Thom Hartmann Brings Context to
Today's Political Frays
BuzzFlash Editor Mark Karlin interviews
www.buzzflash.com/, February 7,
Thom Hartmann is a regular contributor
to BuzzFlash through his illuminating "Independent Thinker"
book review column. He also hosts a syndicated radio talk show,
heard from coast to coast on the Sirius Satellite Radio system,
on CRN, on Air America, and on RadioPower.org. What's more, Hartmann
is the award-winning author of such books as Unequal Protection:
The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights;
We The People: A Call to Take Back America; and What Would Jefferson
Do? Here, Thom Hartmann brings context to the intellectual and
policy battles that divide America today - and he looks at why
the right wing has, for the moment, gained the upper hand.
* * *
BuzzFlash: A while back you reviewed
the book, Leo Strauss and the American Right, for BuzzFlash. Leo
Strauss, who influenced many members of the Bush Administration,
was, in essence, an elitist. He argued that democracy was too
precious to be left to citizens to decide, and that an elite ruling
class should, if necessary, delude the masses to lead a country
into war, or whatever was necessary to save the so-called civilized
world. The people who are running this Administration don't trust
the mass of Americans to decide the course of foreign policy or
the course of domestic policy. But the administration presents
Bush as a populist - as a man who would really rather be clearing
brush on his ranch. Do you see the irony there, and how does that
play itself out?
Thom Hartmann: The irony is fairly self-evident.
Unfortunately, most Americans don't know the historical context.
Strauss argued that only an elite could ever govern successfully.
This was an echo of Plato's point of view, whom Strauss quoted
quite a lot. Plato was a critic of democracy, and so was Leo Strauss.
Thomas Jefferson was another great student
of Plato. However, Jefferson was very opposed to Plato's notion
that democracy is intrinsically flawed. This became a huge debate
between the Jeffersonians - those who believed in democracy -
Jefferson, Madison, and so on - and the Federalists - the Hamilton,
John Adams crowd - who really believed that all the talk about
democracy is great to pacify the "rabble" - the phrase
that John Adams used to describe the average person. The Federalists
believed you don't give the masses real democracy - you only want
to give them a little bit. You let them vote for the House of
Representatives, but you leave the real power in the hands of
the Senate, and you don't let the rabble vote for the Senate.
Of course, the United States Senate was not actually directly
elected by We The People of the United States until 1913 with
the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
BuzzFlash: Until then, the senators were
elected by the state legislatures, right?
Thom Hartmann: They weren't even elected.
What the Constitution said was that it was up to each state to
determine how they would decide who would be their two US Senators.
In some states, the governor appointed them. In some states, the
state Senate selected them. In some states, it was the old-boy
network behind closed doors. In some states, it was a legislative
election - in very few states. The one common denominator was
that it was a fairly corrupt system, and the Senate had historically
been the repository for rule by the elites in America. It's still
largely a millionaire's club.
BuzzFlash: It was, in essence, the American
House of Lords.
Thom Hartmann: Exactly. So Leo Strauss'
teachings, while many people posit them as some new radical thinking,
were not new as American political thought. The same arguments
went on for the better part of fifty years between Thomas Jefferson
and John Adams, and sometimes very loudly. It's the same argument
that has largely been the subtext of all of American history,
including the Civil War - including, some would say, Woodrow Wilson
getting us into World War I. The overthrow of this concept of
the elite was the cornerstone of Franklin Roosevelt's Administration.
Clearly the people in the Bush Administration don't trust We The
People. It's the most secretive Administration in the history
of the United States.
BuzzFlash: The Republican Party, before
it became extremely right wing, ran against this elitism. If you
go back to Adlai Stevenson, the Republicans painted the Democrats
as being pointy-head, liberal elitists who looked down on the
common man. Today we see this played out in the so-called values
Thom Hartmann: What you're describing
is really the spin that the Republicans put on the Democratic
idea that government can actually perform a useful function in
regard to the regulation of the commons, and that the commons
changes over time.
In other words, when Roosevelt came along
with Social Security, the Republican objection to Social Security
was, "That's not in the Constitution." The Founders
didn't define that as part of the commons, and therefore, it shouldn't
exist. They said, you've got a bunch of intellectuals in Washington,
D.C. who are going to sit around with their actuarial tables and
figure out how much money we should get when we retire. And the
same argument was used against LBJ - Johnson cut poverty in half
in the first four years of his war on poverty. But the cons said,
"Oh, it's a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals that are
deciding how our tax dollars are going to be spent." That's
the Republican spin.
