Alan Keyes
Even in discordant times, our Constitution offers hope
Alan Keyes explains true meaning of 'separation of powers'
By Alan Keyes
October 9, 2018

Many constitutional aims and purposes seem to be forgotten in this era of purely self-serving, factional politics. Among them are the aims and purposes of the "separation of powers." Overacted partisanship means that the distinction of powers makes less and less difference, especially when it comes to relations between Congress and the president. When controlled by different parties, it's taken for granted by most people that those relations will be adversarial. When the same party controls both branches, however, people expect the two branches to be fellow travelers.

They give little thought to the possibility that the president, Congress, and – within the Congress – the Senate and the House are elected by different divisions of the people for good reason. Elected by the whole people, through representatives especially chosen for that purpose, the president is obviously supposed to keep in mind the goods the whole people hold in common. This includes, above all, the possessions and attributes that make them one nation. The different branches of Congress, on the other hand, represent the unity of the people but in different respects.

In respect of their capacity for self-government, the House of Representatives represents the unity of the people in terms of the critical mass of strength and cooperation, naturally rooted in the self-government of different families, that secure the fruits of their collaboration as individuals by cooperating, in certain circumstances, as family units. The states serve the same function for the community of villages and towns that foster this local cooperation, allowing them to secure the fruits of their mutually beneficial exchanges of goods and services.

With this in mind, it makes sense that, when voting by congressional districts, people choose their representatives with due regard for their own individual and family interests, as well as the needs, duties, and responsibilities of the villages and towns in which they live. When voting as a whole for U.S. senators, they take a larger view, which encompasses the prerequisites that sustain their mutually beneficial interactions over the larger and more diversely fruitful territory of the state in which they live. When voting for president, they are called to consider the largest perspective of their responsibility as members of the sovereign body of citizens of the United States – the perspective of the nation as a whole, including its relations with others beyond the purview of their responsibility for the exercise of sovereign power.

These different constituencies represent a kaleidoscope of concerns, which must be balanced and offset from different perspectives depending on which expression of public unity they primarily represent. Sustaining self-government requires taking these various expressions into account. The president is supposed to do so in respect of the common good of the whole people, acting as one in the self-government of the nation. The Senate is supposed to do so in respect of the common good of the people as a whole, acting as one in and through their self-government of the states. And the House is supposed to do so in respect of the common good of all the people, acting as one in their capacity as self-governed individuals, families, and local communities.

Since the first goal of the Constitution of the United States is to perfect union of these different elements, the Judicial Branch is supposed to assure that the enactments of government are in concert with the Constitution's provisions. Members of the Judiciary should take care that those acts fulfill the obligations and secure the right actions (rights) through which the people pursue their happiness and well-being as individuals and as a nation.

Properly understood, the so-called "separation of powers" is not a rigid outcome, intended simply to curtail or suppress the different opinions, tastes, and priorities that are bound to exist among the people. Rather, it aims to assure, in changing circumstances, a harmonious flow of relations among them, so as to adjust the activity of each power (and the constituency it represents) as required to preserve the people in harmony with the premises of their just self-government. Obviously, in the course of such adjustments, some discord will inevitably occur.

But so long as the process of lawmaking and enforcement remains within the ambit of constitutional provisions, including the individual self-government it requires, the adjustments required to resolve discordant views will strengthen, rather than destroy the concord of the union. Its harmony may resound on a different scale, but it will still comport with the better destiny of the whole, humanly understood, that the American people were conceived to represent.

In light of this hopeful view of the Constitution, the ongoing dissolution of America's self-government confirms George Washington's detestation of rabid partisanship. It inherently subverts the separation of powers and endangers the union. Elected officials act as representatives of partisan ideological and factional interests, with little or no serious regard for the wholesome divisions of the people they are supposed to represent. But there is a remedy for this unprincipled partisanship. It consists, first of all, in recurring to the premises that informed the first conception of the people of the United States, especially the one that seeded our union in the premise of our humanity.

According to that premise, our first vocation evokes "the laws of nature and Nature's God." But respecting those laws calls in turn for a certain character, which is also the one required to preserve the Constitution of our self-government. To remember that character, we must renew our understanding of the principled Declaration that at once informed and reflected it. That understanding served the first cause of our self-government. It may even now be the means to preserve and renew it, provided we can still muster the goodwill it takes to do so. To that end may God renew our good faith!

To see more articles by Dr. Keyes, visit his blog at and his commentary at and

© Alan Keyes


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Alan Keyes

Dr. Keyes holds the distinction of being the only person ever to run against Barack Obama in a truly contested election – featuring authentic moral conservatism vs. progressive liberalism – when they challenged each other for the open U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 2004... (more)


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