Sun | Jun 24, 2018

The future of the American republic

Published:Sunday | November 11, 2012 | 12:00 AM
Jaylen Williams (left) and Sean Tyus walk past a home-made Obama sign on their way to school Wednesday in the Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood of downtown Cincinnati. - AP

Martin Henry, Contributor

Barack Obama has been asked by the Electoral College, as directed by voters, to continue in the White House for another four years. This is his second and final term. Term limits for the presidency were only imposed by Congress after Franklin Delano Roosevelt had won four consecutive terms and died in office in 1945.

Meanwhile, the federal juggernaut rolls on with a mind and soul of its own and largely independently of who is chief executive. I made the same point in a column just before the 2008 election, John Obama or Barack McCain, when John McCain was the Republican candidate: "However America decides ..., its next president will be only the titular head of a vast bureaucracy with a supermind and stubborn will of its own. The massive growth of the modern state over the course of the 20th century, a growth fuelled to a large extent by mega wars for which the state hijacked massive amounts of resources, has made heads of state and government mere managers of huge, complex bureaucracies. And nowhere more so than in today's sole superpower."

The war which launched the modern state as we know it and brought the United States to the status of a world power, World War I, is being commemorated today. The Armistice which ended the Great War commenced at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918.

"The effect of the Great War," historian Paul Johnson tells us in A History of the Modern World from 1917 to the 1980s, "was enormously to increase the size of, and therefore the destructive capacity and propensity to oppress, of the state. Before 1914, all state sectors were small, though most were growing ... . With the onset of the war, each belligerent eagerly scanned its competitors and allies for aspects of state management and intervention in the war economy which could be imitated ... ."

Johnson describes the "war corporatism" adopted by the US when it entered the conflict in 1917 and concluded that "the war demonstrated both the impressive speed with which the modern state could expand itself and the inexhaustible appetite which it thereupon developed both for the destruction of its enemies and for the exercise of despotic power over its own citizens."

The American republic was pre-eminently founded on the principle of freedom, particularly religious freedom. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," the Declaration of Independence pronounces, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This grand concept of freedom has not nearly been as common or as old as we now generally think it to be.

Values, ideals important

Jamaica-born Harvard sociologist and significant scholar of both slavery and freedom, Orlando Patterson, writes in the preface to his monumental work, Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, "For most of human history, and for nearly all of the non-Western world prior to Western contact, freedom was, and for many still remains, anything but an obvious or desirable goal.

Other values and ideals were, or are, of far greater importance to them - values such as the pursuit of glory, honour, and power for oneself or one's family and clan, nationalism and imperial grandeur, militarism and valour in warfare, filial piety, the harmony of heaven and earth, the spreading of the 'true faith' nirvana, hedonism, altruism, justice, equality, material progress - the list is endless. But almost never outside the context of Western culture and its influence has it included freedom. Indeed, non-Western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the West."

Interestingly, Patterson opens his preface to Freedom bluntly stating that freedom "is the central value of Christianity: being redeemed, being freed by, and in, Christ, is the ultimate goal of all Christians". And he closes on the same note in the coda: "From its Judaeo-Christian religion forged in the sickening horror of Roman slave society, the West learned the reinforcing spiritual truth that 'out of evil cometh good'." The cross is "that central and most protean civilisational symbol of death and rebirth, estrangement and reconciliation, slavery and salvation, the vertical crossroad of choice".

The American colonies were primarily founded to escape religious oppression in Europe and also monarchical tyranny. The First Amendment was intended to protect religious freedom, which was a founding principle of the republic, not to banish religion from the public sphere: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Presidential campaigns are now overwhelmingly concerned with economic plans, service delivery plans in health, education, welfare - and satisfying contending sectoral interests of all sorts. A big part of the reason for the very close races of recent times is the undifferentiation of the plans of the candidates, where choice comes down to feelings of candidate credibility or capacity to deliver on some sectoral or personal interest.

The job of the president, as defined by the oath of office, is simple and straightforward: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States."

The purpose of the Constitution is set out in its opening paragraph: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Delegation of powers

The federal government has grown enormously in centralised power, but the intent of the Constitution was that power would reside with the states and with the people unless specifically delegated to the central authority. Article Ten of the Amendments explicitly says: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The founders were keenly aware that freedom could only survive and be enjoyed with restraint. First president George Washington, in his farewell address, was adamant that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them."

Washington warned in 1796: "Let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion ... reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle ... . Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government."

And John Adams, one of the framers of the Constitution and second president, frankly told the US Army in a 1798 address: "We have no government armed in power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

While Orlando Patterson argues for freedom as the "supreme value of the Western world", security of various sorts and from various threats is now trumping freedom as the supreme value, as Alexis de Tocqueville so presciently projected in Democracy in America way back in 1835 when the republic was young.

A number of powerful forces are driving this trend. In Obama's first term, the US and the world faced the greatest recession since the Great Depression from October 1929 well into the 1930s. The inherently unstable global financial system, in which the US is the dominant player, is teetering on the brink of disaster and will require strong regulatory intervention with an inevitable negative impact on freedom.

The War on Terror, which began in earnest during the George W. Bush presidency in the aftermath of 9/11 and which has fundamentally changed the character of the American state and constricted freedom in exchange for security, will continue unabated.

"Please excuse the appearance of this place. Two days ago, it was under two feet of water," a polling station worker in a New Jersey town apologised to voters on election day. The US Northeast was ravaged by late-season superstorm Sandy just ahead of the election, a portent of things to come if the predictions of the effects of global warming and climate change hold good. Environmental extremes will provoke more stringent regulations and control.

The unavoidable obligations of being global supercop with hot spots threatening American interests breaking out one behind the other around the world will have implications for restrictions at home.

But perhaps the greatest threat of all to freedom in the American republic is the disintegration of a moral consensus, with social order following. The federal government headed by Obama, or whoever, will have to impose and maintain order by all necessary means.

Martin Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to and