The reality is that in a democracy - in
a constitutionally limited democratic republic, which is what
we have - in a representative democracy, we elect, or hire people
to represent us to make legislative decisions that reflect our
will and desires. If the majority of us have the will and desire,
and it doesn't conflict with the rights of any minorities, to
have Social Security, or to have national health care, or to have
fill-in-the-blank, then that should be the law. That's the idea
of democracy. The Republicans historically have been opposed to
Another more recent example was during
the health care debate. Bill and Hillary Clinton were trying to
do a national health care program. The Republicans ran ads saying,
"Oh, my God, they want a bureaucrat to decide what doctor
we can go to!" Well, first of all, that was never part of
the program. But secondly, really the question should be, not
do we want our government bureaucrats setting up health care,
but, who would you rather have deciding which doctor you can go
to - someone from the government, which is responsive to We The
People, and we can vote them out of office, and we can change
them, and they're responsive to public pressures? Or somebody
who works for a private corporation, which is owned by a small
group of people? That's really the question or decision. By "keeping
government out of our lives," what happens is, you create
a power vacuum, into which corporations step. It's a flashback
to the robber baron era.
BuzzFlash: The Republicans paint Democratic
leadership as liberal, pointed-head outsiders, Hollywood types,
with different moral values. And this is very much a part of Thomas
Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas -- that the working
stiff votes for Bush anyway because of the values issue. Some
recent Democratic polling by Stan Greenberg confirms this.
We don't agree it can't be changed. That's
the difference between us and the Democratic leadership.
Thom Hartmann: Sometimes you just want
to grab these Democratic consultants and shake them. The meme
that the Republicans get out is that the nature of an elite is
to have pointy-headed intellectuals decide what's best for you.
And that's actually a pretty good meme, because it can be used
against the Republicans to say, "Oh, the Republicans want
pointy-headed intellectuals like the insurance companies' actuaries
to decide what doctors you see. The Republicans want pointy-headed
intellectuals at Dow Chemical to decide what pesticides are going
to be in your food. The Republicans want pointy-headed intellectuals
in America's biggest banks to decide whether or not you can declare
bankruptcy and how your retirement funds are going to be invested.
And all those intellectuals are also going to figure out how to
rip you off - or at least get the most money out of you they can
- because that's their job. That's the fundamental requirement
of a for-profit business.
In all those areas where the Republicans
have said that the Democrats want the pointy-headed intellectuals
in government to be making these decision for you - you can flip
it. You can very easily flip it. And when you do that, people
go: oh, yeah! You know, it's just that quick, because the meme,
the thought-virus, the concept has been well constructed. It's
like that business survey from two or three years ago - they asked
average Americans if they think that corporations have too much
influence on America and American policy. And over 80 percent
- it's a huge number of Americans - feel that corporations have
way too much influence.
So all you have to do is just nudge that
meme or that frame a little bit, and all of a sudden, it comes
crashing down on top of the Republicans.
BuzzFlash: I want to shift gears and talk
about power. There was a politically critical time period when
the Democrats briefly controlled the Senate, right after Jeffords
Thom Hartmann: Jeffords was a good guy,
by the way - the only Republican I voted for in thirty years.
BuzzFlash: Under Tom Daschle's leadership,
and with the rather infamous leadership of Joe Lieberman on the
committee that was responsible for investigating Enron -- the
Democrats had this enormous scandal that was personally tied to
the Bush Administration in many ways. Bush lied about his relationship
with Ken Lay. It was symbolic of the corruption of so many corporations,
and how stockholders, taxpayers and the government had been fleeced.
But the Democrats basically did nothing with that. They were handed
something, not of their making, but something that was a gift
to hold out to the American people to say, here is what results
from Republican policies. And they did nothing. That seemed almost
inexplicable to us.
