Democracy on the Rocks

Princess May on the Rocks

Entrusting the governance of a nation to democracy is like turning a horse loose in a hospital: the best result that can be hoped for is that no one was severely injured.

Reading the Constitution, it's easy to see just how skeptical the founders were of this system they'd chosen for the fledgling United States of America. They were in agreement of the principle that power should reside in the people, but they were unsure how to channel that power into governing authorities. Looking back on history, they could see that classical experiments in democracy had been limited to city states, and none of them had lasted long. For democratic government on a national scale, they had only Britain to compare themselves to, and that system's reliance on a hereditary monarchy was the very thing they had rebelled against.

They'd also had several years to experiment with a weak central government, and the results had been so chaotic as to mandate a major revision of the new nation's structure. So they reconvened the congress that had, just over a decade earlier, declared independence from the British Empire, and set to work crafting a polity that could survive petty disputes and knit together the thirteen states into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The founders were not radical democrats. The system they fashioned bore many similarities to Britain's parliamentary government, including an upper and lower legislative house, an independent judiciary, and a single head of state. The upper house was initially intended to be, like Britain's, aristocratic, with members elected by state legislatures rather than ordinary voters. The main distinctions revolved around the office of the head of state: in contrast to the parliamentary model, the executive branch was to be independent of the legislature, with the president more like a king than a prime minister; but unlike any of the democratic monarchies spreading across Europe, this was to be an elected (and, if the voters so chose, reelected) position. The three branches were to be co-equal, each providing a check on the other two, in hopes of avoiding the democratic chaos about to break out in France.

For most of American history, the checks and balances worked. Power-hungry presidents were reined in, irresponsible legislation was vetoed, demagogic legislation voided by the Supreme Court, which was itself checked by Presidential appointment with Congressional approval. There were times when the republic strayed, especially when it came to the treatment of non-white, non-male, and/or non-heterosexual citizens. There were severe tests of the Constitution--civil war, impeachments, purges--but somehow the republic survived. By and large, the trend of American government has been to expand democracy and civil rights, to constantly expand the definition of what constitutes an American. 

Drawing inspiration from the apparent success of the evolving American model, other new democracies have applied the check-and-balance principle to their own constitutions. I remember learning in high school that countries in the western hemisphere had preferred this approach as they gained independence from European colonial powers, while those in the eastern hemisphere had opted for parliamentary systems. What I did not learn in that high school social studies class was that most of these newly independent states had eventually slid out of democracy, whether American-style or parliamentary, into strong-man autocracy. Some never really had a chance: their one and only free election gave the mandate to a president who would hold office for the rest of his life; and even then, the successor that followed was more likely to be one of his sons, or a general who deposed him in a coup, than a candidate who'd won the office in an election. Time and again, democracy has proven far more fragile than we lucky Americans ever imagined.

This has been the case throughout history, and yet somehow the continuing evolution of American democracy toward greater freedom and inclusion has kept democracy's supporters from throwing up their hands in despair. American democracy even appeared to survive the scandal of the contested 2000 election being handed to a plutocratic twit by a partisan vote of the Supreme Court, and the Forever War that he bumbled the nation into. The faith of Americans in their own system seemed to be vindicated by the 2008 election of the first non-white President, along with a super-majority in the Senate.

Looking back at the fleeting hope of that moment, I can see that the seeds of what was to follow were already in place. President Obama had two primary tasks during his first year: shoring up the failing economy and closing the health insurance gap. He accomplished both, but in so doing, infuriated a segment of Americans who were almost certainly also put off by the color of his skin. These Tea Party conservatives cared little for facts. They were simply angry. They also were pining for a simpler time in American history, a time when members of Congress and the President looked more like them: old, white, and male.

The Tea Party never managed to seize control of the nation, but it did take back Congress, placing leadership in the hands of amoral Machiavellians like Mitch McConnell, a senator who would auction off his children if it maintained his grip on power. In so doing, it laid the groundwork for the chaos election of 2016, with the freakish electoral college victory (and popular loss) of Donald Trump, an addled demagogue whose entire platform is the reversal of every policy, whether domestic or foreign, his unacceptably Black predecessor put in place.

Trump's Republicanism bears no relationship to the old school mind-your-own-business-and-stay-off-my-lawn GOP of the 1960s and 70s. Nor does it reflect the do-whatever-it-takes-to-stay-in-power slipperiness of Mitch McConnell. Trump is a reactionary populist whose reactions are centered on a segment of the country that has increasingly marginalized itself with its resistance to the evolution of a more colorful and diverse American cultural identity. It's the unevolved bigotry of Archie Bunker in the first episode of All in the Family. Trump rants like an unreconstructed senior citizen, castigating immigrants, inner-city residents, liberals, environmentalists, women, journalists, even members of his own party who dare speak a word against him. The difference between him and any other rabid pensioner is that he's stumbled into control of the most powerful military force in human history. And he has no respect for any of the norms even the least competent or most dishonest of his predecessors acceded to.

The Trump regime in and of itself raises qualms about the state of democracy. What lends even more urgency to this phenomenon is the parallels in places as disparate as London, Rio, Moscow, New Delhi, and Manila. This appears to be the Age of the Autocrat, with democracy in decline.

The founders were not starry-eyed idealists. They were all classicists, and knew from their reading of Greek and Roman ancient history that democracies and republics could easily slide into tyranny. Their hope was that the checks and balances of tripartite government could arrest such a slide; and for more than two centuries, their hope was fulfilled. The republic was flexible enough to make course corrections as times changed and democracy expanded, resilient enough to weather political and economic catastrophes, and stubborn enough to withstand populist assault from either the left or the right. It helped that their system was enshrined in a document, rather than in tradition (as was and still is the case in Britain). Challenges to the system have always hinged on the interpretation of the Constitution and, at times, its amendment to better reflect the evolution of the republic. The primary brake on both the legislative and executive branches has always been elections: whether a politician's term in office is two, four, or six years, he or she will periodically have to answer to the voters. In the rare event of a need to remove a politician extra-democratically, there has always been impeachment, a tool adopted from Britain.

My fear is that the hope of the founders has met its match in the two-headed power monster that is Trump-McConnell. Whether it's inserting a citizenship question into the census, partisan gerrymandering, rushing through conservative judicial appointments, turning a blind eye to Russian electoral meddling, lining their pockets with emoluments, laughing off credible accusations of sexual abuse, or some other insidious effort to extend old white male power well past its biological expiration date, these two septuagenarians have spent the last two years dismantling American democracy. Even if the House impeaches the most impeachable president this nation has ever had, McConnell's Senate is unlikely to remove him from office.

Unless, of course, Republicans finally say no to the daily cavalcade of misdeeds and norm violations that have bombarded this country since Trump cemented his hold on the nomination three years ago. They can do that two ways: by leaning on their legislators to follow the lead of Justin Amash, a Tea Party Republican Congressman whose principled call for impeachment caused him to be hounded out of the party; or by vocally announcing their own abandonment of a party leadership that is as swampy as they come, and holding to that decision by voting for Democrats in 2020. With their power limited to only one half of one branch of government, there are extreme limitations on how much Democrats can do to defend democracy. For the next year and a half, it is up to Republicans to salvage the republic.


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