• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Branches Of The Civics Tree

November 2018


While it’s generally unseemly to prey on another’s ignorance, there are definite exceptions to this fine and laudable rule. Before they can be listed, however, I’ll offer a brief and, you might even say, sympathetic disclaimer: by and large, predation of this type is something to be avoided. Certainly, it’s no way to make friends. After all, you never can know when it’ll be your rump that’s caught in the clench of the lion’s teeth. We’re all ignorant to a lesser, though usually a greater degree even if we’d never admit to ourselves as so much. Thus, we add blindness to ignorance as we feel about in the frightening wilderness of ideas. And having lost these two vital senses, we’re made vulnerable to attack.


As the newly-minted, widely-vaunted darling of the Democratic Party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is vulnerable to attack. Perhaps “attack” isn’t the right word at all, but rather to criticism. It can’t be helped, then, if one feels the compulsion to pounce with both paws upon her latest mistake.


During a recent conversation with the left-leaning group “Justice Democrats”, Ocasio-Cortez found her way into talking about government. Such is to be expected, one would think, as she’s recently made the dizzying career leap from bar-back to statecraft. At this point, governance and political nuance should be topics to which she’s comfortably inclined. After all, she is, as of a few short weeks ago, the newest representative in Congress from the great, imperial state of New York. More exceptionally and, for that matter, historically than that, she’s the youngest to have achieved such a claim.


Yet this youth that she wields like a jaunty sword has a double-edge. It makes casualties of enemies (be they on the left side or the right) but it sometimes turns upon its owner as well. This, we call an unintended self-inflicted wound—a stabbing rendered by one’s own incautious hand.


But when the youth and its hand are steady and true, the blow—not against itself but toward another—can be severe. Youth, then—now a useful weapon of time, soon a thing upon which we look and sigh—is most effective when brandished at hoary old elites. These, in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, are the boring, uninspiring Democrats on Capitol Hill. Most of them are incumbents, having served, in some instances, for many decades without a hitch. Others are positively recumbent, laying down on the job instead of pushing for change. Often, the two circles merge and share a disinclination to move. These are the politicians whose complacency has swollen to such an extent that it’s bound to pop. And where Ocasio-Cortez lurks, they’d better beware; her thrust may be the point that opens them up.


Before she can sally off and wage her millennial war, however, she must first preserve herself. So far, she’s not done a good job to that end. Given her inexperience, one might not expect her fully to wax wonkish on matters politic, but basic civics ought not be considered beyond her grasp. In the course of that talk with “Justice Democrats” mentioned above, Ocasio-Cortez proved shockingly ignorant of the fundamental aspects of American political life.


She spoke, passionately but obliviously, about the Democrats’ desperate need to reclaim all parts of the government. To avoid confusion, these three rudimentary pillars of the American house, labelled in their order of decreasing import, are the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches. Ocasio-Cortez spoke of taking back all three, but called them instead “chambers” of government. In her amusing, if not worrying conception, she listed them to include “the presidency, the Senate, and the House”. This, of course, would cover but two branches of three, not to mention that the government isn’t itself divided into “chambers”.

We might consider this a hurried slip of the tongue, the kind to which even the most articulate speakers won’t find themselves immune. With sympathy we might hope, but it turns out that this was actually her corrective statement. Just before making it, she spoke of reclaiming all “three chambers of congress”—of which there are, last I referred to my handy bedside Constitution, only two.


Tricameralism, the threefold orientation of the Legislative Branch, never was taken seriously in American thought. Whether or not it should’ve been—now that’s a different question altogether. Probably, though, it’s not one worth our time. As the founders worried themselves with it not, following in their footsteps, neither should we. Their contentions were fought over populations and a Congress of two parts or one.


The Virginia Plan, crafted by the craftiest of statesman James Madison and his neighborly pal Edmund Randolph, wanted a bicameral, or two-storied Congress whose membership would reflect a state’s population size. There would be a Senate and a House in this oddly Anglican hierarchy (reminiscent of Commons and Lords), but both would reflect the populations of the attendant states. This, of course, would benefit their shared home of Virginia, as well as many other southern states for whose influence they advocated. South of the Mason-Dixon, representation was reliant on blacks who were counted as ungainly fractions to inflate the numbers of whites.


William Paterson had, at least in his humble opinion, a better idea. Named for his and my home state and, for that matter, the butt of too many well-deserved jokes, the New Jersey Plan was a response to that offered by Virginia. Being less well endowed with land and with people to occupy its space, New Jersey wanted a Congress whose representation would be restricted to but a few people. The numbers of these people always would remain equivalent to those from an adjoining or a distant state. Congress, then, would be blind to population size, with each state sending to the capital a pre-arraigned number of politicians. All of them would converge first in Philadelphia, eventually in New York City, and finally in Washington D.C. in a unicameral, or one-house body. Seen in today’s light, it might be understood as something of an enlarged Senate—a group of indirectly-chosen officials who lack a second house to complement or chasten it.


Compromise, an exceptionally noxious and anachronistic word that touches our ears today, is what was needed most. Thanks to Roger Sherman, understated sage of Connecticut and member of the Declaration’s Committee of Five, an elegant and unprecedented form of government came into being. He took both the Virginia and the New Jersey Plans and extracted from them what was best. Agreed upon by most, if not all, was this clever gem: a bicameral Congress whose upper house would be freed from the burdens of an ill-distributed population, and a lower house that would make the number of men its essential and guiding force. The former would be republican with an aristocratic flair; the latter universal, with a democratic bent.


The Founding Fathers, many of whom were—in their own right—quite young upon their entrance into civil service, ought not to be compared with our politicians of today. We wouldn’t want to risk lowering their esteem (subtle philosophers they were) nor raising our modern elected official’s ego. In the history of man, they were an extraordinarily intelligent, farseeing, and shrewd group. It’s rare in the pages of history to find so many prodigious minds concentrated in so small a space or brief a time—in a former British colony, no less. Lest we forget, though, their intelligence often equaled their belligerence. They quarreled as we do today and went so far as to split into factions, but it always seemed to be the case that they were struggling toward some greater end, not just fighting for fighting’s sake.


Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is an undoubtedly bright young woman, but as a stateswoman, her style of ignorance can’t long persist. Nor should we accept it. We must demand of her and of all other congressmen who’ve succeeded in catapulting themselves to the top of their parties, for that matter, just a bit more. A slip of the tongue is excusable; a mistake like this, at best, teachable. At worst, it’s disgraceful. So keen is she to grab at momentous changes that this country is undergoing (and that she’s helping to propel), that she’s forgetting first to grasp the basics upon which all else is built. She should feel for the American edifice—with its two chambers and three branches—and learn of its structure and from this moment.

Whether it was born of a simple lapse in memory or an unpardonable demonstration of ignorance, we’ll no longer be handing over the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, upon her, for the sanctity of civics and the education of an American wandering in the dark, we prey.

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