Many Americans, including me, yawned or snoozed our way through high-school civics classes.
In ninth grade, we had to memorize all nine Supreme Court justices. I was glad when Mr. House said they were appointed for life because I’d never have to memorize them again. That was then, this is now; the ones I memorized are all long gone.
Through the years, I’ve had to re-learn what I should have learned (and remembered) in class. Some months ago, a book came my way called “The Language of Liberty: A Citizen’s Vocabulary” by Edwin C. Hagenstein. I’ve found it to be a valuable reference work.
“Language” is a primer on the American government – how and why it was formed, how it works (or sometimes doesn’t), how it has changed and how difficult it is to get anything done. The book reawakens what we half-learned years ago; there is also new and interesting information to learn.
The book contains 101 topic names clang out like gongs with contemporary relevance: Civil Rights, Demagogue, Democracy, Electoral College, Filibuster, Gerrymander, Identity Politics, Populism, Speaker of the House, Subpoena, Supreme Court and Veto. Each gets from two to four pages of text.
What I learned – relearned – from “The Language of Liberty” is just how complicated and messy is the machinery of government. It is often downright baffling, at times nearly incomprehensible, a confusing battle, a nasty tug of war.
What’s most surprising is it’s more or less the way the Founding Fathers designed it when they drafted the U.S. Constitution. They went out of their way to develop a system so one political faction could not force through self-serving legislation or push power to the point of tyranny. Those wise Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the rest, had learned their lessons well. They were painfully aware of how, in the “Old World” of Europe, kings and tyrants pushed their weight around, tyrannizing the masses of “common people” and causing so many inequities, so much misery, so much death.
That is why the Founding Fathers devised a system of checks and balances among the three major parts of government, the Executive (presidency), Legislative (congress) and Judicial (court system). Not a day goes by but what we don’t hear in the news of the fights, the give-and-take struggles, the tug of war between those branches of government. At times, governance resembles a crazy massive game of chess in which the rules are made up by warring factions as the never-ending game is played, with no final “checkmate.”
Despite the maddening complications, this government has had great successes, strides for human liberty, throughout the past 250 years – despite the horrors of a Civil War, the unspeakable cruelties of slavery, ongoing inequalities, sexism and voting-suppression efforts.
Hagenstein is an excellent writer and scrupulously non-partisan in his approach. He reminds us that democracy depends upon two essential beliefs: that We the People are sovereign (not some royal king) and that the people “will have the necessary capacities – intelligence, judgment, courage, steadfastness – to govern.”
Reading “Language” is exhilarating and makes one proud to be a part of democracy, this great ongoing American experiment. But the book also contains some cautionary paragraphs that ring all too true these days, like the following one under the topic of Democracy:
“One certainty, given our bitterly divided politics, is that after every major election, tens of millions of democracy-loving Americans will wake up aghast at the results and wondering how they came to share their country with so many lunatics.”
“The Language of Liberty” can be purchased via amazon.com.