Political Equality: The Founding Vision & Modern Reality

DemForum31816Democracy Forum is a radio program hosted by the League of Women Voters Downeast and broadcast on WERU-FM. The program is aired once a month during this election year on 89.9 Blue Hill, 99.9 Bangor and weru.org.



On February 29, Democracy Forum and host Ann Luther welcomed Ralph Ketcham, Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University and Mark Brewer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine to discuss the topic of Political Equality: The Founding Vision; the Modern Reality. Listen to the archived program here.

The program started with quote from James Madison:

“…the electors should be the great body of people of the United States”.

But who are these “people”? Mark Brewer commented, the founders did not have a singular founding vision, but held diverse views. Women were not contemplated as voters; slavery was such a toxic an issue that it was not even discussed. The issue of un-propertied males was complex: some states were already eliminating the property requirement so it was unclear that whether the Constitution needed to address it.

Founders agreed that America was an experiment based on popular sovereignty (however narrow at the beginning). The Constitution was a culmination of previous ideas of government, including those of Locke that gradually suggested the growth of participation in government. The founders expected participation to evolve over time. “Liberty” was the sovereign people taking part in the government—controlling their own lives—not being controlled by George III. Dr. Ketcham stressed that the founders did not see liberty and equality in conflict. Rather, they defined liberty as the freedom to participation fully in civic life.

The arc of history is moving in the direction of greater political equality, a steady process of inclusion. But what is the “modern reality”? At this point the discussion turned to issues of interpreting founder intent in the light of modern needs. Callers asked about originalism and both guests agreed that interpretation of the Constitution should not be limited to just looking at words, but understanding the intent.

DemForumAnother caller commented that the role of free public education was, historically, a way to Americanize new immigrants (sometimes with anti-Catholic bent). Ketcham and Brewer agreed that there is a present need to emphasize citizenship in the schools in order to enhance effective participation in public affairs.

Debates about political equality – whether popular democracy or de facto rule by a “natural aristocracy” – have been going on for a long time. Oftentimes with opinions as divided among the founders as it is among citizens today.

Tune into Democracy Forum on Friday March 18 for: Whose Democracy Is It? Wealth and Income Equality, Money in Politics with guests:

  • Mark Schmitt, Director of the Political Reform Program at New America, a nonprofit civic enterprise dedicated to the renewal of American politics, prosperity and purpose in the Digital Age.
  • Tony Corrado, Professor of Government at Colby College and nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution



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