Balancing Political Power

By Frank Blechman

The Founders were suspicious of concentrations of power. Their experience with a king had not been altogether good. The Royal Governors were a mixed lot. George Washington didn’t even like or trust his business agent in London (Washington thought the agent was cheating him), but felt stuck with him.

As one result, when they had a chance, they created a system of governing specifically designed to prevent permanent concentrations of power:

              • Elections were scheduled regularly.
              • The national government was divided into three branches.
              • One branch of government was elected by popular vote.
              • Semi-independent states had their own domains.
              • Feudal fiefdoms and titles of nobility were frowned upon.
              • They dreaded even the idea of a standing army.
              • Checks and balances were the watchwords of the day.

Here in Virginia, we glorified the legend of Cincinnatus, the Roman genius who was called from his fields to lead the army to victory, then returned to his farm and home, relinquishing any further claim to power or glory. After the revolution, Washington’s officers created the Society of the Cincinnati, which remains ensconced in its imposing headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in DC to this day. To further hammer home the point, we wrote into our Commonwealth’s constitution that our governor could not serve consecutive terms. For the last 50 years in Virginia, we have liked divided government so much that more often than not, we elected a governor from the opposite party as the President, just to show that we could.

Although much has changed about Virginia since 1776 (or even since 1976), that contrarian streak remains. I have long argued that this makes us more libertarian than conventionally “conservative.” I think it also means that any celebration of Virginia as a “blue” state is unwise. In the general election in a few weeks, Virginia may predominantly support one party over the other. It’s happened before. It does not mean, however, that the people have ideologically reversed course. I think that the vote represents a rejection of the current national regime and its local allies much more than the embrace of any single alternative.

Although much has changed about Virginia since 1776 (or even since 1976), that contrarian streak remains. I have long argued that this makes us more libertarian than conventionally “conservative.” I think it also means that any celebration of Virginia as a “blue” state is unwise. In the general election in a few weeks, Virginia may predominantly support one party over the other. It’s happened before. It does not mean, however, that the people have ideologically reversed course. I think that the vote represents a rejection of the current national regime and its local allies much more than the embrace of any single alternative. I suspect that any attempt to interpret the election results as a mandate will be a mistake. I am confident that the pendulum will swing back, that Virginia will “throw the bums out” again at some future date, relatively soon.

The gap in our founders’ vision was that they did not foresee the awesome concentration of power in the hands of immortal private corporations. Their fear of government power created a vacuum that combines, trusts, and corporations filled at the end of the 19th century. We recognized the oversight in the 20th century and tried to create national regulatory mechanisms. Yet multinational corporations grew beyond the reach of national control. We are still wrestling with this problem in the 21st century. And Virginia has not been a leader in this area. Our corporate oversight and labor laws are among the worst in the nation.

Can we find a way to harness our fear of concentrated power for the common good? That is the challenge of our time.



Categories: elections, Issues, Local, National, politics, RULE OF LAW, State

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