I recently created a bit of a stir among my former classmates by mentioning that I never learned much about Texas History in school while I was growing up. Many of my long time friends not only insisted that we indeed had a strong grounding in the story of our state but that it was also quite exciting. Others believed like me that the topic of Texas was rarely if ever mentioned in our classes. I suspect that Texas may have been part of the curriculum somewhere along the line but was so uninspiring to me that I blanked it out of my mind. I had a great education in my youth but social studies failed to enchant me the way the other subjects did. I recall mostly reading from a textbook and then memorizing dates and facts. It was not until I went to college that my fascination with history and politics was born.
In my second semester of American History at the University of Houston I had a professor who made each class literally come alive. He was a scruffy man who chain smoked cigarettes while he spoke and often appeared to be coming out of a weekend drinking binge. He would lean on the podium as though if he were to let go he would surely have fallen to the ground. He’d take a deep draw on his cigarette, clear his throat and begin his thrice weekly recitation as though he were a crazy uncle telling tales. The information that came from his lips kept us spellbound so that the one hour class passed by far too quickly. We rarely wanted to leave, instead wishing that we might linger just a bit longer to find out what was going to happen next in the saga of our country. I found myself feeling like a sponge in his presence, soaking up every word that he uttered and hungry for more. Thus began my lifelong love affair with all things pertaining to history of any kind.
The same was true of my encounter with political science. Every student at the University of Houston had to take a two semester course detailing the essence of our Constitution and the ways in which our system of government works. The classes had the reputation of being difficult. Many a student’s GPA suffered from the rigors of this required course. The university had a reputation for having one of the best Political Science departments in the country and its professors were bound and determined to keep the level of excellence intact. I remember being quite afraid when I registered but I need not have been. The experience was both fascinating and exhilarating. I have never looked at the operations of our government quite the same since taking those two basic courses. A graduate class in Public Administration only enhanced my fascination with life in the political arena.
What my professors at the University of Houston taught me is to critically analyze the political environment and the lessons of history. They instilled a sense of wariness in me that causes me to question every situation and person in government. I’m not much of a hero worshiper because I understand that our nation was built imperfectly by imperfect people and yet it is perhaps the most wonderful institution in the world. Our Founding Fathers may have individually had feet of clay but collectively they were quite brilliant. They understood the inherent problems with popular democracy and built safeguards into our operating system that purposely create a certain level of gridlock and prevent any individual from foisting his or her beliefs onto the country as a whole. They had endured demagogues and were insistent that the new government would have a system of checks and balances that ultimately protect the people from those who would over extend their powers.
Our government tends to be divisive in nature because it was built that way to insure that differing voices and points of view are heard. Our country has managed to continue through wars, financial crises, and sometimes colossally inept presidents because of the protections that are part of the very DNA of our Constitution. Because we are all quite different it is only natural that we will often disagree but ultimately the members of the three branches of government slowly mediate our arguments. When the differences are especially profound the gridlock that ensues is actually a blessing, ensuring that we will not be ruled by a mob.
We are in an election year. Our populace is quite divided, a situation that is not particularly unique in our history. There are avid supporters of entirely different points of view and then there are those of us in the middle who glance from left to right attempting to determine how we will compromise our more moderate views. We have some rather extreme candidates who have mostly grown impatient with our system. They promise sweeping changes that in reality are unlikely to happen because our Founding Fathers were wise enough to create a system that prevents a preemptive take over of the country without the agreement of all three branches of the government.
This weekend a seemingly seismic event occurred with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The makeup of the court as it now stands is a rather nice mix of liberal versus conservative jurists. Replacing Justice Scalia may skew the court in favor of a more liberal reading of the Constitution and the members of the Republican party are already circling the wagons, which is exactly what they are supposed to do. The Founding Fathers gave the President the duty of nominating a candidate but they they gave the Senate the right to determine whether or not such persons are acceptable. The inevitable fight that is coming will not be evidence that the Republicans do not uphold the Constitution but, on the contrary, it is the kind of action that those brilliant individuals who formed this union insisted had to happen to insure that the voices of the people would be heard.
The seating of a justice on the Supreme Court is a matter to be taken quite seriously, especially considering that many of the cases that they will be deciding in the coming months directly involve questions regarding the actions of the President. I find myself wondering if inserting his chosen candidate into the mix at such a crucial time would in fact be a conflict of interest. At best anyone appointed by him would need to recuse him/herself from those decisions that specifically involve the president. I find a certain level of merit in the Republican claim that We the People should have a voice in what happens by waiting until after the elections in November to find a replacement for Justice Scalia. At the voting booth we will have the power to send our choices to the Oval Office and the chambers of Congress. That will give our leaders a clear signal as to what type of person we wish to place in the Supreme Court. If it means a series of tied decisions in the interim, then so be it. It is a small price to pay for giving the power to the citizens rather than to an administrator who is set to leave.
I am cynical and critical enough to believe that most of our politicians want power. I have yet to find a perfect one that I might adulate. All we as the electorate can do is consider the candidates that we have and vote for the persons who most closely approximate our views. Then we can happily rely on the fact that whoever wins will be mitigated by the wonderfully restricting rules of the Constitution. That is the way it is supposed to be. That is what allows me to sleep at night, especially in times when we are so divided. This is what insures that our government will be run not by an individual or a party but by We the People.