When Was the Last Time You Saw It?
As I remember from my 10th-grade civics class (or was it 11th?), the American government was an ideal republic conceived by a group of disinterested “founding fathers” who were not only politically wise but pillars of ethical behavior. They designed and executed a political system that cleverly incorporated “checks and balances” which made it impossible for one of the three branches of government (executive, legislative or judicial) to usurp enough power to derail what was to become the nation that set the standards for democratic normalcy the world over, the shining city on the hill. The founders, more conservative than we see them today, conceived their ideal government as a republic, but over time, and thanks to the exigencies of modern marketing, it became a democracy.
Their republic was so perfectly delineated and constructed that it obviated the possibility of the executive branch ruling by fiat, or even declaring war without the authorization of Congress. Nor could Congress pass any law that countermanded the guidelines laid down in the United States Constitution. That document was sacred. Overseeing the whole operation of the American government was an august Supreme Court of “nine old men,” burdened with the awesome responsibility of constant vigilance over the whole project. It was, in theory, the most perfect system of government ever conceived by the mind of man. In theory…
Time Brought Decline
But just as a small group of highly-principled founders can set a country on the road to liberty and decency, over a couple of hundred years it can be worn down into something quite different. In the two-and-a-half centuries since the Declaration of Independence, industrious rats have had time and no little monetary encouragement to chew through the sinews of the founders’ near-perfect system, leaving it debilitated and vulnerable to larger, industrial-sized predators. It seems those wise democratic theorists had overlooked a critical factor that permitted the decadence and ultimate failure of the country’s much-lauded representative government: the innate venality of American politicians.
Did those supposed statesmen pave the way for the rats? No, they were the rats and, over the years, they have dismounted and demolished one of the world’s noblest attempts to create a perfect republic. Their justification for this demolition job was the objective of getting themselves perpetually reelected. As it turned out, the American founders’ efforts were far from perfect. Their vision of the race question, for example, was singularly insensitive, specifically leaving slavery intact in the Constitution and laying down the underpinnings for two centuries of killer racial descrimination in their country. Slavery was eventually abolished in the US, except as punishment for crime (and that was a tragic loophole), by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 31, 1865. That freed all remaining slaves, about 40,000, in the border slave states that did not secede. Thirty out of thirty-six states voted to ratify it; New Jersey, Delaware, Kentucky, and Mississippi vote against. Mississippi distinguished itself by not officially ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment until 2013, and one suspects they’re still not convinced.
Divide and Conquer
The founders’ genial notion of dividing the power to make laws between the federal and state governments, thus minimizing the evils of an undue accumulation of power, has also given rise to problems. The most recent manifestation of this is the United States’ inability to fashion a coherent, nation-wide response to the Covid pandemic. Their piecemeal attempts to curtail Covid were–and remain–the absolute worst in the world, at a cost of the unnecessary deaths of nearly a million Americans. That’s nine giant stadiums full. China took the opposite approach and the difference in the two results is there for all to see, a poignant reminder that American democracy does not have all the answers.
Opposing centers of power–the federal and state governments–have also contributed to the recent outbreaks of legislation in conservative states to impede access to the polls to selected sectors of their populations, notably people of color and other minorities that tend to vote for Democrats. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2021, an unprecedented year for voting legislation, 19 states enacted 33 laws that made it harder for Americans to vote. (Source: brennancenter.org) At the same time, lawmakers in other states responded to Americans’ eagerness to vote by making it easier for eligible voters to cast their ballots. The perpetuation of the concept of “states’ rights” has also permitted conservative states–and there are not a few of those–to equate patriotism, the quintessential conservative American value, not with social justice, but with agressive war.
Congress Admits Too Much Procedural Blockage
Important proposed legislation frequently does not even get a chance to be voted on in the U.S. Congress. One of the most lurid examples of this is the “hold” procedure in the Senate. Under the Standing Rules of the United States Senate a motion can be prevented from reaching a vote on the Senate floor by just one or more senators. This is what has permitted Mitch McConnell to kill some 400 motions previously passed by the House of Representatives, during his term as Minority Leader of the Senate. The practice was successfully banned in 1997, but only temporarily; it was soon re-instated.
I am reluctant to bore you with minutiae but I don’t want to leave without mentioning a particularly lucid article written by Yascha Mounk and published in The Atlantic on March 15, 2018, in which he describes “a creeping democratic deficit in the land of liberty.” Its title demands your attention: America Is Not a Democracy. My favorite paragraph of this long, brilliant article comments on the Supreme Court’s January 21, 2020, Citizens United v. fec decision that recinded century-old campaign finance restrictions and enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. This is an issue that has troubled me as one of the great historic threats to American democracy. Mounk says:
Take Citizens United. By overturning legislation that restricted campaign spending by corporations and other private groups, the Supreme Court issued a decision that was unpopular at the time and has remained unpopular since. (In a 2015 poll by Bloomberg, 78 percent of respondents disapproved of the ruling.) It also massively amplified the voice of moneyed interest groups, making it easier for the economic elite to override the preferences of the population for years to come.The Atlantic
It’s not quite clear how American democracy arrived at its present state of disarray. Some observers would say that it precipitated suddenly during the Trump presidency. Others would place the origins in the Nixon/Kissinger incumbency or even before that. However it happened, all agree that it’s in crisis now and something serious must be done, not least because there is an alarming new element in the mix: the rise of China. Nobody knows what will work with China, but I think it’s clear that the Americans’ usual Sturm und Drang is not getting the job done. Quite the opposite. Recent American diplomatic efforts over Ukraine have driven Russia into the arms of China, virtually creating a new, more formidable adversary: Chinussia.
Even so, it may not be too late. China as a world power is still immature, like a precocious baby gorilla around the house, but he’s growing fast. My guess is that a healthy first step would be to be friendly to him. Are the Americans prepared to do that? Probably not. In that case we will all be faced with a powerful, if apocryphal, Chinese curse. “May you live in interesting times.”
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