Compass - America, Laboratory Of Democracy, The [World Service]

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In this four-part series, Gary Gerstle presents the story of how America became the world’s first big democracy.

America has the world’s oldest continuously operating democracy. Its political institutions have long been a model for democrats everywhere. Yet, American democracy is also troubled. In this four-part series, American historian Gary Gerstle takes a penetrating look at his nation’s democracy and the reasons behind the crisis that besets it today.

In this episode, he goes back to the framing of the US Constitution. This gave only limited powers to the federal government, but by the mid-19th Century, Americans wanted it to do more. Because the Constitution was virtually impossible to change, those who wanted to enlarge the government had to use “secret weapons. ? One of these was the Post Office, which as well as delivering mail, was called on to do things like enforce a ban on porn. Another was a Constitutional clause that allowed the government to regulate inter-state commerce.

An Ohio farmer, Roscoe Filburn, challenged this in a key 1942 Supreme Court case, and lost. Since then, the government has relied on the Commerce clause to vastly increase its control over many new areas, such as civil rights.

The subsequent huge expansion of the government has so enraged conservatives that they talk about drowning it in a bathtub. Liberals insist that the use of “secret weapons ? offer America its only hope of effective governance. Both sides have powerful arguments. Will they ever be able to compromise, and allow the government to function properly in the interests of all?

(Photo: The farmhouse of Roscoe Filburn, the Ohio farmer at the centre of a 1942 Supreme Court case)