and implications. I would argue that, as frustrating as proximity to the process may be, it makes us a more informed citizenry and more effective participants in our democracy.
As a former political science major, I enjoyed watching the process unfold regardless of the result and retain my confidence that as long as the process works, the country will find its way in the long run. Here are some of my favorite books on our brilliant founding fathers and the birth of our nation:
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis;
- Revolutionary Characters, Gordon S. Wood;
- Inventing a Nation, Gore Vidal;
- The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, Jay Winik;
- The Rise of American Democracy, Sean Wilentz; and
- A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign, Edward J. Larson.