It seems like the world is on fire, literally and figuratively. If you are reading the news, your blood pressure likely skyrockets with each new click on a link or a turn of a page. Since I am a political scientist by training, over the past four years, several friends have asked me to explain various political situations and processes. I realize now that basic civics should be taught throughout schooling, largely because there is still far too much uncertainty among the population about the various levels of government, funding streams, political powers, and so much more. Several friends expressed relief once I told them that they were far from alone when it came to gaps in their political knowledge.
Here are just a few fundamentals that the Framers of the Constitution debated and implemented in order to attempt to prepare us for the trying times we now face.
The three branches of government as outlined in the Constitution on the federal level are the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. As they debated in the Federalist Papers No. 51, all branches should have checks and balances and a separation of powers. For example, the House of Representatives can impeach a president, but it is the Senate who decides the punishment (i.e. removal of office). Another example would be the executive branch (the office of the president) nominating a judge to serve on the Supreme Court, but it is the U.S. Senate who can confirm or deny that individual. Since Supreme Court Justices are unelected members who serve for a lifetime appointment, the Framers intended for them to be impartial and impervious to the political whims of the electorate. Congress is the only branch that can declare war and it also controls the “power of the purse.” To put it more succinctly, Congress is in charge of how we spend all of the money this country collects in taxes each month. Therefore, if you do not know who represents you in the U.S. House of Representatives or who your two U.S. Senators are, then you do not know who is making major decisions about how to spend your hard earned money.
What makes this political moment so concerning is the breakdown of these checks and balances. The Framers never intended for members of the U.S. Senate to pledge their undying loyalty to a president before evidence is presented. They also did not intend for members of the Supreme Court to behave as agents of the Republican party. The fabric of this fledgling democracy has been weakened exponentially and it is up to each of us to get informed, stay informed, vote, donate resources when we can, and politically tithe in order to create the democracy we deserve. To get started I suggest checking out the podcast “Sunday Civics” by political strategist L Joy Williams.
Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University, the author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream,” the co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC.