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

Episodes

EpisodeTitleFirst
Broadcast
Comments
01America, Laboratory Of Democracy: Drowning Government In A Bathtub20171025

1/4 How America became the world’s first big democracy and the limits of its constitution

1/4 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)

01Drowning Government In A Bathtub20171025

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

1/4 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)

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)

02America, Laboratory Of Democracy: Money -the Lifeblood Of American Democracy20171101

2/4 How money became an important feature in American politics

2/4 The usual way to tell the story of money and democracy in America is in terms of a fall from grace. Once upon a time, democracy was pure, with little corruption, and rich Americans had no influence upon policymakers. The truth is more complicated. By the mid-19th Century, America had the largest, densest, and most labour-intensive democracy in the world. None of this had been anticipated by the country’s founders, who had made no provision in the Constitution for funding an electoral system that, because of its vastness, had become enormously expensive. When government failed, private entrepreneurs rushed in, inventing a new institution - the political party - to organise America’s intricate system of elections.

These entrepreneurs took money wherever they found it - from wealthy individuals who wanted to become judges; from corporations who wanted to influence policy; from those who were expected to pay an “assessment” for the privilege of working for the party or in government. Tammany Hall in New York was the first of these powerful party organisations. We visit the Courthouse that “Boss Tweed” built, and the saloon, McSorley’s, where many Tammany deals were struck.

And we examine the many efforts to reform America’s electoral system, beginning 100 years ago, continuing with the Watergate reforms of the 1970s, and concluding with the efforts by Bernie Sanders and others today to roll back Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that has sent a new avalanche of money cascading into American politics. Separating American democracy from its money, its lifeblood, is as difficult a task today as it was a century ago.

(Photo: Old photographs hang on a wall at McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village, New York City 2012. The East Village has been home to famous artists, musicians and waves of immigrants from the 19th century on. Credit: Getty Images)

02Money: The Lifeblood Of American Democracy20171101

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

2/4 The usual way to tell the story of money and democracy in America is in terms of a fall from grace. Once upon a time, democracy was pure, with little corruption, and rich Americans had no influence upon policymakers. The truth is more complicated. By the mid-19th Century, America had the largest, densest, and most labour-intensive democracy in the world. None of this had been anticipated by the country’s founders, who had made no provision in the Constitution for funding an electoral system that, because of its vastness, had become enormously expensive. When government failed, private entrepreneurs rushed in, inventing a new institution - the political party - to organise America’s intricate system of elections.

These entrepreneurs took money wherever they found it - from wealthy individuals who wanted to become judges; from corporations who wanted to influence policy; from those who were expected to pay an “assessment” for the privilege of working for the party or in government. Tammany Hall in New York was the first of these powerful party organisations. We visit the Courthouse that “Boss Tweed” built, and the saloon, McSorley’s, where many Tammany deals were struck.

And we examine the many efforts to reform America’s electoral system, beginning 100 years ago, continuing with the Watergate reforms of the 1970s, and concluding with the efforts by Bernie Sanders and others today to roll back Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that has sent a new avalanche of money cascading into American politics. Separating American democracy from its money, its lifeblood, is as difficult a task today as it was a century ago.

(Photo: Old photographs hang on a wall at McSorley's Old Ale House in the East Village, New York City 2012. The East Village has been home to famous artists, musicians and waves of immigrants from the 19th century on. Credit: Getty Images)

03America, Laboratory Of Democracy: Little Leviathans20171108

The 1924 Scopes Trial that banned the teaching of Charles Darwins' evolution in Tennessee

3/4 One of the most fascinating, and least understood, features of American democracy is that individual states possessed a scope of power much greater than what was given to the central government in Washington. On so many issues, the states went their own way. Whether to teach religion in schools; legalise or outlaw slavery; allow divorce or the sale of alcohol or the sale of firecrackers; permit birth control, pornography, or gambling - on all these matters, and many others, it was up to the individual states to decide.

This episode examines the enormous powers possessed by these little leviathans and the diverse ways in which they used them. We visit Dayton, Tennessee, the site of the famous 1924 Scopes Trial, which put before a judge the question of whether the state of Tennessee had the right to ban the teaching of Charles Darwin and evolution from the schools (it did). We talk to experts on the history of marriage in America to understand why some states banned interracial unions while others didn’t seem to care. And we talk to Californians who see in the recent rebirth of states’ rights the best hope of sustaining a liberal politics in America on matters such as climate control, social welfare and racial equality.

(Photo: American teacher John Thomas Scopes (1900 - 1970) (2nd from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in his high school science class, Dayton, Tennessee, 1925. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

04America Laboratory Of Democracy: Insurgent Nation20171115

The insurgent popular movements that changed America's democracy

4/4 American democracy can easily frustrate change. The country’s Constitution is almost impossible to amend. The many interest groups swirling through Congress often paralyse or colonise it; and corralling 50 states is often beyond the capacity of the most able president.

Yet America has been home to a string of popular movements across the last two centuries that have brought vigour and change to what otherwise might have been a sclerotic political system. It mattered, of course, that the country was born in revolution, meaning that popular resistance, beginning with the original Tea Party in Boston Harbour, is part of the nation’s DNA. We encounter the passion of America’s insurgents and the turbulence their movements generated.

We begin with the struggle by African-Americans to end slavery. We continue with the titanic battles between labour and capital in the 1930s over the rights of workers and the obligations of government to regulate the economy in the public interest. And we conclude with an exploration of two 21st-Century movements: the modern-day Tea Party and the campaign for gay rights and same-sex marriage. We hear from veterans of these struggles in Ohio, California, Michigan, and New York; with museum curators in Cincinnati and Boston who are preserving and interpreting the history of past struggles; and with historians and other experts who can help us to make sense of the successes and failures of these movements, and of their role in sustaining, convulsing, and changing American democracy.

(Photo: Protesters in Times Square against President Trump's decision to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

American democracy can easily frustrate change. The country’s Constitution is almost impossible to amend. The many interest groups swirling through Congress often paralyse or colonise it; and corralling 50 states is often beyond the capacity of the most able president.

Yet America has been home to a string of popular movements across the last two centuries that have brought vigour and change to what otherwise might have been a sclerotic political system. It mattered, of course, that the country was born in revolution, meaning that popular resistance, beginning with the original Tea Party in Boston Harbour, is part of the nation’s DNA. We encounter the passion of America’s insurgents and the turbulence their movements generated.

We begin with the struggle by African-Americans to end slavery. We continue with the titanic battles between labour and capital in the 1930s over the rights of workers and the obligations of government to regulate the economy in the public interest. And we conclude with an exploration of two 21st-Century movements: the modern-day Tea Party and the campaign for gay rights and same-sex marriage. We hear from veterans of these struggles in Ohio, California, Michigan, and New York; with museum curators in Cincinnati and Boston who are preserving and interpreting the history of past struggles; and with historians and other experts who can help us to make sense of the successes and failures of these movements, and of their role in sustaining, convulsing, and changing American democracy.

(Photo: Protesters in Times Square against President Trump's decision to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals serving in the military. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)