Wednesday, January 16, 2019

#16 / "These" Versus "The"

In 2013, The Atlantic called it a "mistake" when President Barack Obama referred to "these United States" in his remarks at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library. The magazine thought it should have been "the" United States. It read Obama's use of "these," instead of "the," as a demonstration that our national unity, forged in the Civil War, was now disintegrating.


I doubt it, though. I would bet that Obama was neither consciously trying to send a message or unconsciously reflecting a truth not yet fully visible (which is what The Atlantic surmised). I bet it was just "Obama the Orator" utilizing a phrase with deep historic resonance at an occasion in which an appeal to history was appropriate.

However, using the phrase "these United States," versus "the United States," does reflect a significant and important issue, going to the heart of how our government works. I am teaching a class called "Introduction to Legal Process" at the University of California, Santa Cruz. One thing that I find a bit difficult to convey is the concept of "federalism," because most students seem to believe that "the government" is, essentially, our national government.

In fact, however, as we go through the United States Constitution, to begin to understand the basis upon which we have founded our nation, the basic idea of the "United States" is that the state level of government is fundamental and foundational. That state level of government is where we have, historically, believed that most of our "governing" should get done. The federal government is supposed to have limited powers. There is a good argument that our federal government has vastly exceeded its proper role, and that our country is the worse for it. The corporate dominance of all things political is made immensely easier by the fact that the corporations, by and large, can engage in a kind of "one-stop" corruption. They don't have to buy off all fifty legislatures and governors, just one president and a few Senators and Congress Members.

Hannah Arendt identified our federal system as the best defense against totalitarianism. "Divided powers" are, by definition, difficult to consolidate and focus into the kind of totalitarian government that many of us are afraid of today.

My thought? Let's keep using that historically-accurate phrase, "these United States," and remember what it means. MOST power is supposed to be closest to the people, not far away in the Empire City of Washington, D.C., where all those national officials always say, "THE United States."

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