The longer I have been involved in government and public policy, the more I have been convinced that the current system is permanently broken. It must be profoundly rethought and replaced, not reformed.
Modern government has been growing more distant from the people since at least the emergence of the civil service movement in the 1870s and 1880s. This has been an ongoing diversion of power from the people to the professional classes. Those professionals form guilds that entrench their authority and establish rules that protect them from the American people. What began as a modest reform movement has grown into a monster of bureaucratic imperialism that has imposed barriers at every level of government to keep Americans from running their own country.
This ossified, rigid, self-protecting bureaucratic monstrosity is an attack on freedom and the ability of free people to govern themselves. It has grown into a jungle of rules, regulations, traditions, practices and patterns designed to protect the power of bureaucrats and the elites against the will of the people.
This fortress of elite privilege is a remarkable break from the habits and patterns of the first century of American self-government. Consider the ability of President Abraham Lincoln to shape a government reflecting the values and principles that won the election.
Lincoln completely reshaped the federal government to ensure that the federal officials were in favor of the Union and winning the Civil War. He spent a large part of his first year in office appointing supporters from post offices to tariff houses to treasury positions. By the end of 1861, the federal government reflected the values, principles and priorities of the man the American people had elected to be president.
Lincoln understood the importance of self-government. At Gettysburg, he declared that “we here dedicate ourselves that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln believed that policies must come from the will of the people. He asserted: “In this age, in this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”
President Ronald Reagan understood Lincoln’s principles and described the real American Revolution in his October 1964 speech “A Time for Choosing”:
“Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: `We the People.’ `We the People’ tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. `We the People’ are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which `We the People’ tell the government what it is allowed to do. `We the People’ are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do these past eight years.”
A quarter century later, in his farewell address, Reagan reverted to the same theme: “I’ve had my share of victories in the Congress, but what few people noticed is that I never won anything you didn’t win for me. They never saw my troops, they never saw Mr. Reagan’s regiments, the American people. You won every battle with every call you made and letter you wrote demanding action. Well, action is still needed, if we’re to finish the job.”
This principle that the people are the key began at the founding of America. In his farewell address, President George Washington acknowledged that “the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free Constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue.”
The need to return to government of the people and by the people has been captured by Philip K. Howard in his new book, “Not Accountable,” when he argues that “public employee unions have undermined democracy and should be unconstitutional. Voters elect a president, governors and mayors who have been disempowered from fixing lousy schools, firing rogue cops or managing public services sensibly. … Americans are frustrated with unresponsive and wasteful government, but the parties tend to debate policies and ignore what everyone knows is the inept operating machinery of government.”
A first step at relocalizing government and returning power directly to the American people has been proposed by former President Donald Trump. In New Hampshire, he advocated “the ultimate form of local control. You want to have the parents pick the principal and superintendents.” And in South Carolina, he pledged: “We will protect parents’ rights. We’ll bring them back. That includes the direct election of public school principals by the parents. If any principal is not getting the job done, the parents should have the right and be able to vote or to fire them and to select someone else that will do the job properly.”
The great challenges of our day, even greater than the looming threat of China, are to reengage the American people in their own self-governance and to replaced the current bureaucratic, entrenched, rules-dominated, elite-controlled system with a new model that returns to government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
• For more commentary from Newt Gingrich, visit Gingrich360.com.