APU Everyday Scholar Podcast

Rebalancing Political Power and the Need for Democratic Literacy

Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and Dr. Tom Kelly, Program Director, Political Science

The Constitution was setup to ensure that all states, regardless of size, would have a say in the direction of the federal government. While that democratic system has worked remarkably well post-Civil War, in recent decades the fabric of the United States has started to fray as people view the federal government as the body governing the 50 states instead of the other way around. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU Political Science Program Director, Dr. Tom Kelly, about the rise of revenge politics, extreme partisan politics, and the rise of authoritarianism. Also learn about the changes needed to rebalance governing power including instituting term limits on legislators and adding the right to privacy to the Bill of Rights.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Tom Kelly, Program Director in the School of Security and Global Studies. And our conversation today is about democratic literacy in America. Welcome, Tom.

Dr. Tom Kelly: Hello Bjorn. Great to be back.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Yeah, we’ve had you a few times. I’ve loved the conversations. In 2021, Fourth of July is coming up so I thought it’d be a great opportunity to really talk about democratic literacy in American. That’s really just how does our government work. And so the first question is, why is it important for people to know about and understand how American democracy works and functions?

Dr. Tom Kelly: It’s faith in the system. No electoral system, no system of government works if the people living under it don’t want it, don’t understand it. Even dictatorships fall when enough people decide they don’t want that form of government anymore.

In the United States, we often get into these discussions about, and you hear this right and left, democratic versus republican, that you’ll hear somebody say, “Well, the United States isn’t really a democracy, it’s a republic.” The other side comes back and says, “Well, it’s a representative democracy, nobody really has a pure democracy.” That misses the point.

People have been obviously upset about the Bush-Gore election and more upset about the 2016 Trump and Clinton election that they call it minority rule. And I’ve seen articles about we can’t have this permanent minority rule.

Well, that’s a misunderstanding of the way the American system was set up. The United States, yes, it’s a republic, yes, it’s a representative democracy, whichever term we want to use, they’re both accurate. But it’s also a federal republic.

[Podcast: 2020 Election and the History of Political Conventions]

And the way it was conceived and constructed were autonomous states joining together under a common military, a common currency, a common defense. But they saw themselves as separate countries in a way, that’s why they’re the United States, not the United Provinces or the United Colonies. And the only way to get all of those states to agree to this union was that the smaller states had to have a system where they were guaranteed not to be ruled by the larger states.

So what do we have now in the United States? We have California which has swelled to this size, where it has more people than the smallest 20 states. Well, the system is functioning exactly how it’s supposed to when somebody like Trump beats somebody like Clinton. And I understand the whole national vote idea, and I’ll come back to that later.

But the fact is that a majority of states voted for Donald Trump, he won 30 out of 50 states. Hillary Clinton lost 30 states, and she won the so-called popular vote because she won the votes of that one giant state by four million people. She only won the popular vote by two and a half million or so.

So, if you want to talk popular vote, Trump won the popular vote of the other 49 states. The system is working how it’s supposed to, that a giant state was not supposed to dominate the other ones.

Now somebody might come back and say, “Well, we’re one country now, this is post-Civil War, we’ve become unified into a single, some people would say, national government instead of a federal government.” But how long can that union in a federal republic stay intact when you have a dozen 15, 20 states consistently getting overruled by New York and California?

And that’s exactly how the system was constructed to avoid that happening to keep the country intact. And considering that the country still is intact, well, I don’t want to downplay the Civil War, but it did survive that. It really comes down to that when people understand that this system was meant to be a Federal Republic, where each state is allowed to kind of do its own thing, and then ally together against the rest of the world for international issues, then it starts to make more sense in the system.

A lot of people right now look at the federal government as the national government as almost a unitary system, where they’re supposed to be making the laws for everyone. And the United States has been moving that direction for some time, but I think I’ll just stop right there because I could go into an entire history lesson.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love the history lesson. And I feel bad saying this, but I think a lot of people, I won’t say most, but there are a lot of people who don’t know the history lesson of why we have the government the way it is, the difference between our governments and a government like you find in England, that’s a parliament. And it really made me think, imagine if the US government was just the House of Representatives, in which California and New York would dominate the government. But with the Senate, each state, a state like Wyoming, has two senators, which is equal to the number of senators California has.

