Why 21st Century Common Sense?

Democracy Works Best When We All Participate

If we can point to one underlying principle of democracy, it is the bold statement in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal.” This single principle informs all our democratic institutions and every form of democratic government. In a pure democracy like ancient Athens, all citizens come together in a huge meeting place to make all public decisions together. In a representative democracy, people freely select their representatives who in turn come together to make decisions for the common good. Whichever form of democracy the people choose, the underlying principle remains the same. No single citizen should have an advantage in the public square over any other citizen based on financial assets, social position, inheritance, educational attainment, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, zip code or city or state where he/she happens to reside, or any other irrelevant factor.

In practice, this pure, underlying principle often gets compromised for two main reasons. Honest brokers don’t always agree on how to implement the underlying principle in the fairest way, or the competing parties do not enter the political discussion as equals.

In the American system of government, we have instituted a number of practices that undermine the all-men-are-created-equal principle, that is, practices which effectively make some citizens more equal than others. Some citizens have a built-in and unfair advantage over their compatriots. For example, in the original Constitution, a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining the population of each state and therefore the number of seats that each state would have in the House of Representatives. Similarly, each state was awarded two seats in the Senate, regardless of the number of persons in that state. Both of these constitutional provisions contradict the notion that all of us are created equal. Though not directly stated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has enshrined the notion that corporations have the same rights as people, which means that corporations have a voice in public debates. We tolerate many practices in the public domain that make some people more equal than others, especially the outsized influence of corporate lobbyists and of the political donor class. When it comes to drafting laws, selecting candidates for public office, or getting the attention of elected officials, lobbyists and major contributors have an inside track. Joe citizen may try to compete, but he does so at a considerable disadvantage.

The major purpose of 21st Century Common Sense (21CommonSense.org) is to examine the practices that give some Americans an unfair advantage and to recommend adjustments that would tend to level the playing field. There is no perfect system, nor will any set of laws or constitutional amendments make for an ideal system. The fixes that we will discuss are imperfect, of course, but they could help make the existing system better.

From the outset, let me state that I accept without qualification or argument the underlying principle that all of us are created equal. Someone who rejects that principle might find little of merit in 21st Century Common Sense. We will examine those practices which give some citizens an inherent advantage over others to see whether we can realize greater opportunity for all.

Unfair or unequal practices include provisions of the federal or state constitutions, federal or state laws (or the lack of applicable laws), judicial decisions, or just common or accepted or traditional social or cultural practices. Regardless of the provenance of the practice or the reason for its continuance, we will examine it with a view to making our public business more fair, open, and equal for all.

This mission is not pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Rather, it is exactly what our Founding Fathers undertook when they signed the Declaration of Independence, when they adopted the Articles of Confederation, and when they adopted the US Constitution. Our project will be a reappraisal of how we can better govern ourselves so as to make ours a more perfect union

The Original Common Sense

Common Sense, a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine and published in January 1776, inspired American colonists, by July of that same year, to adopt a completely radical idea: revolution against the Government of King George III and establishment of a new and independent country based on the principles of liberty and self-government.

You can read Thomas Paine’s original pamphlet, often called the most influential political tract of all time, at https://archive.org/details/commonsense00painrich

Common Sense for the 21st Century

21st Century Common Sense is a 21st century version of the same thing: bold proposals for reforming the American Government based on the principles of liberty and self-government. Unlike Thomas Paine’s revolutionary tract, my ideas are bold rather than radical: Thomas Paine and his fellow revolutionists wanted to throw out the British Monarchy and everything associated with it; I on the other hand want to build on what we have achieved, preserve all that is good and valuable in our existing political structures, but boldly transform the broken pieces into something more democratic, more representative, more of a perfect union.

Let me briefly comment on my purpose, assumptions, and intended audience:

  • My Purpose is to spark discussion, debate, and action. I am tired of hearing Americans grousing about our broken politics. We need to begin the kind of national conversation that leads to real political reform. Such reforms may include new federal and state laws and constitutional amendments, new political customs, and new social norms.
  • Assumptions: As you peruse these essays, I assume that you will recognize and concur with the litany of ills we face. I am less sanguine about the prospects for general acceptance of the solutions I am proposing. These are all draft proposals – the best that this author is able to offer at the time of writing, but not necessarily the best you or all of us together can devise. Our political dysfunction today is analogous to the economic dysfunction this nation faced in the Great Depression. When FDR was campaigning for president in 1932, he famously stated, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try something else. But above all try something.”[1] Perhaps that is a prescription worth remembering when we try to reform our politics.
  • Audience: While political scientists and students of American government may find something of interest here, I do not offer my commentary as a formal academic work, building on the last two centuries of academic political science research. Rather, this book is directed at laymen, reasonably informed American voters, and anyone interested in improving the American political system.

21st Century Common Sense is presented as a series of interrelated essays:

  • Part I: The Need for Structural Change provides some historical context on how we got to our current democracy and on the challenges we face in maintaining and improving it.
  • Part II: Fixes to the Current System lays out the constitutional amendments, federal and state laws, and cultural/social behaviors needed to meet those challenges.
  • Part III: A New Constitution presents a revised U.S. Constitution. This new constitution incorporates all previous amendments to the 1787 Constitution, all the fixes proposed in Part II, and several other provisions that may as well be updated if we are going to create a whole new document. Part III also suggests a procedure for proposing Constitution II to the people and states for ratification and for transitioning to Constitution II.

[1] Franklin Roosevelt, Commencement Address at Oglethorpe University, May 22, 1932. The Atlanta Constitution, May 23, 1932.