Checks, Balances, and Civility in Politics

One thing that always stuck in my head about government, way back to elementary school, was the idea of checks and balances. You see, our government was designed deliberately to prevent any one person or group from getting too much power and becoming a de facto monarch (or oligarch). For instance, Congress passes laws, but they don’t go into effect until the President signs them. The President is commander-in-chief of our armed forces, but only Congress can declare war. The House and Senate are designed with different representations so that neither the most populous nor the most numerous states can overwhelm the others.

This principle extends further. Competing businesses keep each other in check (word of the day: free market). Business and government keep each other in check through lobbyists and regulators. Conservatives and liberals, playing tug-of-war, should together keep us trying new things without completely losing track of the old things we should keep. This can usually be managed by having one party in charge of the White House and the other in charge of Congress. The last thing you want is for the extreme right or extreme left to control all branches of government. (We’ve seen what a conservative-controlled country is like over the last few years, and a lot of people don’t like it.)

So it was interesting to see J. Michael Straczynski (a.k.a. JMS), best known as the creator of Babylon 5, talking about the breakdown of civility in politics in terms of the breakdown of checks and balances. If you have 10 minutes to read this tonight — especially if you’re an American citizen of voting age — I recommend that you do. You may nod in agreement, or you may shake your head in disbelief, but it should at least make you think.

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