The Bill of Rights, Factions, and the Power of the Government

One of the debates that took place before the 1788 ratification of our Constitution was whether or not the constitution should include a Bill of Rights, guarantees of freedoms that limit the power of government over the states and citizens. As written, Madison thought the Constitution was complete, and did not see the need for a Bill of Rights. The majority of delegates to the Constitution Convention, however, approved of amendments to the Constitution, and in the end, our founders added 10 amendments to create the Bill of Rights we know today.

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis describes Madison’s thoughts regarding the Bill of Rights, an area where Madison and his political mentor, Thomas Jefferson differed in their opinions. Madison believed that a Bill of Rights would not be effective in stopping government from overstepping its authority, and he felt the amendments to be irrelevant. Ellis wrote the following about Madison:

“Jefferson’s problem, as Madison saw it, was that he believed that the primary threat to personal rights came from government. That might be true in Europe, “but in our Governments the real power lies in the majority of the community.” So the real threat came “from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”

This is consistent with Madison’s thoughts as written in the Federalist Papers #10 and #51, in which Madison wrote about the dangers of factions and majoritarian groups of citizens. Madison did not see power as flowing from the government and did not see our political rights and stemming from government. He was developing a constitution and a framework of governance where “the people,” as ambiguous as the term is, held authority and power and a written bill of rights, he argued, was not sufficient to dissuade a majority of citizens from violating the rights of others. His suggestion was not to tie the hands of government with a bill of rights, but instead to ensure that power was divided among many factions so that a tyrannical few could not dominate the interests of the many.

What I find interesting here is that Madison is in effect arguing for what we today would call identity politics. The most basic definition of politics is “who gets what and when?” We will always lack the resources to make sure that everyone’s self interest and desires are entirely fulfilled, and some resources, such as status and prestige, cannot be evenly separated among men, women, and differing groups. Politics is about how we decide to distribute what we have, and it is inherently unequal and identity based. The term identity politics now refers to the distribution of resources based entirely on individual characteristics of certain groups rather than on the good of the majority, but as Madison may argue, operating on the basis of the good of the whole is impractical because you cannot give the whole the same opinion, and what you instead have is a tyrannical majority dominating the few. A bill of rights, paper barriers to liberty, are easily ignored when a powerful majority can silence the voice of a minority. Giving minorities more power and influence is a Madisonian idea that was formed in the founding documents of the nation, well before our current tussle of identity politics.

Danger

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are more creative when we are in safe spaces and we are less creative when we feel stressed and threatened. He explains that our brain is constantly examining the where we are, scanning the environment, and determining whether we are in a safe space or a dangerous space. Safe spaces allow us to open up and become more detail and nuance oriented. Dangerous spaces seem to have the opposite effect on us. Regarding dangerous spaces and our reactions, Bungay Stanier writes,

 

“When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. here it moves into the familiar flight-or-fight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack.’ Things get black and white. Your assumption is that ‘they’ are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, and most likely literally, backing away.”

 

This response to danger probably served us very well as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. When we were in an environment where a dangerous animal may have been threatening us, or when we were pushing too far out onto ice in search of a hole to fish from, or when we got too close to a cliff to get some berries, our brain’s fear center would kick in and pull us back and take away any nuance from the dangerous situation. Something was bad and our brains evolved to keep away from the bad thing.

 

In the 21st century where our greatest physical danger on a typical day is the threat of spilling coffee on our pants (if you work in a typical office setting — construction workers and iron smelters may have some more serious dangers to watch out for), this danger warning system is probably a little overboard and can hinder our performance and ability.

 

What I want to write about given this phenomenon, is not how we can think more clearly and face our dangers to perform better, but to think about the spaces we create for others and how we contribute to those spaces. While we certainly can overcome our danger mode of thinking, we should also think about how we contribute to a given environment and if we make the environment feel safe or threatening for others. If we know that dangerous environments make people back away and perform worse, then we should be trying to create more inviting spaces where people can better engage their conscious brain, feel more relaxed, and produce better and more creative work. Whether we are purchasing tickets at a movie, driving down the road, talking to someone at a basketball game, or chatting in our work environment, we can think about how we are treating other people and whether we are making the space we are in feel more like a safe space or a dangerous space. If we are trying to always “win” with our presence and be the most powerful and intimidating figure in a room, then we will drive people back and suppress their conscious brains. We may feel successful, get a lot of material rewards, and even be admired by many, but at what cost to other human beings who we can assume have the full range of emotions within themselves as we have within ourselves? And now that we know the way the brain’s fear center works, is it truly reasonable for us to attack that weakness in others? I think we can all, on the margins, improve ourselves in any given situation and take steps to make the environment we are in a little safer for all those involved. This will open new avenues of thinking and perceiving the world for those we interact with, and hopefully, the rising tide of human consciousness and creativity can raise all boats and improve everyone’s well being. This is not to say that we should not still challenge ourselves and others, but we should not exploit danger for our own gain at the expense of others.