Originally Published in the St Augustine Town Crier
The word comes from the Old French, eleventh century “parlement” translated as “talking” and the suffix “ary”, again from the French “of or belonging to.” The word parliamentary means a way of talking. Even so, we rarely consider the question, “as opposed to what?” Well, the answer is, “fighting” of course. We will talk or we will fight.
There are many issues that are non-negotiable. The Jews derived theirs at Masada. The meaning of the saying “Never Again” is pointedly unambiguous. The day to day legislative process of our constitutional republic depends upon parliamentary procedure. Yet, the core of our political ideology; the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and the ideas expressed in the Ten Amendments do not. They are no longer subject to debate. The remaining Americans on this continent express this sentiment succinctly with the words, “Liberty or Death!” When Patrick Henry made that famous speech, he was speaking in favor a motion to form a militia in Virginia, in anticipation of having to defend his state from the same type of oppression his countrymen were experiencing in Massachusetts at the hands of the British. It is most interesting to note that when the motion eventually passed, a few individuals who had voted against it were placed on the committee to organize the militia. The Virginia burghers understood that for an organization to be successful everyone had to support its decisions once they were made.
Even as we acknowledge that there are some subjects that may only be discussed at the point of the sword, we take comfort in the fact that most questions, no matter how emotionally charged or politically divisive can be settled to everyone’s satisfaction, a least for a time, by the proper use of parliamentary procedure. However, I say to you that this practice has been largely abandoned across the entire spectrum of American political life. I think it is precisely because of this that we are seeing the terrific anger and ill will toward those of differing opinions in our nation.
Take for example the typical town hall meeting or “listening tour” as they are called by the politicians who arrange them. To my mind, mass meetings of this kind would be properly tasked with passing resolutions so that the representative might be instructed in what course to follow. Such resolutions are newsworthy and would hold the politicians accountable for their actions, for example, “Citizens meeting with Councilwoman Jones at the library last night, passed a resolution stating that she should support the measure to build a new hospital.”
But we don’t do this sort of thing anymore. Instead each person speaks for a few minutes, gives their opinion and sits down, while the representative looks on intently and nods appreciatively. Then, because no decision has been taken and nothing has been recorded, she may go her own way and do precisely what she wishes. It is the same in the social clubs where rarely is heard an opinion beyond that which is voiced by the “leadership.” It is the same, I believe, in the majority of political executive committees of all stripes at the county and state levels. Instead of debating resolutions on political ideology, or discussing questions of whether or not to endorse this candidate or that action taken, they have become public relations committees; cheerleading squads for dictatorial central planners chosen by money and station. These oligarchs issue their policy decrees and coronate the candidates that are to be supported. Understand that in Florida, as in many other states it is the law that proper parliamentary procedure be followed in these meetings, and yet often only the appearance of it remains. When concerned citizens stand and insist upon their rights, they must often adopt the most belligerent attitudes to gain a point of order. Lawsuits and occasionally violence has ensued. Certainly acts of violence occur not too infrequently in legislatures all over the globe when the basic rights of the minority are disenfranchised. Our own state legislatures and the Congress itself pervert their own procedures until the “leadership” has gotten such a stranglehold upon them that it is nearly impossible for the will of the members (and the citizens they represent) to be freely expressed. It is precisely this type of disenfranchisement of the minority that leads to frustration and smoldering feelings of ill will.
It is important to realize that the widest possible participation is essential to finding the answers to the problems before us. If we can agree that humans have feet of clay, that no one individual has all the answers, it follows that government from the top down is doomed to fail. Whether ruled by a monarchy, or a super-committee, or an elite group of the rich and powerful, the capacity for fatal error is always present. Greed, hubris, and personal ego are always in play perverting political outcomes, even those that are born of the best intentions. By allowing multiple decisions to be made at the lowest levels, and by seeking intelligent input from the greatest number of people we give ourselves a better chance of achieving the goal of being right at least fifty-one percent of the time. Mistakes made in the individual counties and states do not have to be duplicated across the nation, and are easily changed in the next legislative session. Successes may be duplicated from state to state, with necessary changes made for differing environments.
Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, “Procedure is more than formality. Procedure is, indeed, the great mainstay of substantive rights.” Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter concurred saying, “The history of liberty has largely been the history of the observance of procedural safeguards.” As such, parliamentarians should consider ourselves the guardians of liberty, tasked to teach parliamentary procedure. We desire to teach it not only as an excellent system of deliberative decision making and conflict resolution, but as the right of every individual to be unafraid to have their voice heard, and at the end of the day to have had it stand for something. We desire to teach children this “way of talking”, and our youth the ideal of polite discourse and debate. We wish to demonstrate in our social circles and in the political arena that true representation means that ideas flow from the members upward to the leadership, and that the first duty of the individual is to speak if they have something to say. It has never been enough just to go to polls to vote. Participation in the available deliberative assemblies, executive committees, public meetings and boards open to citizens is a duty as necessary and perhaps as onerous as taking out the trash, but it must be done or our government will be surrendered to the greedy, the criminal, and the power hungry. Accordingly, the first duty of representatives is to listen to the orderly voice of their constituents and consider the people’s will before their own. The inspired leader seeks to embolden the citizens he or she represents to become leaders in their own right by encouraging and listening to their ideas, and putting them into play. This is the beauty of parliamentary procedure, where every member is valued, where every voice is heard, and from out of that mutual esteem and solemnity the desire to work to support the will of the majority is created. This is the cornerstone of liberty, for without civility and mutual respect for the individual, without the consideration of the rights of the minority as well as the majority, all that remains for us is to go to war.