Are government decisions of, by and for the people?

BY BOB WACHS, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/30/19

My record in high school and college math classrooms is the stuff of legends – and not very good ones.

It was a subject in which I never did very well. As a matter of fact, I’d almost bet the …

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Are government decisions of, by and for the people?

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My record in high school and college math classrooms is the stuff of legends – and not very good ones.

It was a subject in which I never did very well. As a matter of fact, I’d almost bet the ranch that the lady who was my high school senior trig and calculus teacher gave me the D- so I wouldn’t be back. It just never registered with me why I needed to know a + b = c. College wasn’t any better.

Likewise for sciences, subjects like biology and chemistry. To this day, I remember a chemistry exam in the 11th grade where we had to balance 25 equations. Each was worth four points. Since I got two of them correct, my test score was eight, which the teacher proceeded to announce to the entire class since everyone else was moaning about the 70 or so they scored. “Don’t feel so bad about your grade,” he said. “Bob made an eight.”

On the other hand, however, I did pretty well in civics and U.S. history, passing them with flying colors and earning an undergraduate degree in journalism and history. Included in what I learned is that real history, complete history is a complex animal, just like we human beings who produce it. I also learned, among other things, to distinguish between a republic and a democracy, which are not the same thing, although many people believe them to be so.

Basically, the difference is this — and look it up yourself if you don’t believe me: A republic is a form of government ruled according to a charter, constitution, declaration or other document(s). A democracy is a government ruled according to the will of the majority. In a republic, the enabling document(s) are intended to put some limits on the government’s power and authority, often to protect the rights of the individual against the desires of the majority. In a democracy, the majority makes all decisions regardless of the effect on individuals or on those in the minority.

That difference is one reason why when Benjamin Franklin was asked by a citizen outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall shortly after the Constitution was hammered out in 1787, “Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” responded immediately, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Some of that rationale, to me, applies to recent discussions, both formal and informal, about the Confederate soldier monument on the courthouse lawn. The public gatherings have produced significant amounts of conversations, some cordial and civil, others not so. And my point is not to replough some of the same ground but to note not the issue of the statue itself but of the process in making a decision and some sentiments by commissioners surrounding the decision. In theory, that process and sentiment can apply to any issue or topic of interest and not just the debate about the monument.

As I read the account in last week’s issue of this newspaper of the county commission meeting of August 19, with all due respect to the individuals involved, comments made by two board members spoke volumes, at least to me, about the form and focus of the decision by our local government.

Commissioner Andy Wilkie, who was the lone vote against removing the monument, said he was attempting to represent his constituents. He was quoted as saying, “My…neighbors were against it…that’s what I’m here for, to represent them.” Commissioner Karen Howard, one of the four board members voting to remove the monument, was quoted as saying, “What’s clear is…this statue does not reflect the views of this governing board.”

So, what was the rationale behind decision making? Was it an attempt to be a voice of citizens or was it a personal preference of a handful of individuals? Will we ever know the math, the numbers of folks who felt one way or the other? Not likely.

The only accurate way would be to have put it to a vote. Maybe that’s not practical, cost and time and such but, at least on the face of it, that would seem to be the best way to gauge the feelings of the populace. An online survey of approximately 5,000 persons conducted while the discussion was going on revealed 75 per cent of the folks responding to it favored leaving the statue in place while 25 per cent wanted it moved. Was that a scientific survey? Where were the respondents from? Did some people vote more than once? We’ll never know but it did provide some information.

As an amateur historian, I couldn’t help but note the difference in points of view and comments reflecting them by the two board members. The statue is a nod to a hard yet historical fact of our nation’s history. And, again to me, I don’t feel any cynicism in using the words of one of the major figures of that period, President Abraham Lincoln, to think and speak about government “of, by and for the people.” His stated wish in his Gettysburg Address was that such government “not perish from the earth” but “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

So, was the decision truly that of the citizenry or of four board members? Do we, as a people and a nation, face the prospect that “of, by and for” could be vanishing from the face of the earth, regardless of the issue or the level of government? Is it realistic, a fact even, to infer four individuals should make any decision affecting 80,000 of their neighbors, the unofficial population of today’s Chatham County?

Government decisions made by a handful of officials is known as an oligarchy and that’s getting close to decisions made by only one individual. Neither of those seem to be “of, by and for the people.”


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Mark Barroso

Hey Bob.

Maybe all of the people you talk to favor keeping the confederate statue, and you don't care for our form of government here in the United States, but a wide majority of Chatham citizens voted for known liberals to the Chatham Commission so they could make decisions on our behalf, just like every level of government in the U.S. What's the alternative? Put everything from zoning to declaring April 1 Bob Wachs Day on the ballot?

But to use your logic, if decisions were NOT made by a "handful of officials", then marijuana would be legal (84% Americans support it), abortion would be widely available (61% support) and there would be tighter restrictions on gun ownership (62% support).

Your citation of Gene Galin's poll on the statue, even with a caveat about its methodology, is perpetuating a sham. He's widely known to fabricate narratives to suit his conservative bias, and none of MY friends even bother to read it.

One more thing: the term oligarchy implies corruption. Who's getting a payoff on this issue, in your opinion?

Friday, August 30, 2019