Thom Hartmann: To me it seems that was
the result of two factors: the DLC's influence on the Democratic
Party, and Reagan's war against organized labor, which is still
ongoing. When Reagan came into power, a quarter of America's workforce
was unionized, so roughly half of America's workforce had a good
union job with benefits, retirement, job security, that sort of
thing. Now we're down to having just 8 or 9% of the private workforce
unionized. So as Reagan's war on organized labor was succeeding
- and organized labor had been traditionally one of the largest
sources of funding for the Democratic Party - Bill Clinton and
others around him were looking around saying, where are we going
to get some cash? It takes money to run for office.
They looked at what the Republicans had
been doing basically since the 1880s, when they first started
selling out to the railroads, with the Grant Administration's
railroad bribery scandals, for example. Clinton realized that
the money's with the corporations, and he said, "Let's get
in bed with them." And that spawned the new Democrats - the
Democratic Leadership Council or DLC - and a tight corporate agenda.
We've got some Democrats who have sold
out to the dark side, some who are beholden to the dark side,
as it were - to the corporate force - some who were even in cahoots
with Enron. So the Democratic Party wasn't true to its founding
principles any longer. A fair number of them had been as complacent
in allowing the Enron scandal to happen as the Republicans had
Those Democrats who had a lot of power
didn't want things to be coming out that would harm their ability
to get corporate money. So I don't think that they missed the
opportunity - I think they passed on the opportunity to go after
Enron and corporations in general. Some of the more powerful forces
within the Party basically took control and said, "We're
not going to go there."
Today that's the battle that's being played
out for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party - between the
DLC and their front groups, who are basically Republican lite
- and the progressives within the Democratic Party.
David Sirota's probably one of the most
effective and articulate writers right now about this schism within
the Democratic Party. This is the big battle, and the one that
concerns me the most right now.
I'm far more concerned about whether the
DLC corrupters are going to succeed than whether the Democrats
are going to succeed over the Republicans. If the Democratic Party
is entirely consumed by the DLC, it's doomed. You know, Bill Clinton
himself, because of his own personal charisma, was able to win
a couple of elections. But the policies of the DLC caused the
Democratic Party to lose Congress during the Clinton administration.
Their type of thinking and their policies are the reason why,
if you ask the average person now what the Democratic Party stands
for, they can't tell you, because the DLC has muddied the waters
so badly, mixing up the Democratic Party with a lite version of
the Republican Party.
BuzzFlash: We call BuzzFlash a pro-democracy
news site. And that's not just a PR position, we actually think
that accurately reflects what we are. But people say, well, you're
really liberal. Why don't you call yourself liberal?
Thom Hartmann: If you go back in history,
you'll discover that democracy came out of the liberals of the
Enlightenment. The early liberal movement was the Enlightenment,
Rousseau and John Locke, and Jefferson, and George Washington,
Franklin, Paine, and Madison. They defined themselves as liberals.
It was George Washington who famously said: "As Mankind becomes
more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who
conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally
entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to
see America among the foremost nations of justice and liberality."
BuzzFlash: Anyone who's been politically
involved will admit the Republicans have made the word "liberal"
some sort of nasty word with all sorts of negative connotations.
The Republicans have misled the masses as to their world view.
Thom Hartmann: It's a problem for America
and for the Democratic Party.
BuzzFlash: But in regard to the DLC, the
essential question is: Is it indeed just a tool of the corporate
funding that it receives, and therefore its followers in the Democratic
Party will take a pass on exposing the vast extent of the Enron
betrayal of the American investor and stockholder? Or does the
DLC honestly believe - that Americans will vote on "values"
over their jobs and so forth, which is the Bush and Rove mantra
- and that they have no ability to influence the thinking of that
person. That seems to be the Democratic outlook.
Someone like Thomas Frank or David Sirota
will say that's just baloney. And we will say America is a country
where you fight for leadership. You influence public opinion.
That's part of the great wrestling match of democracy and the
great maelstrom of democracy, is that you fight. Your viewpoints
influence public policy. You fight to win over the voter and to
support what you think is correct leadership for the nation.
The Democrats seem to have abandoned that.
They seem to feel, we have to adapt to the fixed thinking, and
the fixed thinking is that moral values trump the economy, so
we have to be very powerful on moral values. You have the Joe
Bidens who say, well, the polling says Americans value national
security, so I'd have to support that we need more troops for
Iraq. Are they really that silly to think that they can't influence
Thom Hartmann: A couple of things are
going on, I think. Number one, you have some people within the
DLC, and Joe Lieberman would be one, who I think share the classic
conservative world view that government is too important to leave
to the rabble - that there has to be a governing elite. They're
willing to take the good and bad with the corporate powers or
whatever powers there may be, if that's going to further what
in their view is the greater good or the national good.
I don't think any of these DLC folks or
Republicans or conservatives are bad or evil people. I don't think
any of them are anti-American or doing what they think is going
to harm America. I think that it's a genuine disagreement.
Again, I suspect it's the classic conservative-liberal
debate that goes back to Plato. Should government be something
that's broad and thin - not particularly deep, but very, very
wide? Or should it be something that's very deep but very narrow
- that reaches deep into the population with lots of citizen involvement.
My sense of it is that the DLC folks are more of the conservative
mind view, that they'll give a lot of lip service to democracy,
but they really believe that this is all about policy, number
Number two, the thing that the progressives
within the Democratic Party apparently haven't grasped - or if
they have, they've simply been frustrated in their attempts to
articulate it - is the power of incumbency and majority. The power
of power itself. It aggregates. Over time, power adds to itself.
This is the thing that the Republicans
really figured out with Reagan and his willingness to go to bat
hard for very unpopular positions, like making abortion illegal
or busting up unions. You never pass up a fight, even if you lose.
Every time you have a fight, you get a little more power. And
that power incrementally gets greater and greater and greater
That's the insanity of the Democratic
position of saying, okay, we're going to keep our powder dry on
John Roberts, for example, until the next big fight. What happens
if you stay out of the fight is that you actually lose power.
If you have a fight, even if you lose a fight, you're creating
more power. You're getting your voice out there. You're getting
your message out there. It's another opportunity to speak out.
Look at how many times the Republicans
have said, over and over and over again, starting back in the
sixties, that government is bad. "Government is not the solution.
You don't want government taking care of things." Without
saying the obvious, that, "Therefore, let's replace government
with corporate governance. Instead of the people's elected officials,
let's replace government answerable to the people with corporate
boards of directors."
They didn't win early on. They lost a
lot! How many times did the Republicans have to say that before
the Americans actually began to believe it? It was an entire generation.
A full generation!
The Democrats have, at least since Clinton
came along, stopped speaking up for traditional progressive and
democratic values. They've stopped using every debate as an opportunity
to speak out on behalf of those values.
That's why the average person is uncertain
of Democratic and liberal values. They have a sense of the Republicans
as a repository of values, and that the Democrats aren't, because
they don't fight every fight, and use each one - even the losing
ones - particularly the losing ones! - as a venue to get their
values out there.
In part, of course, this is because conservative
elements have infiltrated the Democratic Party. But it could also
be that the DLC was able to come about because the Democrats stopped
speaking up. It's hard to tell which is the chicken and which
is the egg. In any case, the result is that they haven't been
taking these opportunities to have the fight in which they can
express their values. They're listening to idiot advisors who
only know how to lose elections.
BuzzFlash: It should be pointed out that
for two years, the Democratic leadership was constantly saying
it wasn't pursuing certain fights because it was holding its powder
dry for a Supreme Court appointee.
Thom Hartmann: Right. Keep your powder
dry, like it's a zero-sum game. Like you only have a certain amount
of powder. That's nuts. The reality is that the more often you
use your powder, the more powder you get.
BuzzFlash: And then they didn't pursue
a battle against Roberts because "he's not as far right as
Bush might appoint."
Thom Hartmann: Well, at that point, you
look at that party and you say, one of two things is going on
here. Either some people in this party are seriously misguided,
or you've got some people who are bent on the destruction of the
I don't think Joe Lieberman said, "I
think I'll destroy the Democratic Party here, with this DLC stuff
and keeping the powder dry." I think rather they're saying
to themselves, "You know, the Republicans are onto something
with this idea of a governing elite - small government, and leave
the commons to the corporations. We ought to just get on board
with that." Over the last fifteen or twenty years, more and
more Democrats have been embracing that notion of becoming Republican
lite, and they've gained power within the Democratic Party. So
you've got a party that's essentially paralyzed - at war with
BuzzFlash: Returning to these terms -
progressive, liberal - to us those terms mean that a person is
for democracy - is for the rabble deciding - and not for some
elite, power-entrenched group in Washington who have cushy jobs.
As you say, many Democratic Senators, as well as Republicans,
feel they know better than the hoi polloi what should serve the
nation. They may give lip service to democracy, but they believe
that the inside the beltway creatures do know better. Consequently,
nothing seems to really outrage the Democratic leadership. They've
gotten a little feistier and a little more outspoken. But nothing
of all these travesties over the last five years - nothing seems
to outrage them.
Thom Hartmann: The problem is that these
guys have lost their core ideology. It's like what Reagan said,
and - really from Goldwater - that they had lost the Republican
Party. I was 13 years old when I went door to door for Barry Goldwater.
I read John Stormer's None Dare Call it Treason, and I'd read
Goldwater's writings. I was really into it - you know, at the
age of thirteen. And my dad was on the county Republican Party's
board or whatever. And he's still a Republican.
For me, three years later, I was out marching
against the Vietnam War. Vietnam radicalized me. It caused me
to awaken. But what inspired me about Goldwater in '63 was that
he had a philosophy and he wasn't ashamed of it, and it made a
certain amount of sense. He lost the election but began the conservative
takeover of the Republican party, just because of the power of
his beliefs. It's surprising to me how many people I run into
who remember the early 60s who tell the same story. They will
say, you know, yes, I started out with Goldwater, too, as a teenager.
BuzzFlash: That was the case with Hillary
Thom Hartmann: Hillary Clinton and a surprising
number of people I know in the progressive movement today. Anyhow,
there was this sense of idealism, a vision of America, a sense
of making a better country - this ideal that we had to take the
country back from the elite. And, you know, at thirteen, I wasn't
particularly sophisticated, but I probably had the level of sophistication
that the average person in America does right now. I was paying
a lot of attention to politics then, but today the average person
in America spends about two weeks every four years paying attention
to politics. So you end up with the same level of political awareness.
And that was an awakening for me, that politics meant something.
The Democrats had that with Franklin Roosevelt.
They had a coherent world view. They had a philosophy. I mean,
read Roosevelt's acceptance speech in July of 1936, in Philadelphia,
in its entirety, and it's amazing. You should permanently reprint
it on BuzzFlash, because every progressive in general and every
Democrat in particular should read that thing. It's only three
pages long. It's absolutely mind-boggling. And it's a statement
of what it means to be a Democrat - a big "D" Democrat
as well as a small "d" democrat. The Democratic Party
lost that, in large part, I would say, somewhere in the sixties
The Republican Party, on the other hand
- they picked up a philosophy. They picked up an ideology. It
came out of Russell Kirk's book in 1953, The Conservative Mind.
That book inspired Barry Goldwater. It inspired William F. Buckley.
It inspired me. It inspired a lot of people who, in the early
days were thinking, here's an ideology. It continued to inspire
the conservative movement, and there is no comparable bible of
modern liberal thought unless you go back to that speech that
Roosevelt gave, or you read the Founders.
We're still working to create a Ten Commandments,
some dos and don'ts. David Sirota, Thomas Frank, myself, BuzzFlash,
and other folks are writing about this stuff. But we need to say,
here's a coherent world view. This is the philosophy. This is
what we're all about - this is what we believe in.
BuzzFlash: These are the type of conversations
that aren't held in the daily press and the media, because the
news responds in six-hour cycles now.
Thom Hartmann: We get lost in the micro
and forget the macro. I would also say that, in terms of the Democratic
Party, what Roosevelt had done successfully was he had recaptured
the spirit of Thomas Jefferson. He found it again. That's why
I so often write about Jefferson, and I've written about Roosevelt.
I try to bring those things back because these are the roots of
the party, and it resonates with the people.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash we periodically
get e-mails from right wingers who assert that our site and theories
are based on completely faulty premises. We aren't a "democracy,"
they write, we're a "republic." This is something of
a mantra on the right. Can you flesh that out? What does that
code phrasing mean?
Thom Hartmann: There are two dimensions.
The first is that, back around the time of the Gingrich revolution
(which makes me think that it was Frank Luntz, since he was behind
the wording of the Contract for America), someone in the Republican
Party figured out that whenever you use the word "democratic"
it makes people feel good, but when you say "democrat,"
it doesn't have as much juice. Even though the real and only name
of the Democratic Party is "Democratic Party," Republicans
started referring to the party as the "Democrat" party.
