Rose Colored Glasses
When I taught my 8th graders about the United States Government, there were concepts I told them they would have to understand looking through rose-colored glasses.
In other words, looking through them everything is beautiful and perfect, and flaws are hidden by lovely colors. One of these concepts was Rule of Law, the idea that laws rule the people, not vice versa.
According to the World Justice Project, Rule of Law is comprised of four important factors.
Accountability—Everyone, whether rich, poor, politician, celebrity, or normal Jane Doe are accountable to under the law. Even the government itself is held accountable under the law.
Just Laws—Laws are available, known, and published for the public to see. The laws are applied evenly, and they protect fundamental human rights.
Open Government—the processes of government are open fair and efficient
Accessible and Impartial Dispute Resolution—when there is a problem, justice can be sought, and a remedy prescribed by impartial representatives (a court).
Most Americans would agree that no person should be above the law. In my class I would give a fictional scenario to illustrate this concept and draw the differences between a democratic system of government and an autocratic system.
Imagine the president is in a televised cabinet meeting and receives some news that angers him. He promptly pulls out a gun and puts a bullet through the head of the Attorney General and orders that his home be immediately searched, and his family killed.
What do you expect will happen?
My students, after working through some initial doubts would always come to the same conclusion. The president would be arrested and given a trial. He would face consequences under the law just as anyone else would. (Yeah, I know. Probably wouldn’t be exactly the same as John Q. Public but keep those rosy specs on for a minute.)
Then, I twist the scenario. It’s 1990 in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is in a meeting with his advisors and the same thing as happened to the Attorney General happens to one of his advisors.
Now, what do you expect will happen?
Students are generally silent for a second as they come to the conclusion that, likely, nothing would happen to Saddam Hussein.
So, what is the difference in these two governments that makes this scenario so clearly different? It’s the establishment of Rule of Law.
The United States system is fundamentally organized to allow Rule of Law to thrive. Separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, judicial review, yes, even political parties and a free media—all these principles make sure that responsibilities are distributed and no one person or group has all the power. Every part of the government must answer to another part. Every action can be scrutinized by others. When it is working well, the American system is like a giant game of rock, paper, scissors where no one power conquers all. Everyone is accountable.
Now looking through those rose-colored glasses, this elaborate system is really pretty. Yeah, sometimes laws take a long time to pass and poor judgement clouds decisions, but in the end justice will triumph, fairness will prevail, and America will rise above all other nations in glory.
But we’ve seen instances where all the principles of democracy aren’t enough, and the American system allows mistakes. Even as the ideas of equality were celebrated in our Declaration of Independence, slaves, women, and others were assumed to be excluded from these rights. The Supreme Court upheld laws that Congress passed to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. During Vietnam, Congress forfeited their power to check the President power to wage war in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. And millions of black citizens were denied civil rights, including the right to vote for decades because of government sanctioned bigotry.
I wish that these were the only examples of failures in Rule of Law, but they’re not. There are hundreds of examples of the rich kid getting away with a slap on the wrist, the white man avoiding jail for a crime against a black person, the governor or president pardoning a white-collar criminal because of their great “citizenship”, or the pretty mother using the press to put forward her case to get away with murder. Now, y’all know I’m going somewhere with this.
Right now, there is a crisis of Rule of Law. Let’s look back at the principles from the World Justice Project:
Authority—Most of us are accountable under the law, but there are some in government that believe their questionable affairs should not be scrutinized as any other citizen’s would be in the same situation. They cry privilege or fake news or decry the unfairness of the situation. (This is true on all political sides.)
Just Laws—for the most part our laws are fair, unbiased and stable, but recent actions by the president (and allowed by a bullied Congress) have made millions of immigrants in our country fearful and insecure because no one knows what is happening next. Procedures for handling crises have been unevenly applied from Texas to Puerto Rico to California, sometimes based on whim and political vendetta.
Open government—The scandals that are emerging from the 2016 election (on all sides), no matter whether or not collusion is found, shows an alarming trend in 21st Century politics. Secret meetings, covert actions against citizens, and no transparency in these actions.
Accessible and Impartial Dispute Resolution—The battle for Supreme Court nominations in the last year of Obama’s administration shows how important control of the court is to political parties. We talk of a conservative court or a liberal court. The 9th Circuit is decried for their liberal decisions, and federal judges are appointed who are so conservative people question bias against women and minorities. Also, a president who constantly criticizes judicial opinions and even his own Attorney General undercuts the power of the court.
Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? So, what do we do, as citizens, to help? Believe it or not, the answer is the same answer you learned in your high school civics class. Read. Stay informed. Stand up when you see injustice. Vote.
When I read, I tend to pick up the liberal news, but I am aware that what I am reading has a liberal slant. Then, for important stories, I purposefully read about the same topic in a more conservative media. (It is important to know the source of your news and their bias (all news outlets have a bias) when you read them.) “Fake news” is rooted out because stories are constantly compared with one another and biased details can be sorted through.
For example, like millions of Americans, I browse Facebook. If I come across a news story that peaks my interest, before I share it, quote it, or believe it, I note where it came from. If it a source I am not familiar with, I might use a media bias chart (hundreds are out there, just Google) to check their known slant/accuracy. Then I’ll keep my eye out for the story from other reputable sources and see how they compare.
Taking action is important, too. The other night, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was on Late Night with Stephen Colbert (a liberal, satirical source). She said (paraphrased) she felt it was one thing to recognize something was wrong in the world, but it was more important to take action. She wrote a book, Fascism: A Warning. https://www.amazon.com/Fascism-Warning-Madeleine-Albright-ebook/dp/B0725VPJ53/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1523505290&sr=8-1&keywords=madeline+albright+books
But action can be as simple as politely telling a coworker the joke they just told was offensive or writing an email to your governor requesting support for increased teacher pay. Action doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be in the history books.
When we have an informed, action-willing group of citizens, those in power are less likely to get away with bad things. And when they do, citizens demand that they are held accountable, if by no other means, than to vote them out of office.
I am in awe of the students from Florida who have mobilized the media, especially Twitter, to organize boycotts against the NRA, Laura Ingram, and others. No matter how you feel about their position on the issues, their actions are pure citizen empowerment.
Imagine if all citizens felt empowerment like that. The government would certainly have to answer to the people, which is how it should be in a system that upholds the Rule of Law.