There are six Branches of Government, not three: but the 6th Branch is really the first, ‘We the People.’ To protect the democracy, we must assert our rights.
The Branches of Government
We were all taught in school that the Founders established three branches of the federal government: executive (the President); legislative (Congress); and judiciary (the courts, particularly the Supreme Court). That didn’t last long.
As the federal government grew, two things happened, and two unofficial branches of the government appeared. The first was the bureaucracy. This concern was small for a long time; during the Civil War, Lincoln’s clerical staff was two secretaries, and visitors could drop in to visit with the President without an appointment. Over the course of the democracy, however, the federal employees expanded rapidly, particularly with the expansion of the military in WWII. After WWII, our economy expanded dramatically, and several things happened. We retained a large standing military to deal with the cold war. We began investing in social welfare. And we needed accounting and enforcement to administer it all.
The problem is, the bureaucracy becomes a branch of government unto itself, and one that can exceed all other branches. A dramatic example is the IRS, which can disregard basic Constitutional protections, can seize our property without due process, and has wide latitude to invade our privacy.
Another problem is one we have discussed, of the Deep White State: they may also exert covert pressure on the system to maintain balance and fairness. That, of course, leads to the risk of abuse of power; but that is a problem with all aspects of government, which is why checks and balances are so important. If there are abuses, other branches of government, and even other parts of the Deep White State, can also step in to address these.
Which brings up a severe concern with the next branch of government: lobbyists, and the corporate money they represent. There is a myth that Ulysses S. Grant coined the word ‘lobbyist’ in the late 19th century, but there are examples of its use in England much earlier in the century. But even that is only the origins of the word, not of the practice of skewing government. Powerful interests – financial interests, overwhelmingly – have sought to influence power since the first king emerged at the beginnings of civilization.
As the U.S. government expanded, corporations have increasingly sought to influence government expenditures and favorable legislation to increase their bottom line, often with little or no concern for the health of the democracy or the public. A striking example is the power of the gun manufacturers. Overwhelmingly Americans, right and left, want two simple safeguards on gun sales: universal background checks to prevent sales to crazies or criminals; and a ban on assault weapons. The gun lobby is preventing it.
The U.S. Military
Then consider the biggest cash cow in the US, the military. In this arena, not only are corporations addicted to military sales, but states and regions are addicted to military jobs. So the bureaucracy (the Pentagon) also becomes a lobbyist; at the first sign of cuts, the military has historically begun threatening to closing bases, just as corporations can withhold donations. By insuring every part of the country has a military base, they insure that almost everyone supports military spending.
It’s not minor. Together with Veterans Affairs, he US military consumes 2/3 of the county’s discretionary dollars, and we spend the most in the world on our military, as much as the next 6 countries combined. Under one proposed budget during the GH Bush administration, the US military budget would have surpassed expenditures for the rest of the world combined. As one example, the USS Gerald Ford was just commissioned as the newest US aircraft carrier, which gives the US 11 carriers.
The rest of the world combined has only 7 aircraft carriers. And the US has 2 more in the works.
We worry about Russian and Chinese expansion, as we should. But the US maintains about 800 overseas military bases in 70 countries. The Russians have about 15, all of them near Russia. The Chinese recently opened their first overseas base, in Djibouti.
When Eisenhower warned about the growing power of a large standing military, he spoke of a “Military-Industrial Complex.” He originally wanted to say “Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex,” but changed his mind.
The US military is creating a lot of very rich people with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, Congress can’t find money to provide quality education for our children, nor healthcare for our workforce. Just how much security do we really need? Just how much can we afford?
So the threat that should concern every American, is that there is no check or balance against powerful lobbies, nor the outsized donations they make to political candidates. Or at least there hasn’t been.
The First Branch of Government
This brings us to the 6th Branch of Government, which is really the 1st Branch: us. We have always been here, of course, but our ability to express ourselves in ongoing ways is only beginning. As controversial as Trump has been, he is an expression of the 1st Branch of Government, of the people manifesting their frustration. Unfortunately, frustration and anger are not enough, and only distract us from real reform. It is not enough to express outrage, to stand around and complain. We must roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The controversy in Washington is quickly engaging more citizens in the process, on both sides. So far, this is little more than boosterism, but there are some real issues at stake. To my mind, the largest is, Who does our government belong to? Because the leadership on both sides have perennially taken steps to insure that they, and their key supporters/contributors, will be protected and served, ahead of the people to whom the country is supposed to belong.
It’s going to be a long slog. But it’s been a long slog up to this point. The U.S. Founders weren’t enthusiastic about a true democracy, and called the Greek model of democratic government a ‘mobocracy.’ It took a long time just to allow all adults to vote and even now, there are efforts to prevent people from voting, and to block true democratic choice.
It precedes 1776, however. I have heard complaints that the Magna Carta was not truly the foundation of modern representative government, because it only forced the king to share power with a limited number of nobles. It is important that we not confuse progress and perfection. The Magna Carta was the beginning of the end of monarchy; with time, other groups grew in power, and they also demanded to be included in decision-making. Ideally, democracy is the total diffusion of power; the Magna Carta was the first, essential step in the process.
An enormous forward stride was during the reign of Charles I. When the king tried to implement reactionary reforms and restore lost power to the monarchy, the king not only lost his head; the monarchy lost yet more power. A new government emerged, one that still retained elitist and autocratic tendencies, but was nevertheless more inclusive, and further on the road to complete democracy.
We live in a time which shares characteristics with revolutionary England. Powerful, elite forces are trying to force us backward toward a less democratic state, one where power, wealth, and prerogative are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.
First They Came…
As this is happening, there is also a minor comparison to Nazi Germany, in that groups who believed they were included and protected under the Nazis, were, one by one, marginalized, excluded, persecuted, and silenced, from fear, or death. That is happening with groups today who have been promised inclusion, but who are ignored or excluded.
There is a famous poem written by Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
And Then They Came for Me
But in 1946, Niemöller said more than that:
…when the concentration camp was opened we wrote the year 1933, and the people who were put in the camps then were Communists. Who cared about them? We knew it, it was printed in the newspapers.
Who raised their voice, maybe the Confessing Church? We thought: Communists, those opponents of religion, those enemies of Christians – “should I be my brother’s keeper?”
Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible?
The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers…
There are those who are derisive of working to include the weak, the poor, and those with whom we disagree. But it is critical to understand that we protect the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, because sooner or later we are all the vulnerable and disenfranchised. Members of this or that church, or of one or another political party, think they are protected, because their group is large, engaged, and protected. What they fail to understand is that the persecutions never stop, because the group isn’t truly one group. No two people agree totally on everything.
And so persecution continues, the group continues to split and to identify new minorities, and new victims. Right now there is a growing awareness that the Republican party is becoming less and less a unified group; there is one faction that demands ideological purity, and another that argues for pragmatism and compromise. There should be no debate about whether we should debate. If we are truly democracy, if everyone has a say, then no one gets to pursue some ‘pure’ vision. Democracy is pragmatism and compromise, or it is no democracy.
The powerful are expanding their reach, and their ambition; and to do that, they must quiet dissent. So it is critical that the 1st Branch of government step up, and assert our power. As we do, however, it is essential that we become better informed, and more engaged. We have to stop playing ideological football, and start working toward pragmatic, inclusive solutions.