The fourth branch of government


Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 9, 2005 

By the time this reaches publication, Asheville will have a new city government. Someone will have bemoaned low voter turnout. Supporters of losing candidates will have vowed to work harder next time. President Bush's approval rating will be dogpaddling hard to keep its nose at 40%. Congress, languishing ten points lower, will be envious of his popularity.

Our civic duty done for the year—thought about voting, distrusted the government—we now return to the more pressing business of protecting ourselves against the great threat(s) that besets us. The identity of the threat varies, of course, with political and religious persuasion. For progressives it's likely to be governmental and corporate erosion of personal space and civil liberties. Conservatives get the willies about property rights and barbarians at the gates. Dominionist Christians gird their loins against the cultural decay wrought by Satan and his minions. All we seem able to agree on is that we're in deep doo-doo.

So we go our separate ways to: 1) pray for deliverance, 2) ignore the national slide into the dumpster, or 3) barricade ourselves behind ever greater heaps of consumer products.

There are generally accepted reasons for the national tension: terrorist threats, fear-mongering as a perennial election strategy, a political culture of anything goes so long as you beat the rap, a news media more interested in sales than educating the populace, etc. I'd like to add another to the list. It's our fault too.

Our fault, as in We the People's fault. We're abdicating too much of our responsibility to participate in civic life. Until we reach a certain age, it may be fair to blame our social studies and history teachers for failing to point out that the United States has four branches of government not three.

The teachers drilled us on the three branches where power is concentrated but too often ignored or downplayed the workings of the branch where it is diffuse--us, the citizenry. They failed to mention that governments throughout history, including ours, are self-serving or that leaders still follow the guide to political chicanery Machievelli wrote five hundred years ago.

Be it monarch, president, or corporation, the powerful rarely give power away. But we, the unacknowledged branch of government, bestow that power and take it from them. Consider the Magna Carta, the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, trade unions, women's suffrage, the civil rights movement, and so on.

The founding fathers built us into the governing process from voting to jury duty. But, being newly empowered themselves, they didn't go out of their way to underscore the necessity of day-to-day citizen participation in governance. It was enough that we obey the laws and that white male property owners cast periodic votes.

We can now see where such passive compliance leads. Lower and middleclass backers of the Bush administration are forced to abandon reason and economic self-interest to sustain their shared vision of patriotic belief. They curse government but find themselves in the bizarre position of defending the veracity of its pronouncements and supporting a more intrusive militarized version of it.

The rest of us feel ignored. Many on both sides of this largely manufactured divide feel disconnected, uninformed, afraid of our fellow citizens and things that go bump in the night. We get selfish. If we don't actually threaten those around us, we allow the powers that be to keep us fragmented through mutual suspicion.

Do multinational corporations care whether abortion is outlawed? Not likely, the rich can go where they like. Do most congressional Democrats really care whether the reasons for invading Iraq were fraudulent? Let them check their war chests and re-election prospects before deciding. Do elected officials lose sleep when they lie or sell votes to big campaign contributors? Not unless they're caught. Even then, there's always the revolving door into industry or lobbying.

These symptoms aren't peculiar to Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or strongmen. They are common surrenders to the temptations of power. Without power, coherently exercised, societies are a quivering chaos. But power corrupts. We can't afford to forget that.

It is the people's function in any political system to serve as the check and balance on concentrations of power. No other domestic force can be trusted with the job. When we don't keep each other informed and involved, build communication bridges, create alternative social structures to replace corrupted ones, and mobilize when necessary, we invite our own abuse and may be complicit in the abuse of others.

Active citizenship is healthy citizenship. Good government depends on it. Our leaders need less carping and more proactive assistance in addressing the issues of the day. But, equally crucial is the regulation of political power. We have to afford our leaders a measure of protection from themselves.

Is that too much to ask?

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2005 all rights reserved



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