And considering what the system looked like, it has survived remarkably well. And as you said, the Civil War, obviously was a very important, very tragic moment for the country. But after the Civil War, we stayed together. And that’s why like today and over the last decade or so people have said, we’re more divided than ever. Well, read the Civil War, I think we were more divided then, and ideas about a whole host of things, and this is obviously not about the Civil War, divided us to violence.

And the checks and balances of the senators and representatives, and even the Electoral College help the smaller states have that say in our government. As far as the Electoral College, do you find that that it’s something that should be kept because of the voice of the smaller states?

Dr. Tom Kelly: The Electoral College is absolute genius. They fought over the idea of equality among the states, the smaller states, of course, wanted an equal voice to the larger states. The larger states said that was ridiculous. And they came up with a system where the states, not the American people, it was never the intention of the American voters to choose a president, it was for the states to vote for a president. And they came up with an electoral system where we do some weighting so these smaller states get more representation, yet the larger states still get significantly more.

As you mentioned with the Senate, that again, the Senate and the House was that same idea. How do we balance equality among the states yet still allow more influence for the larger states? So it’s a great system.

When people would like to throw the baby out with the bathwater and go to a national vote for president, I have to say that is borne out of being upset that your side lost, is basically what it came down to. And the reason I would say that is because the movement for a national popular vote really took off when George Bush won. It was purely partisan. And, of course, you could look at the other side and say Republicans suddenly found love in the Electoral College because they won because of it.

But then just four years later when John Kerry lost by several thousand votes in Ohio, and had he not, he would have won the Electoral College with a plurality of, not even a plurality, with a minority of the vote. Well, suddenly, you have Democrats like the idea of the Electoral College and they want to challenge the voting machines in Ohio. And then suddenly Republicans are saying “No, no, no, our side had a national vote and we had more votes.” Instantly, you see the politics switch on that type of thing.

And so, the reason I’m going into that is quite often the arguments that we hear for and against the Electoral College are a façade. It is really just put up as a smokescreen for political preferences.

Currently, the Democratic Party is disadvantaged in presidential elections by the Electoral College, so the Democratic Party hates the Electoral College. Republicans are advantaged by it, so they love the Electoral College. But I can guarantee you that if the shoe were on the other foot, suddenly Republicans would be calling for a national popular vote and Democrats would say this is history, we’re not going to undo the wisdom of the founding fathers.

In short, it’s a great system. It is the longest-lasting electoral system I think in known history. Other countries keep changing their constitutions and the way they elect, they’re always looking to tweak the system. And Americans are always looking to improve it too. But the Electoral College in itself, where the states choose the president or the head of the federal government, the executive, the federal government, works exactly as intended.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. And it makes me think of individual states could change how their policies are. Where certain states, the Electoral College votes can be divided, I think Nebraska and Maine do that?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Yeah, they do it by congressional district.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. So individual states, if they choose to, could divide their electoral colleges based on, say, where the votes actually fell versus winner take all. Can you briefly explain why states have winner take all and why they don’t change it?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, to go all the way back to the beginning, not all states used to even have elections. Their state legislatures used to choose the electors for president just like the state legislators used to choose their senators before the constitution was amended to let voters choose them too. So, a state doesn’t have to let people vote at all. They are allowed to choose any way they wish to send their electors. It’s become common practice, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have a popular election to choose the electors.

Now, they could break it up by congressional district. There are issues with that in itself. The first one that comes to mind is that in 2012, had we chosen our president by congressional district, Mitt Romney would have defeated Barack Obama with only 47% of the vote.

Now, we could say, well, Trump won with only 47% of the vote, but Hillary Clinton clearly had under a majority herself. Barack Obama had 52% of the voters and he would have lost on that congressional district one. So that one has been played with a little bit, and it’s also why people who favor the national popular vote go towards that because the district system would have many of the same issues as the statewide system.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So basically, whatever system you have, there’s going to be faults with it. If you have the current system, there’ll be issues, if you have a different system, there’ll be issues that are per se not unforeseeable but expected.

It makes me think of, and not to get into the electoral policies of England and France, just as easy examples, but London dominates England. And so, wherever London goes, that can push the values or the policies of England. And so, smaller areas in England could be pushed to the side. And same thing with France. Paris being the capital and the largest city could dominate French politics if they didn’t have checks and balances.

