John Locke and the US Congress

This past summer, I had the opportunity to see perhaps America’s most notable dysfunctional body on a personal scale.  For six weeks, I interned in the United States Senate under Michigan’s own Carl Levin.  Before I left for D.C., I’d facetiously been asked countless times how I was going to “get Washington going again” or if I could figure out what the real problem was in Congress, and to this I always smiled, did the same fake laugh, and said that as a lowly intern, I would do all that I could (which was nothing).  However once my time D.C. came to an end, my mindset on Congress changed and left me wondering whether our representative democracy was actually the best option for America.

US Senate Chamber

US Senate Chamber

The structure of the American government lies closest to John Locke’s view in The Second Treatise of Government in that as a whole Americans have “consented to make one community or government…wherein the majority have the right to act and conclude the rest”.  The parallels are easily seen.  Our representatives are elected by the people, and within the Congress, the majority vote decides the legislative action.  This simplistic view is pleasing to someone who’s been raised in a democracy, and on paper it seems like the right way to govern, but the fundamental implication of Locke is that this group will be able to govern effectively. It didn’t take six weeks of running around the Capitol to realize that this communal, majority rule isn’t working as the Constitution says it should, but conversely I was given a better understanding of why and how our legislative body has failed.

Portrait of John Locke

Portrait of John Locke

In an ideal world, Locke’s view would work, whereas every man would “submit to the determination of the majority”, but our judicial branch, as much as we value it, allows the majority to not always be right as Locke seems to point out.  For example, the Supreme Court announced this month that they would review another part of the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by a Democratic Senate and House, and subsequently signed by the Democratic president.  The ACA was passed by the majority, and yet the minority continues to influence its implementation through appeals to the Supreme Court.  Our system of checks and balances in the governmental structure is the contradiction of Locke’s theory of the majority, and while we value this system, it takes away from the theory of pure democracy.

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law

President Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law

The unfortunate situation in our government is that if we value our checks and balances, and if our representatives stand by their parties, progress may be slow and agreements few and far between.  It is easy to agree to the notion that Hobbes’ conservatism would be destructive, and Rousseau’s lack of authority would be too hard to organize and control, but if we use Locke’s theory while keeping checks and balances, we can assure that the views of the people are kept but with oversight from the judiciary.  As it stands, eight percent of American’s think that Congress is doing a good job. While bills aren’t being passed, the Democrats in Congress are distancing themselves from the president, and there is more space between the aisle than ever before, these are negative effects of a positive protection.  Congress has changed, but personally I see this as a better alternative than sacrificing our sovereignty in favor of laws being passed.

Jonathan Hyman
Section 8
Blog #5

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