Image: Your Little Planet

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote a series articles in 1787 called the Federalist Papers defending the newly written Constitution. In Federalist Paper No. 57, Madison proposed to ‘first obtain for rulers men who possess the wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue the common good’. They were quite concerned that an overbearing majority would run over the needs of the public good or a minority group.  Or that a ruling class of the privileged and wealthy would use the tools of government to continue to gain more wealth at the expense of the common people.

Today a sense of the common good is almost non-existent in our political discourse as our federal government has become so partisan as to be completely inept at coping with the common problems facing Americans.  There is intense conflict between factions about our public interest in clean air, water and land, safe communities, equal economic opportunities, an open education system for all, justice for immigrants seeking to contribute to our country and being a leading light of democracy around the world.  On many issues, corporations, public interest groups and other nations are ahead of us by 10 – 20 years in solving many foundational issues of our time.

What happened to our shared sense of the Common Good?  One way to understand the loss of our common shared interest is in the lack of trust Americans feel in their democratic institutions that have the responsibility to protect and sustain our common interests and public good.

Source: Pew Research Center – 12/14/2017

There has been a slow and continuous decline in public trust since President Eisenhower until the ultimate low today during President Trump’s administration.

We see two major factors for the lack of trust.  One, is that economic inequality has been increasing over the last 60 years to the point where it is at the worst it has ever been since 1929.  Americans expect their government to be the rule keeper of a fair shot at economic opportunity not a bastion for the rich and powerful.  As the wealthy donors have taken over control of both major parties, the influence of the average citizen has been reduced to nearly nothing except at the ballot box – but not in legislative policy.  A study by Professors Martin Gilens of Northwestern, and Benjamin Page of Princeton found that the opinion of the bottom 90 % made no difference in laws passed by Congress over a 20-year period. For example, the present GOP Administration is out of step with most Americans that want a clean environment even if there is an economic cost based on a Gallup poll. Americans know that the system is rigged as both candidates on the far left and far right, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump gained great support by proclaiming that the economy and government was rigged against them.

The second major factor was the evolution of media and the Internet.  In the 1950s and 1960s families gathered around the television set to watch Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley bring them the news for the day.  These new anchors had teams of trained journalists in how to gather news, provide airing of opposing views and investigation to reveal the facts of the story. As cable news programs became popular people drifted away from central network journalist supported news programs toward popular ‘viewpoint news’ programs like Fox News or CNN.  Then, from 1995 until today, the Internet was a catalyst for the growth of blogging, and ‘friend news’ which had virtually no formally trained journalists and limited understanding of the difference between facts and opinions.  Opinions spread virally through the Internet often with no foundation in formal fact gathering or fact finding investigation techniques. Today, we even have presidential spokespersons talking about ‘alternative facts’ to justify their policies or opinions.

We have come a long way from a shared common understanding of the facts to base opinions and policy ideas about. Unfortunately, the factional conflict is tearing at the foundations of our democratic institutions that keep our country free and protect the rights of all.

Next week, we will examine deeper how Madison and the founding leaders viewed factions and how to deal with them to keep new ideas coming yet keep the Union together.  They had ideas that are insightful for our situation today as they placed their trust in the people to make the right decisions when provided with good information and facts.