So, in a sense, what we have, like you said, is quite brilliant. And it makes me think of all the different electoral voter laws that are currently being talked about and putting into place. My concern with additional laws restricting votes is that if party A does it to hopefully gain an advantage over party B, it could then disadvantage party A down the road very easily. Why don’t you think political parties see that, what they’re trying to do together advantage for them today could easily be turned against them tomorrow?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Talk about opening up an entire can of worms, I would say the one right now that we’re hearing about is removal of the filibuster. The Democratic Party’s having a difficulty enacting their agenda because the close split of the Senate. Another issue they have because they go into the popular vote of the Senate versus how many senators each party has.

But we’ve seen that already with the removal of the filibuster for federal judges. There was frustration that the Republican Party was holding up nominees from President Obama, so the Democratic majority got rid of the filibuster for federal judges, except for the Supreme Court. Then the Republicans get control. Donald Trump can’t get through his Supreme Court picks, and based on the precedence of getting rid of the filibuster for federal judges, they just go the final yard and remove the filibuster for Supreme Court justices. And that allows President Trump to appoint three members of the Supreme Court. That really came back to bite Democrats. We could see that again.

Quite often, what we’ll see, and this is more philosophically speaking, is that parties or people in general, will prefer a policy when their guys are in power. “The president should be able to do this, Congress should be able to do that, the government should have the power to do this.”

And it’s something I used to say to my students and I still do at times, imagine your worst nightmare as president. Or imagine the party that you can’t stand or don’t trust controls all levers of government. Do you still want the government to have said power? And then it sometimes comes into focus. Usually when I ask people that question, when I’m having a beer with them, they switch the subject to something else and point fingers and say how awful the other party is.

So that’s really important to understand that when you put in a set of rules, that your party won’t be in control of those rules the entire time. So when you’re talking about voting, when you give the state more power to discern who can vote and what’s illegal voting and what isn’t, yeah, that could turn around very quickly. A state that’s dominated by Republicans right now that could really scrutinize signatures or IDs for ballots could find itself in the future with a Democratic administration using those same laws to suppress votes from Republicans, very possible.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. And it really makes me think of the shortsightedness of politics. Again, we can probably talk for hours and hours. My next question, which is related to all of this, is why should people get to know their local elections more than national elections? It seems like so often that the national elections dominate coverage, the cable news networks, which I don’t think anybody should ever watch, always talk about national stuff. But local is where it’s at. Those are the streets you use, that’s the water you drink. Why do people oftentimes overlook what’s going on just outside their window?

Dr. Tom Kelly: The first thing you mentioned is just the fact that national media focuses on national issues. And that’s because when you have Fox News or CNN, they reach all 50 states, and the people in Detroit, Michigan aren’t so interested in what’s going on in Aurora, Colorado, unless it’s a major issue.

But in any case, one thing that has to be crystal clear is we have zero national elections. There are no national elections in the United States. We have state and local only. Even presidential elections, those are statewide elections. When people say, we need to go by the popular vote. Well, each state does go by the popular vote, and then the actual federal election, that’s the Electoral College, and the electors have already been chosen by those individual state elections or congressional district if you go to Maine or Nebraska.

But to get back to your question about local. Our lives are mostly affected, our day-to-day lives are affected by our county commissioners, by our city councilors, by our mayors, by our city managers, whoever is in charge of the local laws, our school boards. What happens in the public schools, whether we have a good commute time or we drive across a washboard and have to wait three times at a stoplight, the quality of our water. Those are all local government issues.

But then we stay focused on but “Oh my goodness, can you believe Joe Biden said this or didn’t do this about the Palestinian-Israeli thing?” Well, that’s what’s dominating the news cycle, so that’s why people get focused on that.

So, we could go off on the whole thing about the media, but I’ll just reiterate why it’s important to pay attention to local, versus the point that the local elections and the state elections are more pertinent to your day-to-day life. But also, you have to remember that most politicians in America are career politicians, the successful ones. So the local elections, that’s training camp. Those are the minor leagues for the major leagues.

So if you want quality candidates at the state level running for governor, running for senate or running for president, you have to be mindful of who’s moving up the ranks in your local elections too. Otherwise, you get to your primary for when it’s time for your Senator and you’re like, “Really, this is the best we have?”

