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Why Each Generation Must Define Democracy for Itself

Our leaders are the ones who help us shape what our democracy is, but we are the ones who must decide what democracy means.
Our leaders are the ones who help us shape what our democracy is, but we are the ones who must decide what democracy means.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Forefathers of the United States of America set in motion the great experiment that eventually defined what almost the entire human race now considers the role of government to be, i.e. to serve the People of a Nation. Historically speaking, the bulk of governments have existed so elite aristocrats could be served by the People. Despite their uncanny wisdom, American Founders like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton could not have fully grasped what their Children would need in order to properly steward their legacy. Fortunately, the Founders were a collection of intellectuals gifted enough to understand a true democracy could not survive if it relied solely on the judgment and scrutiny of the dead, just as a proper government could not be enslaved to a monarch who lived across the Atlantic.

The Founders understood future generations of Americans needed to decide how their Nation would be governed as they were then deciding how they would shape their society. Their solution was not to prescribe an overly detailed set of laws, but rather, to impart their wisdom by framing a Constitution that defined a democratic government's republican structure while establishing limits on our government that ensured the People, the States, and local governments could maintain their democratic order and have the capacity to respond to the needs of the Nation in order to maintain the viability of their new way of life. The overall goal was to build a society that could flourish in a very uncertain future.

Unfortunately, there are many vague clauses in the Framer's Document that purposefully forces democratic debate on what is the "necessary and proper" role of government. As our modern society is politically divided on many public policies, including this very fundamental issue, it is important for us to discuss the role of government openly. In the spirit of our Founding Fathers, it is important to first frame the debate on the role of government with some degree of consensus. As a society, we have come to neglect some very important debates in order to simply move forward with public policy. Because we are a democracy and every generation contributes something new to the political process, every generation must develop and embrace its own governing philosophy, built on the previous generation's work.

Over the past few decades, the United States has pursued a plethora of weak policy decisions that have resulted in our government overstepping our tolerances for government interference at times while also failing to properly govern at other times. As we continue learning the limits of both engagement and disengagement by government, we can pursue better policies. Consequently, we might frame the role of government in the following manner: government should not be big, nor small, while it cannot be allowed to use the power we afford it to oppress, or appease, its People, thus government should serve solely as the hand of the People. As such, it should not overburden its citizens nor should it neglect their needs and demands. Instead, it must be just influential enough to address the interests of its citizens.

The question for us as a society is, therefore, how do we continually reevaluate what this actually means and get things done. Keeping this framework in mind, we must fabricate, debate, and embrace policies that reflect a balanced government. Certainly, the younger generations will define the role of government differently than the older generations. In fact, there will be times when divisive generational conflicts arise. Although the younger generation will win out over time, such conflicts actually help improve the democratic process so long as the views of the young are not ignored by powerful, older leaders. In the process of debate, ideas are refined and policies benefit from a better understanding of an issue. Moreover, the role of government in the United States is determined by the People and that role changes with every generation.