As those newly empowered by the voters are fond of telling us, elections have consequences. Things will be done that people who voted against the winner do not like. Elections ensure that citizens have a continuing say in their governments’ policies if they want them changed.
But as James Madison wrote during the birthing of the U.S. Constitution, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
The duality is clearly an argument for limited government, as conservatives constantly remind us, but also an argument, as civil libertarians just as constantly remind us, for the internal checks and balances that make us a nation of laws and not of men.
Madison envisioned a limited government but a robust one nevertheless – one that permanently ensured individual rights against the vagaries of political and social winds. When he wrote obliging it to control itself, he was not talking only about controlling transient policy matters but about the raison d’etre for the Constitution.
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Though you can’t tell from the actions of Kansas’ present Legislature and governor, the Constitution did not establish a majoritarian system of government. Getting the most votes does not empower a governor and a legislature to do just anything they desire.
Yes, they can introduce or even pass all sorts of unnecessary, irrelevant or even wacky laws. They can stage hearings designed to prove their ideological purity, posturing to the people who voted for them. They can ignore such pressing problems as school funding and fritter away opportunities, such as failing to extend Medicaid for the state’s poor. And they can be voted out.
But they may not destroy the very system that elected them in the first place. The dangers of such majoritarian conduct are easily and tragically seen in recent, largely failed efforts around the world to use popular revolt to oust autocrats and form democracies.
Egypt is a typical example: Street demonstrations overthrew a bad regime and peaceful elections followed. But the winners ignored the minorities they defeated, installed only their followers throughout the government, unilaterally rewrote the constitution and arrogated vast new powers to themselves. The inevitable result was a bloody military takeover and a return to a different brand of autocracy.
America, blessedly, even in Kansas, is not a land so benighted, but when elected officials talk of stripping power from the constitutionally co-equal judicial branch and criminalizing such matters as federal enforcement of health, safety and environmental policies, the difference from Egypt or Libya or Venezuela is only a matter of scale.
Those now governing must recognize that their fellow Kansans are residents of Kansas but they are citizens of the United States. No matter how narrow or broad a majority elected them, they did not get, along with the votes, the authority to nullify the rights and privileges that come with U.S. citizenship.
“Obliging it to control itself” implies much more than keeping the size of government in check; it means honoring the fundamental rights of all citizens, even those in the tiniest minorities.
That’s what the American Revolution was about, and the Civil War and the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement.