Divided Government

WWTJD_1312 Divided Government.jpg
Without checks and balances, you cannot maintain a republic.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

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The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:00 Good day citizens and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, Mr. President. 

CSJ as TJ: 00:14 Good day to you, citizen. 

DS: 00:14 Mr Jefferson, our recent elections have divided the powers of the House of Representatives and the Senate between the two parties, each now controlling one branch of government. Is splitting this type of power in government a good thing or a problem? 

CSJ as TJ: 00:29 No, it's good. On the whole. We need checks and balances. We have a tripartite system of our national government in which each of the branches, the judicial branch, the executive branch, and the legislative branch exists in its own world and each one has the capacity to check the excesses or the errors of the other two if necessary. This was deeply woven into our national conception of what a constitution should be. It goes actually all the way back to Aristotle and Polybius in the ancient world and was enshrined in the political theory of Montesquieu in the modern world. So this is central to the American system and I always am reminded of what George Washington said. Washington, talking about the house which is elected every second year and the senators which are elected every six years, said this is good because the Senate, he thought, would be what he called a dish of tea that would cool the passions of the house. 

CSJ as TJ: 01:30 The house is meant to be immediately responsive to the unfolding will of the American people. It's almost a barometer of how the people are thinking and feeling and what their interests are or their fears at any given moment. That's the house. But then the senate is meant to be a second entity that thinks through these things and checks some of the volatility and the excesses of the house. It cools the tea. In the 18th century, you'd have a hot cup of tea, you'd pour it into the saucer and then it would cool because there was a, you know, a broader little lake of tea there and he thought the Senate should serve that function of stepping back and slowing things down. So divided government is actually a very, very good thing. 

DS: 02:20 Well, that may be, but during my time, sir, the division between the parties and the fighting, I don't know, it's not unique to my time, sir, but it is pretty severe. I looked back to a letter that you wrote to George Mason in 1790 where you wrote, it is necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours. I wish that more of our elected officials would read that statement and take it to heart. 

CSJ as TJ: 02:45 It's striking to see how much volatility there can be in our brand of republican democracy. We did not want that. In his farewell address, George Washington worried about factionalism and tribalism and sectionalism. We all were concerned about this, you know, the fact is that a republic, you would call it a democracy, only works if there is a high level of mutual respect, mutual tolerance and harmony. And we have to compromise. We have to come together. And so we agree on more than we disagree about, we share more than we find in way of distinction. It's in our interest to seek consensus, to move towards the center, which everyone can at least accept, if not embrace. That's how it works and when that doesn't work, if it just disintegrates into factionalism and chaos and paralysis and mutual attacks and ad hominem and name calling and bullying and so on, then you probably can't maintain the republican form of government. You have to recover, there, you have to return to what in the time of my protege, James Monroe, was called an era of good feelings. What you need to do in your time now is to find a new era of good feelings. 

DS: 04:03 You speak as if optimism rules your opinions and I appreciate that and I try to follow that, and at the same time, Mr Jefferson, as a younger man in 1778, you wrote, experience has shown that even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power, have in time and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:25 Without question, if you give any power to one individual or one entity, it will begin to aggrandize itself at the expense of Commonwealth values. It will maybe become corrupt and so we have to diffuse power over several different ways of expressing the will of the people so that there is a chance that there will be a check from one branch or one house to the other. Without checks and balances, you cannot maintain a republic. 

DS: 04:55 Thank you very much, Mr Jefferson. 

CSJ as TJ: 04:57 You are welcome, sir.

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