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A Call For Increased Citizen Involvement In Government
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Wednesday, September 21, 2011
With cynicism about government on the rise, MIT professor and historian Pauline Maier says Americans would do well to examine the work of those who debated the U.S. Constitution. In each of the 13 colonies, there was vigorous discussion. People took strong positions. But they were willing to reconsider. Maier was at Washington College in Chestertown last Friday and WYPR’s Fraser Smith was there.
Professor Maier’s book chronicles what has been called the beginning of American politics – a 13-state convocation on the just-drafter Constitution. How the delegates proceeded is an object lesson for today.
“We get an example here of what an engaged citizenry can be like. We can see what it accomplished and I think also we get an example of the kind of debates a democracy really needs, the kind of debate we rarely have now.”
The history we all learned suggests a few brave thinkers and generals made the Constitution, single-handedly – with little involvement of the people. The real story is quite different, Maier writes in her prize winning book “Ratification.”
“It’s an example of an engaged citizenry. And it wasn’t partisan, really. There weren’t two sides. There were no national parties. People really took it seriously. They argued about it. They cared about it. You care about something you argue about it. You know, if you shrug your soldiers you’re giving up in some way.”
There was no shoulder shrugging in 1787-1788, as the American people worked their way through the draft Constitution.
“What you do get in ‘Ratification’ is the critics of the Constitution. They are thinking of the good of the country.”
Debate, engagement and thoughtful consideration, she says, make for a real democracy.
“It mobilizes the intelligence of a people. You’re on a platform and you have to answer each other in intelligent ways on substantive issues. Wouldn’t we like that instead of all this …. Ahhhh.”
Our leaders today might consider careful, considered, civil debate in which certain behavior would be seen as unproductive at least.
“Stop grandstanding, or enunciating great principles that can’t be compromised. Why can’t people say what is for the good of the country? If you look at the critics of the Constitution they reconsidered their position and redefined it so that it wasn’t parochial. They weren’t simply speaking of state interests.That kind of dedication is what we still need.”
She had some thoughts on President Ronald Reagan’s often-quoted anti-government two-liner: “Government is not the solution,” he said. “Government is the problem.” Whether, he meant this result or not, Reagan’s bromide has become a synthesis of the anti-government crusaders of today. Government would surely have to be perfected as time went on – but the founders were more likely to see it, not only as way to regulate bad behavior, but to act on behalf of the community.
“Thomas Paine said something rather similar to this, actually. Society, he said, comes from our virtues and government is a response to our sins. It was enforcer of law that was necessary for people to have their freedom. Otherwise, others could interfere with it all the time.”
Nor was government simply defending the country.
“They also understood that government did good. Max Elling has written a wonderful book about the American Revolution. His title is ‘A Revolution in Favor of Government.’ What came out of the revolution is the creation of institutions that would, they feared, make government a scourge.”
I’m Fraser Smith, reporting in Chestertown, for 88-1 WYPR.
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