Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

As a geographer, I learned years ago that my fellow countrymen are not only uninformed about the location of places and things; they are uninterested and, indeed, resentful when someone suggests that it might be helpful for them to know where in the world they are.

It took last year’s budget negotiations, however, to make me realize that my fellow countrymen are even more uninformed on the workings of democratic government than they are on geography. How else can we explain the anger and impatience which the bare-knuckle, free-wheeling, down-to-the-wire haggling produced in so many ordinarily reasonable and responsible citizens?

I found the whole business reassuring. General Washington, who deplored the idea of political parties, might disagree with me. But little Jamie Madison, if he has any way of looking down on the country whose Constitution he did so much to form, must have been beside himself with delight. Things worked out just the way they were supposed to in a representative democracy in which power is divided and limited.

Under any of the various forms of despotism, whether benevolent or nasty, the budget process is neat, clean, and orderly. The ruler decides what he wants to do in the coming fiscal year, calculates how much money he needs to do it, gives some thought to how much he can get away with in the form of higher taxes without provoking a popular uprising, and then makes his decision, sometimes with the formal approval of some sort of parliament, sometimes on his own by decree.

Under the parliamentary system, the process is usually neat and clean, although not always orderly. Once the Prime Minister and his or her colleagues in the ministry work out a budget, it has to be submitted to Parliament for approval, but in practice Parliament’s powers are limited to either approving the Government’s recommendations or disapproving them and, in the process, voting the Government out of office—which means voting themselves out of office, too, since the Government will almost certainly call new elections. The debates over the budget can, of course, become quite heated and, for those who enjoy the ambience of a disorderly classroom, quite a lot of fun.

The Constitution under which we Americans are governed provides for neither a despotism nor a parliamentary democracy, although the political realities at any given time may cause our system to take on the superficial appearance of one or another of these systems.

The key to understanding our system, it seems to me, is that it can be—and historically has been—run by politicians rather than statesmen. Statesmen, in the sense of the term as I am using it, are people of good background and education who have picked up certain ideals and standards that commend them to the trust and confidence of other people. Often they come from “good families” that have contributed generation after generation to the welfare of their country. There are never enough statesmen to staff any government.

Politicians, as I am using the term, are a rather different breed. We don’t trust them, partly because we don’t know much about them or their families or their ancestors. However lofty the office they occupy—President or Congressman, Governor or State Senator, Mayor or Councilman—they all look mighty suspicious to us, and we are not about to give them absolute power to decide anything. Political scientists call our system of preventing anybody from having the final say “checks and balances.” The folk wisdom out of which that arrangement arose is a proverb: “Set a thief to catch a thief.” We know that the great majority of our politicians are no more thievish than we are, but since we don’t know who are the thieves and whom we can trust, we treat them all as potential thieves—which, of course, we all are, given the right temptation.

Some of my friends got bent pretty far out of shape during the budget negotiations because, thanks largely to cable television, they got their first and very shocking close-up look at how decisions are made in those shimmeringly white palaces at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They saw their national leaders compromising on what seemed matters of principle, breaking promises freely given, threatening reprisals and offering favors to influence voting, using language to disguise rather than to clarify meaning, appealing to prejudices and selfish interests.

I thought it was great. If we are to have government, let it be government for men and women as they really are. There is no democracy either in heaven or in hell. But here on earth, suspended between the two, are we—saints and sinners, dreaming of voyages to the stars while fiddling our expense accounts.

It was for real people like us that the Constitution of the United States was tailored. It is not a cynical document that prescribes government by knaves or fools, but neither is it an idealistic document that assumes any such nonsense as the natural goodness of man.

It is assumed that we shall be governed by men and women very much like ourselves—whose representatives, after all, they are supposed to be. We disapprove of deals, but we want our representatives to cut the best one they can get for us. We hate taxes, but we know that somebody has to pay them and we hope our man can shift them onto someone other than ourselves. We want and increasingly need services that only government is equipped to supply, but we want our representative to try his darnedest to stick somebody else with the bill. And with the deficit, annual and accumulated, as bad as it is, we really don’t want to know all of the horrible truth.

In such a moral morass, statesmen tend to get the vapors. So thank God for the politicians who can move in, do what needs to be done, and get things moving again in a direction minimally acceptable to all of us. It may not be much, but it is more than can be accomplished under most systems of government.

John Strietelmeier, Professor of Geography emeritus at Valparaiso University, was for many years Editor of The Cresset.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift