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The Bumper Guards of American Democracy

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

I’ve always loved to bowl. In fact, in college, I was thrilled that was offered as a Physical Education course to meet my core curriculum requirements! We had a bowling alley on campus!!!

Prior to that class, bowling was more or less a game of luck. I would step back, take a few steps forward, and hurl the ball as fast and hard as I could down the lane…hoping to knock the pins (at least a few) down. In that class, I learned that there is a science to bowling. There are arrows along the lane that allow the bowler to adjust his shot. Each floorboard in the lane can be used as a measure to adjust the approach of the player. Then, you’ve got the different types of rolling techniques you can deploy.


Rather than just a fun game where you toss your ball and hope for the best, I learned that if one wanted to, they could actually use science, physics, and the laws of motion and gravity to help design a winning strategy. More on this later.

For now, I want to talk about a less strategic and more basic concept with bowling—the availability of bumper guards. Yes, there is an option (usually used for children or elderly players) that allows the gutter of the lane to be filled by a guard that keeps the bowling ball in the lane of play. That doesn’t mean that the bowling ball won’t roll sharply left or sharply right, but it will stay in the lane.

When the framers of the American Experiment put pen to paper, it was with deliberate strokes that were informed by much intentional (and often contentious) discussion. They knew, too, that it was an experiment they were building. In his first inaugural address, President George Washington said, “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Within our own Declaration of Independence from the tyranny of England, it was noted that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

When they crafted the US Constitution, they created, in effect not only the architectural rendering of what this great nation would become, but they also built in safety mechanisms—the Bumper Guards of Democracy. Just hear me out… There are three different safety features that protect the tenets of our Democracy: 1) Separation of Powers, 2) Enumerated Powers, and 3) Elections.

On Separation of Powers, Thomas Jefferson said, “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Jefferson also acknowledged that “It is not by the consolidation or concentration of powers, but by their distribution that good government is effected.”

This idea of distribution of powers is explicit in our Constitution and in the design of our Republic. In Federalist 47, James Madison remarked that “the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” In Federalist 84 Madison expounded on his previous point, “an elective despotism was not the government we fought for; but one in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among the several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and restrained by the others.”

In a 1797 Letter from Jefferson to Madison, he is explicit in his thoughts, “the principle of the Constitution is that of a separation of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary functions, except in cases specified. If this principle be not expressed in direct terms, it is clearly the spirit of the Constitution …” Each branch of government, has a precise and non-duplicable function that belongs solely to itself. The legislative branch identifies issues and creates laws to address them. The executive branch is responsible for overseeing the laws—and has the ability to veto them as they cross the president’s desk for approval. Even in the event of a presidential veto, there is a function wherein Congress can override that decision. Lastly, the judicial branch interprets, reviews, and measures the laws against the Constitution. And since 1803, they have the power and responsibility to strike down laws that are inconsistent with our Constitution and its ideals—thanks to Marbury v. Madison.

In this examination of but one of the safety mechanisms, we find an additional three layers that help us achieve balance. If you add the dimension of time to this, you find that the terms of the various officers (Congressmen and Senators, Presidents, and Supreme Court Justices) are also on different continuums and do not overlap. This protects the country from sudden seizure of power by one political party or another.

Another noteworthy comment to add here would be the appointment of Supreme Court Justices, which is once again very relevant in the wake of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While each individual Justice may have a liberal or conservative bent as they review the law, they are compelled to interpret the law based on the Constitution and legal precedent. As the term of an individual Supreme Court Justice is a lifetime appointment, it is a rare opportunity that a president would be able to ‘pack the court’ to throw off the balance. And even if that opportunity arises, the nominee must be confirmed by the Senate. Again, the stars must be aligned with the President and the Senate being of the same party to even stand a chance of confirmation. This is why President Trump’s nominee Barrett will likely be confirmed and seated and President Obama’s nominee Garland was not.

On enumerated powers, James Madison in Federalist 14 was emphatic, “[t]he general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws: its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any.” Madison continues in Federalist 45 that “the powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite.”

When the US Constitution was in force, the Tenth Amendment was explicit about this in 1791: “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

When the idea of a national bank was being discussed, it was Jefferson who said, “I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground that ‘all powers not delegated to the United States, by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states or to the people.’ To take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn around the powers of Congress, is to take possession of a boundless field of power, not longer susceptible of any definition.”

In a letter to the Marquis de LaFayette, George Washington noted,

Next Monday the Convention in Virginia will assemble; we have still good hopes of its adoption here: though by no great plurality of votes. South Carolina has probably decided favourably before this time. The plot thickens fast. A few short weeks will determine the political fate of America for the present generation, and probably produce no small influence on the happiness of society through a long succession of ages to come.

Washington understood that power was granted by the states. Assuming that there is an imbalance of power that is not placed into check by the safety mechanism of Separation of Powers, the second failsafe is that power not enumerated in the Constitution belongs to the states. That is why, in recent years, there has been an increasing cry for a Constitutional Convention of States around one idea or another. When the Federal government is at an impasse, the States have the right (and responsibility) of intervening.

Lastly, there is the mandate of elections. Thomas Paine in his dissertation, First Principles of Government (1795), underscored the importance of elections to the individual citizen: “the true and only basis of representative government is equality of rights. Every man has a right to one vote, and no more in the choice of representatives.” While many might take issue with his Alexander Hamilton’s thoughts on the issue—particularly if their party is not the one in office—he notes “this process of election affords a moral certainty that the office of President will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” This theory could be applied to any other elected seat from local government to the halls of Congress. However, Jefferson knew the power of the individual and surmised that it is only effective if exercised when he said, “we in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

While it is not true, thanks to our Freedom of Speech, George Carlin said what many of us think: “if you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.” This notion was reworded slightly more bluntly on protest sign I recently saw that said “show up, or shut up.” I would rather encourage folks using the words of Susan B. Anthony: “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.”

Abraham Lincoln captured it best when he said, “Elections belong to the people.” Thus, we have the third safety mechanism afforded to our democracy that is built on the foundational principle “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Final Thoughts

While it is true that ‘elections have consequences,’ remember that consequences can be both positive and negative. And the next time you are being stirred up into a frenzy by a sensational headline about how one candidate or another with ‘destroy the fabric of America’ and will ‘desecrate the ideals and foundations upon which she is built’, take a trip to the bowling alley. Ask for the bumper guards and try your best to screw up your shot. It’s difficult to do.

And so, with this election and the ones to come, the ball may drift right or may float left, America has bumper guards built in to preserve the union, to protect the rights of individual citizens, and to perpetuate the ideals of freedom and democracy.


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