Holding Government Accountable: Things We Can Do

[The Alturas Institute’s emphasis on civic education derives, in part, from the fact that too few Americans adequately understand the Constitution and the roles and responsibilities of citizenship. The role of the citizenry, by any measure, includes at a minimum the acquisition of knowledge about the nature and functions of government, engagement in public discourse, and the duty to hold government accountable to the rule of law and the American people. This essay, excerpted from its original publication in the Idaho Humanities Council Newsletter (2012), suggests several ways in which citizens might pursue governmental accountability].

Dr. David Adler

We would do well to recall that for the founders of this nation the creation of the republic represented an experiment. From their perspective, moreover, there was no guarantee that it would succeed.  In fact, in the early years, there was considerable doubt that the American experiment in republicanism would succeed, where other republics had failed.  The key, as expressed in the writings of Washington and Hamilton and Madison, lay in the accountability of the government to the governed.  As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, in 1787, the great question inherent in the proposed Constitution was whether it is possible to create a system in which the people might govern themselves through reasoned deliberation, discussion and debate, or whether they must forever suffer the imposition of government upon them.  For the founders, it was necessary to avoid the mistakes of the ancient Athenians and the Romans; indeed, the history of the ancients haunted Americans.  The fear of failure was great, and it produced widespread anxiety in the early years and throughout the 19th Century, particularly because the American experiment carried the weight of the world; indeed, Lincoln characterized it as “the last, best hope for mankind.” The failure of the American Dream, rhapsodized in the words of Jonathan Winthrop, as a “Shining City Upon the Hill,” raised grim prospects for the success of republicanism throughout the world. The historical importance of Hamilton’s question in the first Federalist essay was not lost on those engaged in discourse about the roles and responsibilities of the citizenry.

Madisonian Monitors

The model for success, so the founders believed, lay in accountability of the governed to both the Constitution and to the electorate. We have seen in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s famous assertion that the right of the people to govern themselves required governmental accountability to the citizenry. It fell to Jefferson, as well, to provide the rationale for a binding Constitution: “It is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. Our constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence will go. 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.”  The framers’ enthusiasm for constitutional checks and balances, “chains” with which to fetter governmental power, remains unrivaled in world history.  Very little could be done unilaterally; the most significant powers in foreign and domestic affairs required collective decision making--discussion, debate and consensus. Behind this system of thought stood a set of views grounded in realism, culled from reading and experience:  beliefs about political actors that led to the rejection of the concept of human infallibility, suspicion of motives where power might be exercised, and acceptance of the premise that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. These assumptions exalted the need for governmental accountability.

The crucial question for the founders, perhaps most famously articulated by James Madison in Federalist No. 51, was “how to oblige government to obey the law?”  As Madison explained it, in terms that were echoed across the land, the answer lay in resort to the separation of powers and checks and balances, as well as a “principal reliance on the people themselves.”  The assignment to the people of a front-line responsibility to police governmental actions in their capacity as “Madisonian Monitors,” reflected the founders’ premise that the people would have the incentive to hold government accountable if, that is, they valued republicanism and self-governance. Those who fashioned the Constitution banked on that assumption.

There remains the question of how the electorate can promote governmental accountability. The citizenry has many tools, of course, and they have invaluable assistance in the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, press and assembly. The importance of a free press to the maintenance and vitality of the republic can hardly be overestimated.  Self-government, Jefferson explained, requires an informed electorate.  That goal is scarcely achievable without the institution of a free and independent press, able to gather and report information necessary for the people to critique governmental actions, programs and policies. Once armed with actionable information the citizenry, as Madison stated, has the opportunity and, emphatically, the duty, principally through informed dialogue, to exert its views, values and influence. The success of the American political system, the founders agreed, rests on a citizenry that is informed, alert and active. The fundamental premise of our system—government based on the consent of the governed—presupposes a citizenry that monitors government, analyzes information about programs, policies and laws, and engages in reasoned critiques of governmental actions.  Informed public dialogue thus becomes integral to the goal of governmental accountability.

Improving public dialogue

“Public discussion is a political duty.”

--Justice Louis Brandeis

Americans have understood, at least rhetorically, their responsibility to assert demands for effective leadership and governmental accountability, for the greatest weapon that citizens wield is the ability to contribute to, and shape, public opinion. It is, after all, an axiom of republicanism that a government may not long resist public opinion, precisely because public sentiment is the foundation upon which governmental authority rests. The demand for governmental accountability is, so to speak, in our DNA, a genetic memory from a distant time of tyrannical kings, corrupt ministers and conniving agents who brandished executive power with little regard for the colonists’ civil liberties.  There is, today, no lack of interest in holding government accountable.  It seems fair to say that “governmental accountability” is the issue of the season. Groups on the right and those on the left have, for quite different reasons, raised doubts about governmental responsiveness and have stated their intentions to “take back our government” and to “restore our Constitution.”  But while the intentions and motives have been laudable there has been a general lament about the quality of civic dialogue, in particular, an absence of civility, which undermines influence and deters growth in the numbers of those who would engage in protest.  In recent years, frankly, the quality of public debate has been disappointing.  As a nation, we have witnessed too much yelling, too much incivility, and too much demagoguery.    The uneven and, at times, impoverished debate across America raises the question of how our civil dialogue can be improved, and how we can more effectively hold government accountable. Let us consider five modest suggestions to improve the quality of our civil discourse. 