They also refer to Democratic Party's policies as "democrat
policies," because they found that, when you say "democrat,"
you get a more negative emotional response, because people think
"politicians." When you say democrat-ic, you get a more
positive emotional response because people think of the frame
Gingrich Republicans started referring
to "that democrat politician Harry Reid," for example,
or, "that democrat idea." You'll even see it in the
Washington Post and other publications incorrectly, sometimes.
You can always tell the partisan bias of somebody based on whether
they're using that or not, because that's been drilled into the
Republicans. You never refer to the Democratic Party. You never
refer to Democratic principles or ideals. You always say Democrat
policies and Democrat party.
Secondly, there was the idea that the
word democracy sounds an awful lot like democratic, whereas the
word republic sounds an awful lot like Republican. Therefore,
when referring to our form of government, they feel it is better
to convince people that we live in a republic than to convince
people that we live in a democracy. If you convince people that
we live in a democracy, it may seem that the Democratic Party
knows more about it. And if we live in a republic, then probably
the Republican Party should be in charge of it. This is the thinking
and the plan. We're talking about an actual game plan here.
But here's the real history of republican
democracy. This word smithing began in 1786, the year before the
Constitution was to be drafted in Philadelphia. James Madison
was finishing up five years of research into the Constitution.
He had been designated as the guy who would not run, but instead
would be largely responsible for the Constitutional Convention.
That is why he is referred to as the father of the American Constitution.
Back in 1786, if you looked in the dictionary under the word "republic"
or under the word "democracy," you would have found
the same definition. It would have said, "republic - see
democracy; democracy - see republic." They were essentially
the same thing. Plato's Republic was about democracy, or about
the problems of democracy in a republic.
One of the things they struggled with
in putting together the Constitution of the United States was
that Plato's arguments against the Athenian democracy - that is,
that democracy was essentially mob rule - actually had some cogency.
In ancient Athens, it took 6,001 people to show up to pass a law.
They could actually get 6,001 people together, and it could be
a mob. To participate in that representative democracy in Athens,
there was a sort of lottery, something like our jury duty. Everybody's
name was in it, and, when your name came up, you had to show up
and be one of the 6001. If you didn't show up and your name came
up, then you were called one of the" idiota" - which
is where we got the word "idiot" from.
The founders were looking at this and
thinking, this is the only experiment in democracy that has ever
happened in civilized society. There also was the example of the
Iroquois Confederacy, which Madison relied heavily on, although
they were very skeptical because it wasn't European. They were
looking at this and saying, we want to create a federal republic
- a central government where you also have individual states -
because they had a lot of geographic areas with a lot of differences,
and they weren't willing to homogenize themselves. By the way,
the same debate is going on in Iraq right now.
America's founders came up with this idea
of the representative democracy. The federal state is a republic,
and the democracy would be a "representative" democracy.
It was better than having all of us getting together and voting
for a particular law. We would vote for a particular representative
who would represent us. The only remnant of pure democracy in
our system now is things like the California referendum system.
Remember, we were operating under the
Articles of Confederation, and lots of people were all for keeping
the Articles of Confederation with a weak federal government and
strong states. They were markedly opposed to the Constitution
Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were
on opposite sides of the debate about whether or not the rabble
should be included. Hamilton was a conservative and Madison was
a liberal, and they joined up together to do a sales job on the
Constitution. Their sales job on the Constitution took the form
of some 70 or 80 articles that today we refer to as The Federalist
Papers. In late 1787, James Madison wrote one of the Federalist
Papers in which he reinvented the terms "democracy"
and "republic" intentionally to sell the Constitution
to the average person in America. He said a democracy is mob rule
and, Plato's criticisms of it in Athens were probably valid, and
we don't want to have mob rule in the United States, but that's
what the Articles of Confederation could lead to. Then he said
a republic is more like rule by representatives, and the rights
of the minorities are protected in a republic, which is what the
Constitution he was trying to sell would do. In a democracy, he
said, the rights of the minorities can be trampled. So he redefined
For the first forty years or so of America,
from 1790 until about 1830, anybody who wanted to refer to this
country in a favorable way referred to it as a republic. The people
who are today's Democratic Party - people like Jefferson - all
referred to themselves as republicans - democratic republicans
- because they combined the democratic faction with the republican
Robert Dahl wrote a very interesting book
called How Democratic is the American Constitution? He describes
James Madison, in his aging days, writing a letter to a friend
of his in which Madison says, "I kind of made up those distinctions
between the words 'republic' and 'democracy,' but really what
we now have is a democracy."
