When major political parties hold conventions, they usually try to craft their messages to reach the broadest possible audience. The parties make the case that they stand for true American values and represent the best hope for freedom and liberty – within their definition of the priorities involved. But even with the acknowledgment that those meanings can shift depending on the issues, the Democratic Party and their convention got off to a very strange and very revealing start this week in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The host committee started off the festivities with avideo presentation that defended the use of government as a medium to address social ills and as a unifying presence in American lives. That’s not exactly a novel argument coming from Democrats and progressives. However, this statement was: “Government’s the only thing we all belong to,” the narrator intoned. “We have different churches, different clubs, but we’re together as a part of our city, or our county, or our state – and our nation.”
We all belong to the government? That’s not how most Americans think of themselves. As Mitt Romney tweeted almost immediately afterward, Americans usually labor under the concept that government belongs to the people, and not the other way around. Abraham Lincoln famously referred to American government as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in the Gettysburg address. He didn’t refer to America as a people of, by, and for the government.
The American Revolution occurred in no small part over the rejection of ownership by the government. For more than a century, the colonists had enjoyed a large measure of autonomy while still retaining the status of subjects to the Crown. When the British had to fight wars on behalf of the colonists, they put that ownership paradigm to greater use by imposing taxes without consent and restricting trade in order to recoup those costs. The presumption of the time that people belonged to the Crown and its government made those kinds of policies rational and even understandable – but the American experience had produced a populace that finally demanded a government owned by the people instead of the other way around.
One could shrug this off as a badly-formed argument for American unity, but that explanation doesn’t meet the smell test, either. Government is the one area where our system was specifically designed for disunity – on all levels. Even within the structure of government at nearly every level, checks and balances were created to keep one small group from seizing power. The founders did not create co-equal branches of government as a means to promote unity, but to preserve effective dissent and limit the reach of each branch. Those structures exist in every state government and in most municipal governments as well.
The Bill of Rights extended that effort to the nation as a whole. The First Amendment protected the right to free speech not so that Americans could unify in government, but specifically so that government could not demand and enforce unity. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments specifically limited the powers of the federal government and protected the ability of the states to operate independently, and the people to retain their own choices. If the founders intended for government to produce unity, they would have never have provided these restrictions.
Americans don’t look to government for unity, and certainly don’t see government as something to which we belong. However, that concept is consistent with the Obama administration’s policies and arguments for a second term, which is another reason to see this as a revelation rather than an aberration.