Stop Political Labeling

The practice of endorsing or dismissing an idea merely because it is characterized as liberal or conservative is the lazy citizen’s way of avoiding the hard work of citizenship, which requires analysis of the relative merits of an idea or proposal. In fact, the practice of labeling is simplistic and circular, and little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It ignores, for example, the fact of changing definitions and shifting criteria that mark the fluidity of  democratic politics. Widespread labeling, moreover, gives a pass to elected officials who know  that they can woo and win an audience that is vulnerable to descriptions and judgments grounded in ideological characterizations.  


Nobody has a monopoly on political wisdom.  A refusal to listen to competing arguments, an exercise in arrogance, rests on the assumption that we have nothing to learn from our fellow citizens. The tenets of our constitutional democracy reject the concept of human infallibility and reflect the understanding that public policy can be improved through the process of discussion. Listening to an opposing position or dissenting opinion may lead us to reconsider the merits of our own position and, perhaps, affirm the strength of our convictions.  Alternatively, it may also persuade us to recognize the deficiencies in our position and improve upon it, or embrace a different view.  Everyone gains when we participate in this educational process.  In the end, there are compelling reasons to appreciate dissenting opinions as contributions to public dialogue.  Dissent has played a major role in American history, and the founders carved out protection for freedom of speech in the First Amendment, precisely because they valued dissent as a means of improving government policies and programs.

Citizens Must Be Fair To One Another

Constructive dialogue requires fair and accurate representations of opposing arguments, particularly in a system that rests on the principle of government based on the consent of the governed. “In a republic of truth,” wrote the learned scholar, Francis Wormuth, ”persuasion is the ultimate authority.” That requires respect for facts and evidence and rejection of distortion, demagoguery and snake oil.  Nothing of substance is achieved through the creation of straw-man arguments. Fooling people into adopting one’s political position is a hollow victory; indeed, such fraudulent tactics contradict the premise of winning “consent” from one’s fellow citizens, since people who are deceived are hardly “consenting” to something.

Avoid the Politics of Destruction

Politics is not war, and words are not bullets.  It is wise to remember, after all, that in a democracy, which is fluid and reflective of changing views and values, and grounded in compromise, that today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s ally. It has been justly observed that we can, and should be tough on issues, but tender toward people.  Thus, it is important to avoid coercion, threats and intimidation. The effort to destroy opponents, moreover, is likely to curb participation in politics, which further exacerbates apathy and cynicism. In a democracy, it should be recalled, we seek social conditions that encourage participation and honest give-and-take in the discussion of policies, programs and laws. 

Avoid Ideological Rigidity

 Compromise is the engine of democracy, a proven means of achieving consensus, which is critical to the establishment of political legitimacy and stability. Compromise is particularly important in a nation like the United States, which boasts many different views and values, derived from various religious faiths, political orientations and cultural patterns. Efforts to achieve ideological purity are fruitless; it is far better to gain something than nothing.  Driving off the cliff, partisan flags flying, reflects the politics of impotence, for it shrinks political participation and squanders appeal and potential. The wages of rigidity may be measured in President Woodrow Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with members of the U.S. Senate on his proposal for America’s entry into the League of Nations.  As observers noted, he “strangled his own baby.”

The founders’ goal of achieving governmental accountability, which drafted American citizens in their own great cause, remains our nation’s greatest experiment.  Attainment of the goal requires diligence, commitment and considerable work. The founding generation understood the responsibility that they were placing on the shoulders of the citizenry, but they believed that Americans’ desire for self-governance would lessen the weight of that burden.  We are entitled to ask, in the early years of our third century of constitutional experimentation, if our fellow citizens remain committed to the values and principles of republicanism.

In forthcoming elections, we can, in the spirit of governmental accountability,  require those who would wield power in our name, to fully articulate, explain and defend their positions on the various issues and challenges that confront our state and nation. That requirement marks the threshold responsibility for those who would govern, and for those who would demand complete accountability of the government to the governed.  In the annals of American political history, no statesman or jurist has more ably stated the role and responsibility of the citizenry than Justice Louis Brandeis who, in 1927, in Whitney v. California, justly observed:  “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that in its governance, deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary . . . . That the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty.”

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