And we quite often see that in states because people aren’t paying attention to their local officials and not voting in local elections. And some real looney tunes sometimes work their way up, and suddenly you have a field of four looney tunes for one party, and no one can understand how this happened. I would say that’s probably the most important reason to pay attention in local politics so you could see who’s coming up through the ranks.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. I’m really glad you brought up career politicians because it really makes me think of AOC, just as an example. She was elected in New York, and a candidate like her would not get elected in Arizona. And it’s because Arizona, it’s different, different demographics, different voting patterns, etc, etc.

But then her as a person, and nothing against her, she’s often used as like, well, we have to fight against AOC and her policies. And she becomes the boogeyman where she’s manipulating Pelosi, all these different things. It’s the rhetoric of fear, let’s use this person to get everybody else to fear the other side.

And so, why is it that politics is so character driven and is so dominated by charisma? That said, it’s nothing new, you go back 2,000 years, and you have some Roman politician who’s charismatic, and he’ll be very successful in the Roman Senate. Why is it that humans, we are drawn to that charisma that is not always, but sometimes devoid of merit and content, but looks good, sounds good, and that the parties that be can then use either the positive or the negative for their own purposes?

Dr. Tom Kelly: All right, well, we’re not going to talk so much about my government and political expertise here. This is purely personal opinion since I’m not an expert in psychology. When we have people on the national scene, you’ve heard all the talk about bipartisanship and cooperation and reaching across the aisle.

There’s a lot of compromise, especially when you’re trying to make national policy for a system that was never supposed to be a national system, when they’re trying to make one-size-fits-all laws for all 50 states. When places like California and Montana are different worlds, there’s no way you can make the same set of laws considering abortion and gun control for those types of states. Yeah, we tried to do that, what’s the result?

The results are these very moderate, very modest, incremental changes, just changes around the edges. And when you have people in America who want sweeping, deep change, and it can’t happen at the national level, it can’t happen at the federal level because we have, the country really is so polarized.

I could really go into just the difference between the states with the death penalty versus those that don’t. States that have abortion legal and accessible all nine months and states have effectively banned it waiting for Roe to be overturned. There’s no way to make effective policy nationally and keep the country together.

So along comes somebody who taps into that emotional vein. And you have somebody like AOC or MTG is the one on the right, they come from a district that is dominated by one of the poles. And so they can speak from the crazy left or the crazy right and still have enough support to be reelected handily.

And then they speak to those people who would like to see abortion fully funded by the federal government and universal health care in all 50 states. They hear AOC come on say, that’s what we need, and they’re like, that’s what I want. Now, that person’s popular to me.

Or we get MTG coming out there and saying things about how well the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Well, you’ve got a good third of people in America who firmly believe that, and they have tens of millions of people who are attracted to that message that they’re not hearing from their own politicians. They’re not hearing from political pundits, they’re not seeing it in the federal government. It’s just a voice. It’s an emotional response to there’s somebody who’s echoing how I feel and think things should be.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that. It really goes in how they believe, and probably also how they feel things should be. And there’s a huge difference, of course, about how things are and how people want them to be. And then of course, what is actually possible.

This really leads me to the next question is, how can democratic illiteracy hurt America and the American government? Because when we talk about all these people, and they say, this should be the policy here, this should be the policy there.

And just like you said, how things work in a highly urban center, say an LA or San Francisco or New York, is not the same as Montana, or other more rural states. And so, the division between the federal and the state is important, but then why is it that people’s democratic illiteracy hurts their understanding of how things work?

Dr. Tom Kelly: One of the reasons people have an issue with democratic literacy is linked to economic illiteracy. There are too many people now who really believe that all the government has to do is pass a law and then things will be the way they want. If we ban abortion, then abortions won’t happen anymore. If we ban guns, then people won’t have them anymore. If we ban meth, oh, wait, that’s already happened, but it’s available in all 50 states. How about we print money and give everybody money every month and then nobody will be poor, and then we already see inflation creeping up.

It doesn’t help when you have political hacks like Paul Krugman who used to be a renowned economist, coming on and saying, “Don’t worry, we could print money forever and it won’t hurt us, we could borrow as much as we need to from ourselves, it’ll never hurt the economy,” which is nuts.

