Members of the iCitizenForum have been sitting in on the “World Forum on the Future of Democracy,” a three-day conference about the key issues of rights and citizenship in the contemporary world. The event brings together some of the heavy hitters in the business of scholarship and policy making. The honorary chairs of the event are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George H.W. Bush, and Margaret Thatcher. The opening speaker was Sandra Day O’Connor. Many other dignitaries, scholars, political leaders, and activists from the around the world are in attendance.
We’ll report the events of some of the most interesting panels over the course of the vent. The first of note was entitled, “Developing a Structure for Deliberative Democracy – The Framers’ Debate.” It was moderated by Jim Lehrer, host of the PBS News Hour, and included Dr. Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mt. Holyoke College and Pulitzer prize-winning historian, Dr. Hunter Rawlings, president emeritus of Cornell University, and Dr. Gordon Wood, professor of history at Brown University and also a Pulitzer prize-winning historian.
The panelists addressed the thoughts and ideas of the country’s founders. Never had there been a republic this size in the history of the world. Where did the framers get their ideas? This panel discussed some of the key decisions of the 1780s that continue to guide our country today.
Balance of Power and Federalism.
The founders were wary not just of monarchy but also of the dangers of the “excesses” of democracy. In 1787, with 11 years of experience with the decentralized federal system, many recognized the stalemate that could be created by a weak central government. The state governments also served as incubators for the republican experiment. The systems they created served as template for the scheme of central government.
Today, with our strong presidency, we worry about the potential abuse of executive authority, from wiretapping to detention to decisions of when and where to go to war. These same questions about balance and oversight guided the writers of the Constitution.
Ironically, many viewed that the best protection of individual rights was to place limits on democracy. Judicial review, separation of powers, checks and balances, all were put in place to protect minorities from majority dominance, often thinking of the minority property holding class.
Today, discussions of rights most often weigh the power of government versus that of the people. However, many of our interviewees also highlight the potential dangers of majority rule. Hanaan, from Al Jazeera, Tala, from Reporters Without Borders, and Aaron, from Free Press, all point out that media consolidation gives large corporations the power to squeeze out smaller players and silence opinions. Brian, from the Pew Forum on Religious Freedom, also warns about religious leaders taking advantage of social momentum to infringe upon the rights of smaller groups.
Going to War
Since the end of WWII, the way the U.S. goes to war is specifically contrary to the wishes of the founders. This is partly a historical drift in powers, but it also stems from the rise of nuclear weapons and other military technologies. No longer can we simply rely on self-armed militia groups.
In the next few weeks we will discuss the responsibilities of American citizens to their collective defense, and the obligations that their national service imposes on the decision makers who engage in military conflicts.
God and Religion
Rawlings - Why wasn’t religion mentioned in the Constitution? Not because of lack of interest, but really because of the principle of decentralization. All of the states regulated religion at this point and that was where the church/state relationship was debated.Brown – Even until the 19th century, many states had officially sponsored religions, which were given a share of tax revenue.
Questions about the Church-State divide, more often connected to the establishment clause of the First Amendment, often rest upon the intent of the Framers. This interesting insight sheds light on the paradox observed by Karyn of the AICGS and Brian of the Pew Foundation, that America expresses so much more religiosity than its European counterparts despite having much stricter separation of church and state.
Freedom of Speech and the Press
Free speech was a bottom-line issue--one of the most important rights to many of the founding fathers. Still, the idea of free press was mostly limited to the issue of prior censorship. The government couldn’t screen the press, but they could still prosecute after the fact, even for printing the truth. In fact, the Alien and Sedition Acts were the first to legislate that TRUTH was a defense. It was in some ways a liberal document. Even Thomas Jefferson was willing to shut down partisan newspapers, relying on the states to do so, who did not need to follow the Bill of Rights.
Free speech continues to be the fundamental issue for many organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House. The modern concept may be different from what the founders came up with, but it’s no less important.