Saturday, July 26, 2008

Reading The Federalist Papers: Finding the Roots of the American Democratic Ideal

It's no news to any person with half a brain (even a sleep-deprived Mommy Brain) that American democracy is in the tank -- whether it's been that way for decades or simply since George Bush took office is a matter for debate, and not one I'm particularly interested in.

The point is, it's gone. Our laws are written and passed mostly by lobbyists, who pay vast amounts of money to the right people in Congress to advance or halt legislation to the benefit of their company or industry. (The EU recently got a taste of what American citizens take for granted: the constant presence of these lobbyists pressing for entrance to the office of people writing the new chemical safety standards for the EU.) Politicians' relationship with citizens and voters is a depressing, constant rehash of nonsense sound bites and "us vs. them" pandering. The corruption behind our voting system is so bare that practically everyone accepts it as given -- what's worse, nobody thinks they can do anything about it.

It's hard to remember these days that there was a point to America, when the creation of its democracy was something new and revolutionary and almost idealistic. Not perfect by a long shot, but striving to be something better than what had come before.

I'd like to get back in touch with these ideals, to taste again the intellectual and hopeful basis behind the (now failed) American democratic experiment. So this year I started reading The Federalist Papers, and I'm using this site to mull over thoughts and responses to the ideas set forth in these documents. Please feel free to join the conversation.

A little background: Most of the Western world knows of the US Constitution, and even some of its Bill of Rights and Amendments. The document is used, supposedly, as the factual and philosophical/theoretical basis of every American law. But at the time it was passed, the Constitution did not have universal popular support. Its tenets were fiercely debated, by those who believed it gave too many rights to the federal government rather than the states (for those who weren't aware, the United States is run under a system called "federalism," whereby certain powers are delegated to the states and others to the national central government -- a balance that has shifted to the national level consistently since the country's formation), and by those who believed that a stronger central government was needed for the country to function properly.

The Federalist Papers are a collection of letters written in the late 1700s under the pseudonym Publius by pro-Constitution advocates Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. In the letters these three men laid out the philosophical, political, practical, and moral reasons why the country should adopt the Constitution.

Over the centuries, the US government turned repeatedly to these letters to further understand the founders' intent behind the words and laws of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has used the papers extensively to interpret laws and pass judgment.

So, despairing over the current state of American democracy, I'm going to live in the past for a while, to get back in touch with the bedrock shoring up the often illusory idea that this democracy has striven for something wonderful, even if it failed to reach it.

There are 85 of these letters. I hope to read and respond to one a week, followed by a reading of the Anti-Federalist Papers, written by those who at the time supported, instead of the Constitution, a weaker central government under the Articles of Confederation.


maniacalmind said...

I'm slowly going through and reading your older posts and I'm glad I found this one because I love the Federalist and the Anti-Federalist Papers. I actually just joined a discussion group on where they are discussing one paper a week for the next year. It just started so you may want to jump in there and check it out too, because I would love to hear more of your insight.

Antonia Malchik said...

Hey, thanks! I kind of fell down on my ambition with this project because being a mom was so exhausting it was hard to think intelligently. A never-ending problem for Mothers with Brains, eh? But I am still interested, thanks for the idea about the discussion group!