But we have somebody who has won a Nobel Prize in Economics saying that, it’s okay, you can print as much money as you need to and it won’t hurt anything, and we can go into as much debt as we need to and it won’t hurt anything. And, of course, why wouldn’t you believe him? He’s somebody who knows economics more than I do.

That’s on the surface right there, is when people would say if we just pass a law that everybody had health care, everybody had a job, wow, I mean, we’re really going down the Marxist rabbit hole here, because that was the idea behind communism and socialism. The government will just make sure everybody has health care and education and a house and a job and we’ll all be happy. And it’s never worked.

We could always put a new wrapper on that package. We have increasing numbers of people in America who don’t understand basic economics. You just can’t legislate compassion, you can’t legislate fairness, you can’t ban racism. There are real issues in the country that we just can’t pass a law and make them go away.

Now, to come back to the idea of dangers of democratic illiteracy, it goes back to the federal republic and faith in the system. We are seeing increasing lawlessness in the United States. And from my personal perspective, I’m seeing the United States fray. It’s starting to come apart and people are cheering it on.

When Donald Trump was president, he had strict anti-immigration laws, anti-illegal immigration laws, and some states came out and said, we are sanctuary states, like Illinois and California, and we will not help you enforce these laws. And without the states to support the federal, federal government doesn’t have enough people to enforce its own laws, it relies on the states to do it. So when you have a state come out and say that we’re not going to enforce your federal laws, that federal law is basically dead.

Now we see this on the other side. You’ve got the Biden administration talking about we’re going to ban assault weapons, we’re going to put in new strict gun controls. Well, I’m from Wyoming, and in the initial reaction when you talk about these gun bans is a roar of laughter.

But then we do have federal supremacy of the Constitution, so if this law went into effect, yes, those guns would be illegal in Wyoming too. But then you have a state like Wyoming, and you have other states like the Dakotas, who come out and say, nullification, just like you did. We’re a second amendment sanctuary state. If you pass these federal laws, we’re just going to ignore them.

Then we see this dripping on down to the county and local levels. A conservative-led state will pass some conservative laws, and then you’ll have a city or a county say, we’re a sanctuary. For whatever the policy may be, we have states telling the federal government we’re going to ignore your laws. We have counties telling their state governments, we’re going to ignore your laws. And we even have counties voting to secede looking to leave their state to get out from the influence of the bigger cities and become part of Idaho.

Northern Colorado, I lived in northern Colorado when several counties voted to secede from Colorado because they were tired of Denver politics. Denver, big city, urban, gun control, pro-abortion politics, telling ranchers and oil workers and blue-collar workers that you can’t have your guns and you need an abortion clinic here.

To come back to your question, how does it hurt America? The fabric of the United States is starting to fray because more and more people are viewing us as a national system that should have one national set of rules for a patchwork of a very diverse culture.

The only way I see the United States surviving is if there were some way to, people always say we need to move forward, we need to move forward, in this case, we might need to move back to a time where we recognize that the federal government was not supposed to dictate every aspect of life to all 50 states. But rather provide the common defense, provide the common system of property rights and law, provide a common currency, and then let the states, as long as they weren’t hurting each other, do as they will.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I really love that. Me being an optimistic nihilist where I’m always very optimistic about things, but in many ways, pessimistic about other things because I know history. When countries start to fray, and if they do, very rarely do countries “divide peacefully.” People will literally kill each other for I’ll say the most inconsequential reasons and politics, of course, goes that way. And people are willing to literally murder each other because of that, just because of what they believe.

That needs to be avoided at all cost. And I do have to agree that the federal government and the president for a while has had so much more power than especially back in the day, and I’m not a political scientist, but if highly urbanized cities have different problems than rural America, they should be able to address their problems differently.

And just like you said, if there’s a certain law, it doesn’t have to be applied equally, say, in the rural versus the urban area, and let the states or the local areas decide on how that’s implemented. And then it’s not to talk about not following the rules or something like that, but it really makes me think of authoritarian tendencies.

And so, do you just view that a lot of politics is always going towards authoritarian tendencies because there’s nothing more exciting than just oh, just like you were saying, let’s pass this law, and we’ll fix everything. And that just doesn’t happen.

And even when you have people who believe in freedom of speech and talk about compromise, but there’s certain idea and they’re like, oh, yeah, well, let’s just do this and just make everybody do it. And if there’s one thing that ruins a country, that just ruins a country, and it’s when those authoritarian tendencies come about, in which one group of people decides how everybody should live.

Dr. Tom Kelly: Listen to the rhetoric of the right and the left. “We will take back our country.” It’s a very us versus them, and it’s gotten worse than the quick fix of a big government. It’s become revenge politics that “We’re going to show them, we’re going to get into office, we’re going to take their guns away, we’ll show them. We’re going to do this, we’re going to round up all those people and kick them out of the country.”

I’m seeing more and more scorched-earth policies where it doesn’t matter what the damage is to the fabric of society or for camaraderie among Americans, as long as our side has power and gets to exercise it. I see it on the right and the left.

Now, as objectively as I can say it, it is the American left right now that has pushed much more towards authoritarianism. A takeover of the energy industry, and we’re going to ban fossil fuels. A takeover of the health care industry and everybody will have health care through the government. A takeover of the educational system and everybody will have free education.

And now people say, well, that’s wonderful and it’s equality, but to have that type of power to do that, the government has to have the power to do that. So, a government becomes much more authoritarian when it has the power to provide everybody with everything that they need.

But then again, it’s not like the right doesn’t shy away from authoritarian power. I see it in Florida right now. We have some states that are pushing for what’s called the vaccine passport. Doesn’t even matter if you’ve recovered from COVID like I have, you still need this vaccination anyway.

You don’t have to get it, but you have to wear a mask otherwise, or you can’t come in here. Or you have private promoters saying things like, we’re going to charge you $1,000 for a ticket to my event if you don’t have a vaccination card. Well, of course, that’s an authoritarian way of looking at things. It’s literally show us your card so you can come in.

But now we have in Florida, you got Governor DeSantis threatening fines and punishments for private industries that would like to exercise their right to say, like cruise ships, some of the worst outbreaks of COVID in the beginning were on cruise ships before they realized it was airborne and they locked everybody up in the rooms, and it was going through the ventilation system making everyone sick.

I’m sure there’s a little bit of economic PTSD from what happened with COVID and the cruise lines, that industry was devastated. So now you have some of them saying, We don’t want anyone on our boats unless they can prove they’re immune. And you have Governor DeSantis coming in, “No, no, no. Freedom, freedom. I’m going to force freedom on you.” That’s a frightening way to look at it too where the right is going to force people to be free.

The left cannot force people to be compassionate, the right can’t force people to be free. That’s the shift we’re seeing towards authoritarianism now is we’ve become more and more us versus them, and more and more fearful, and distrustful of the other side of politics, the more we would like the government to step in and get that other side in line so we don’t have to be afraid of them anymore.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And absolutely wonderful comments. I like how you said, force people to be free, because you can’t force people to be free. Just as we talked about, certain policies which you think might help or are designed to be against the other side could easily then be used against you down the road. And so, my next question is, besides FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, why is the precedent of two terms for a US president set by George Washington so important as an absolute limit and a philosophy?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, what an example George Washington set. That was historical for the entire world. The leader of an entire country voluntarily steps down and says, it’s somebody else’s turn. That was unheard of. It was laughable in parts of the world.

You’d have royal families literally murdering family members so they could be the one who’s in charge next. Now, we have a leader of a giant, powerful country, not so much yet, but the United States was formidable, and the leader says, I’m done, I’m going home. And then people followed that, they so respected it, that that’s what you did. You didn’t become president for life.

And then comes Roosevelt, who became president for life. And then the United States Constitution was amended, but the damage was already done. The spirit of Washington was already destroyed because people no longer voluntarily went the right direction. Now we had to force them to. That was a beginning step, believe it or not, towards an authoritarian system.

And it makes sense too because that was also the beginning of the New Deal, which was consolidation of power in the federal government. But it was the belief that the government can and should make our lives better, and if people wanted somebody leading, that person should lead for as long as people kept electing them.