BuzzFlash: Even then, they were spinning.
Thom Hartmann: That's right. The bottom
line is that there is some truth to the idea that we live in a
republic and not a democracy, inasmuch as we defend the rights
of minorities and have a representative form of government based
on the rule of law. But we also vote for our elected officials,
which is one hallmark of a democracy. If you want to get super-technical
in your rebuttal to these conservative writers who are quoting
the Republican talking points, just say to them, "We live
in a "constitutionally limited democratic republic."
That's technically right.
BuzzFlash: For the moment, let's just
simplify the basic conflict of views between the pro-democracy
forces and the right wingers. There are those who believe that
we govern based on the people being given maximum information
and then making a decision about their elected officials. Then
you have, on the other side, the fringe of the Republican Party
that says we are basically a country based on divine inspiration
and guidance. Unless we adhere to certain standards, which they
claim are in the Bible, then the American nation has gone astray
from its original intentions. This group seeks to impose their
moral vision on the rest of America. To us, this is as anti-democracy
and elitist as you can get.
Thom Hartmann: You've opened two really
important issues here. The first has to do with the question of
whether or not the Constitution gives us rights. This is the fundamental
difference in thinking between Scalia and Thomas, on the one hand,
and everybody else in the Supreme Court, on the other.
Scalia has said, "If you want a right,
pass a law. If you want the right to gay marriage, pass a law.
If you want the right to an abortion, pass a law." He and
Justice Thomas are both operating on the assumption that the Constitution
gives us rights.
Now, during the preceding 7,000 years
of what we call civilization, humans had labored under three primary
forms of government - warlord kings, popes, and rule by the rich,
known as feudalism. In each of these three forms of government,
the government held the rights and distributed privileges to the
people at will.
But the people did not have rights. They
only had the privileges that the government decided to give them.
The radical notion on which this country
was founded flipped that upside down to say that We, The People,
will hold all the rights exclusively. Any time a bunch of the
people get together and create an institution, whether that institution
is a church or a corporation, or a civic club or even a government,
that institution will only have privileges. And those privileges
will be defined and limited by We The People.
A battle over this erupted in 1787. James
Madison sent Jefferson, who was our envoy to France and living
in Paris, a draft copy of the Constitution. Jefferson was Madison's
mentor, and Madison mailed that to him, all proud of it. And Jefferson
writes back to Madison and says, you know, this is all fine, and
I like this and this and this. But he says, there's one thing
that I will not tolerate, and that's that there's no bill of rights
attached to this Constitution. Madison writes back to him and
says that the entire Constitution is a bill of rights. The first
three words are "We The People." Jefferson argues that
future generations may forget that. So future generations don't
go astray and start thinking that the Constitution grants rights,
we have to be sure to carve out these things that are absolutely
vital for a democracy to thrive.
Then Alexander Hamilton gets into the
act. One of the Federalist Papers that he writes argues against
having a bill of rights in the Constitution. It's fascinating
to read because Hamilton goes into this long rant about how there's
no need for a bill of rights in the Constitution because the Constitution
itself is a bill of rights. It begins with the words, "We
The People." All rights are reserved to the people, and therefore,
there are no rights that the government has. The government only
has privileges because we the people give them to it.
But Scalia and Thomas believe it's the
other way around. They believe that we have morphed ourselves
back into that ancient form of government, that aristocratic form
of government, where the government has the rights and they dole
them out to the people as they choose. Scalia and Thomas feel
the Bill of Rights defines the basic rights that the government
has given us, which is exactly what Hamilton warned would happen
if they put a Bill of Rights into the Constitution, by the way.
Tragically, the Scalia world view is growing
- that the government determines what rights or privileges the
people will have, and gives them to them. That's a very dangerous
thing for democracy.
BuzzFlash: Thom, thank you so much.This
is the type of context that often gets lost.
Thom Hartmann: And we've just scratched
the surface here.