September 25, 2008
Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?
What the High Holy Days teach us in a season of change
(Page 3 - Previous Page)But unlike those systems, American democracy is a whirligig of counterweights, of checks and balances, because -- like the U'Netaneh Tokef -- it holds fast simultaneously both to an optimistic notion of progress and a pessimistic view of human nature. On the one hand, Jefferson tells us in the Declaration of Independence that governments are instituted among men to secure our unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness. But on the other, as Madison tells us in Federalist 51, government reflects human nature -- and since men are far from being angels, government must divide power, must check branch against branch, chamber against chamber, level against level.
And so we are represented in the House by one man, one vote, because we are equal in the eyes of the founders, but in the Senate by virtue of geography, because it is in the nature of the many to try to overrun the few. We all vote for president, because we share a common stake in the future, but we do it through the Electoral College, because direct democracy is also dangerous. We put time limits on executive and legislative branch terms, because we want those officeholders to face the political winds every two, four or six years. But we give lifetime appointments to justices, because we mistrust elections as much as we value them.
I know, I know: It is depressingly easy to find contemporary examples of this system of checks and balances being gamed, thwarted, abused and evaded. The post-Watergate cheer -- "The system worked!" -- has not been much heard in recent years. But the fallibility of this magnificent constitutional contraption does not negate the intent of its premise, its concurrent belief both in the glorious destiny of a free people, and in the nasty, brutish ways those same people, unchecked, exercise power.
When Yom Kippur's last shofar sounds, when the gates slam shut, we will greedily taste the challah, gratefully sip the wine, and then we will re-engage with the political maelstrom. Energized by the possibility of progress, we will write checks for our candidates and work phone banks, send e-mails, hang doorknockers and get out the vote. Yet at the same time, we must forgive ourselves for feeling helpless, immaterial, acted upon as much as acting -- unknowing agents of other people's purposes, as much as agents of the change we seek.
This duality should be no more surprising in politics than it is in our spirits. Come next year, whoever is elected, we will be back at the U'Netaneh Tokef, as though nothing had changed, and also as though everything has changed. For a people who have both changed, and not changed, over thousands of years, this precarious equipoise may turn out to be our destiny.
L'Shana Tova Tikatevu.
Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at email@example.com.