But the whole idea that Washington understood, was that he was popular and he would have been president the rest of his life probably had he decided to stay there. And he thought that was a terrible precedent to set. What’s the point? I don’t want to be George the First as he said. Now, maybe that’s a fraying of the moral fiber of the country when people don’t do the right thing that we have to pass a law to make them do the right thing.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s great. It really reminds me of when you watch the musical Hamilton, after George Washington gives up power, it goes to the scene of the King of England, and he looks amazed. He’s like, I didn’t know you could do that. And the willingness to give up power, and then to say, let somebody else come in and do a good job, I think is such an important, humble and realistic virtue, in the sense that I’m not the only person or, as some would say, I’m the only one who can fix things. And that is such an intense narcissistic belief that, unfortunately, throughout history, as you said, is common with so many people.

And then even today, should we legislate limits on how long Senators are in, or Supreme Court or Representatives, there’s obviously pros and cons to both of that. But even here in Arizona, we had one Senator McCain, who was, of course, our Senator for decades. Great guy. But there are other people in your state who can also do the job. It essentially turns into this one person is in power, they’re in power forever, and then they pass it on to their children, typically.

Now, do you think they should set limits? Just like you said, these limits that people should self-regulate, but they’re not, and so should the government set those limits? And then obviously, are there other downsides to that that are unforeseen?

Dr. Tom Kelly: Well, philosophically speaking, again, if people are not doing the right thing, then there has to be a law passed to make them do the right thing. That’s a loss of liberty because people can no longer choose to vote for whom they wish, can no longer choose to run as a public servant as they wish.

But let’s look at the practical side of it. We have career politicians who, from the time they are young, they decide they’re going to run for their local school board, they’re going to run for state rep, they’re going to run for U.S. Rep, Senator, eventually, someday I’m going to be president. We have so many people, of course, they never make it that far, but they spend their entire lives in government.

One aspect of this that is very disturbing for me, as an American, not so much a scholar. When I hear people refer to our elected civil servants as “our leaders,” that’s terrifying. They’re not supposed to be our leaders.

The whole idea of the American Republic was for the people to have part-time civil servants who represented us and we told them what to do. And it’s turned on its head. The government tells us what to do. Most people in America now believe when the government tells you to do something, you’re supposed to do it. Government said wear a mask, put on a mask, you have to do it, the government said it.

That’s not how the system was supposed to be set up. They were supposed to be our servants, we’re not supposed to be the servants of our leaders.

I don’t know how you turn that around, but maybe something with term limits for Congress. Because when you no longer, I don’t mean you’re allowed three terms in the House and then two terms in the Senate, you still have somebody who’s going to be serving for decades. One term in the House, one term in the Senate, something that strict.

So it really became, we had part-time servants and government anymore, and we didn’t have people forming these contribution networks and always worried about special interests and everything. Well, elections are expensive and independently wealthy people are few and far between. So you have to be beholden to these major corporations, these major interest groups that give you major amounts of money to keep getting reelected.

Well, if you don’t have to keep getting reelected, you don’t need to be beholden to those major money interests. That’s one of the things that really would be important to get the United States back to a system where Americans are representing other Americans and we don’t have professional politicians with all their experience and wisdom telling us lowly people how we’re supposed to be living.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that. And it really makes me think of, again, there are such talented people in every state, every locality that could go and represent their people. And when somebody has been a senator or a representative, and I’m talking on the national level, so many of them are millionaires.

And so, how effectively are all these millionaires truly representing the average person when their lives are very detached from the problems of the average working person who is working hard, sometimes they have to work two jobs, three jobs, sometimes they have a job that doesn’t have health insurance. And so, their healthcare is up in the air.

And so, when you’re disconnected from the daily instability of life, that really creates a distance between really understanding what you’re actually supposed to do. And then if you then continue to have the power and if you just continue to get elected, and then your voice is lost. And so, I like the idea of limiting because it also gives just other people the opportunity. And these people, say they’re limited to one or two terms, they can then still influence in various ways.

And so, this really leads me to the last question is, what are possible changes to local and national governments that can make governing the US stronger? Stronger of course is a tough word, i.e, protects civil liberties, freedom of speech, better representation, less corruption, etc. Each of these terms, of course, can be discussed in great detail. How can we make the local and national government more efficient, less corrupt, less authoritarian, etc.?

Dr. Tom Kelly: You might have caught me in a day when I’m feeling a little bit cynical about all of it, but, okay, we’ll go pie in the sky here. And let’s assume that members of Congress actually get together and vote away their own careers by amending the Constitution for term limits. Then they no longer would be voting on issues based on how many campaign contributions they’d get, how it affected their chances for reelection. They’d be voting basically on what they thought was right and what their constituents were telling them to do.

Constitutional term limits seemed like the only way out for the professional politician who spends their entire life, they’re not even reading the laws that they’re voting on anymore. They’ve got these massive staffs with people, and they tell them what’s in the bill.

Interest groups are writing the bills based on what they want. They go behind doors, and they vote trade and tell you what, I’ll give you this for your district, can you give me this for my district, and we’ll put a new swimming pool there. And then this will build up a statue to your family there. And we’ll say and if you vote against it, then you hate children. The term limits would be very important for that.

There’s one aspect of the American Constitution that is really important. There is no right to privacy in the US Constitution. It was brought about by judicial edict, it was assumed to be there, but as we found out, if a majority of justices on the Supreme Court can find a right, majority of them can lose that right.

This is a whole different podcast. But with the rise of cybersecurity and medical privacy with COVID, the next amendment to the Constitution if one ever were to get passed again right after term limits should be the right to privacy should be added to the Bill of Rights.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Term limits, for sure, and at the local level. Nobody needs to be a local state representative for 30 years. But the right to privacy is extremely important. When you follow the case of Edward Snowden, that’s extremely important because I remember the great senator from here or there saying, “Hey, yeah, you can look into my stuff, I have nothing to hide.” And that’s a very simple perspective coming from the mouth of the person with the power. And that power can easily be taken for granted and abused.

And so basically, it’s saying, “No, no, no, just trust us, just trust us.” And that’s where part of my stance comes is I’m very anti-authoritarian in the sense that you should be anti-authoritarian regimes, anti-authoritarian perspectives on things where people think that, “Oh, just do this, and it’ll be fine.”

And there does seem to need to be a reckoning where the federal government should take a step back and let localities have a little more autonomy. Of course, guns and abortion, two of the big things that people have such rigid and uncompromising views. And I would say that, it’s not helpful to have rigid, uncompromising views because if you live in a place such as rural Iowa, it’s going to be very different than if you’re living in a place like a highly urban center like New York or Boston. And so, how do we get to a place where there’s a law, but it can be applied slightly differently depending on where you live without just throwing everything out?

Dr. Tom Kelly: You can’t have one-size-fits-all laws from the federal government. States have to be allowed to make their own laws. States then have to allow some autonomy to localities. Colorado had a law that localities could not make gun control laws that were stricter than the state law. So when Denver saw a need to do something, it was overridden by Colorado State law, they couldn’t do that.

 Obviously, my libertarian leanings come leaking out whenever I’m speaking, more freedom, not less. The more we try to force people to get in line, the worst things go and the more America is going to fray. America does have a long tradition of liberty. And liberty is selfish, it’s chaotic, it’s unsafe. We’ve mentioned this before in previous podcasts, more and more people are attracted to politicians who will make them feel safe.

Ultimately, it comes down to one thing, there is just way too much faith in what a centralized government can do to make life better for us. The centralized government of one country can’t fix the climate. It can’t get rid of violence. It can’t get rid of racism, it can’t get rid of hate. It can’t force people to care about each other. It can’t cure all diseases.

There are things that government can do and cannot do and there are things that government can do very well and the things that free people do much better than a centralized government. We could write entire books about that. I don’t know what we can do because the country is drifting towards authoritarianism on the right and the left, and the answer for me is to let people be free again.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I agree. I will oftentimes describe myself as an anti-authoritarian libertarian, sounds kind of weird. But yeah, let people be free. And also, let localities decide how there are gun control laws. And it is funny when you have a state who says the federal government’s not going to force me to do anything. And then a locality says, “Hey, we want to do this,” and then the state says, “Nope, you can’t do that.” And so it’s only applied to their level of “power.” And it’s extraordinarily hypocritical.

What works for a different locality doesn’t work for all localities. That just seems to be basic governing 101. And that’s why I’m really glad we had a really great talk about democratic literacy in America, the need for it for people to understand. And, most importantly, the people just to understand that where you live is not the same where it is everywhere. And there are different people and different ways of governing and different concepts and different philosophies, and those are okay. Any final words, Tom?

Dr. Tom Kelly: No. Just thanks for having me, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, no, definitely. And today we’re speaking with Dr. Tom Kelly about democratic literacy in America, and my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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