And Then There Were Two….
America used to be a tripartite form of republic, with three co-equal branches of government: the Executive, the Judicial, and the Legislative. In the eyes of the Framers of our Constitution, it was necessary to make the three branches co-equal so that there would always be a dynamic tension between and among them. The Founders had studied the rise and fall of many societies, from the Greek city-states to the trading kingdoms of the Genoese, the Milanese, the Venetians, the Spanish, French, Dutch and Portuguese. A common theme emerged in their evaluations of these societies: any group which had too much power would inevitably cause resentment on the part of the disenfranchised, which would eventually lead to socio-political breakdown and collapse.
And in the aftermath of the failed Impeachment Trial of Donald J. Trump, that’s where America is headed.
In studying the Federalist Papers, it was clear that the authors — James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton — thought that a country must have an organic document, e.g., a Constitution, which would create the rules by which people would be governed. The organizing framework would necessarily include ways in which each branch’s powers would be constrained. The discussion of the restrictions on power was the topic of virtually all of the Papers.
The notion of “checks and balances” was the great genius of our form of government: trust the people (but not too much, hence, the Electoral College, as a way of fighting excessively-dominant majoritarian rule), trust the people (but not too much, hence, the creation of the people-oriented House of Representatives with a two-year term of service, countered by the much more august and conservative Senate, with its members serving six years), trust the people (but not too much, so appoint judges (at least on the Federal level) with life-time tenure, so they would be inured against political pressure).
A Definition of Democracy
I define democracy as “the harmonization of interests for the sake of the interests being harmonized.” Just as the tubas are not allowed to overpower the piccolos, or the snare drums to drown out the violins, our form of democracy was predicated on notions of give-and-take, of compromise, of bipartisan efforts to improve the common weal.
It was based on the fundamental concept of mutual respect, of treating people with dignity, of civility and personal restraint. Even if one ferociously disagreed with their neighbors, there was a sense of courtesy that pervaded all our transactions.
Benjamin Franklin was asked, outside of the just-concluded Constitutional Convention in 1787, what the participants had created. His response: “A republic — if you can keep it.”
The far-sighted Franklin realized that human weaknesses would always trump structural integrity, but he also understood that without a good structure life would be, in the words of Hobbes in Leviathan, “….nasty, brutish, and short.”
In America, we have often suffered from the rhetoric of demagogues, whether they were from the Know-Nothing Party in the 1840s and ’50s, or the anti-Asian politicians of the 1870s through the 1920s, or the bigots such as Father Coughlin, John Birch, and George Wallace from the 1930s to the 1970s.
But in the milieu of popular culture starting in the 1980s, there were numerous radio and television commentators such as Rush Limbaugh; Bill O’Reilly; Glenn Beck; Sean Hannity; Laura Ingraham; Andrew Breitbart, and many others, fomenting wild conspiracy theories, and concentrating their wrath on the traditional victims of injustice.
But these “shock jocks,” the media versions of WWE wrestlers, were paid very well to appeal to the boors and rubes who got their information from the Faux News network. Their message? To hell with civility, courtesy, or decency; let’s pile on the blacks, the browns, the women, the members of the LGBTQ community, the immigrants, and those who don’t worship like us.
As a result, the bar for socio-political interactions got progressively lower and lower.
At the same time, our political puppet-theater worsened. Dark money proliferated. SuperPacs became the equivalents of major political parties. We wound up with Citizens United and other terrible U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which said that private money, in unlimited amounts, can be used to buy our legislatures.
By the beginning of 2010, Congress had sold its soul to the Devil. “Moscow Mitch” McConnell led the Republican hitmen in their efforts to completely thwart everything good advocated by President Barack Obama. The “Cloakroom Conspiracy” turned McConnell into “Dr. No,” the person who was responsible for the death of literally hundreds of progressive bills forwarded to the Senate by the House of Representatives.
The Current Status
For the last 10 years, the decadence of American political discourse has spread. And nearly four years ago, we elected a potty-mouthed, narcissistic barbarian to the Presidency. “Donny Defiant” says what he wants to say, truth-be-damned, and he orders the Executive to completely disobey the lawful orders demanding the production of witnesses and documents from the House of Representatives in the context of their Constitutionally-mandated impeachment.
The geriatric kindergarteners in the Senate have blithely approved blatantly unqualified judges for district courts, courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Republican ringmaster for this clown show is, of course, Mitch McConnell, who has held up good laws but sped up the installation of mediocre, at best, judges, stuffing them into as many available judicial slots as possible.
The Last Bastion of Privilege is the Judiciary.
The Republicans in the Senate have established their gutlessness in the face of overwhelming evidence of corruption, abuse of power, and obstructing Congress in its investigations of Trump’s malfeasance. They made spurious claims about the failure of the House of Representatives in failing to get all the witnesses and documents they needed, but they deliberately overlooked or ignored the fact that for every subpoena the House issued, the White House would litigate it. Each subpoena would be a battle, and each battle would take months, possibly years, to conclude. In short, the Republicans delighted in their war of attrition against anything remotely related to truth or justice.
The Senate Republicans chose willful blindness as to the ethical and moral imperatives with which they were required to operate. Instead, in their cowardice, the Republicans — except for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) — allowed the world to see the yellow streak extending above their collars at their backs.
(In a rare moment of “moral courage,” Sen. Romney chose to convict Trump on the charge of Abuse of Power. It was on the same day that Kirk Douglas, most famous for his role in “Spartacus” and for breaking up the blacklist of the Hollywood 10, passed away. When I heard about the coincidental passing of Douglas at the same time as the junior senator from Utah voted “Guilty!,” I felt like standing up and yelling out “I am Romney!” Of course, that was only for a moment, since I recall Mitt “Mr. Weathervane” Romney’s infamous turnabouts on healthcare, abortion rights, education, ad nauseam in the 2012 presidential campaign….)
So the Republican Senators have been indelibly stained with their lack of moral fiber, with their sense of inutility, and with allowing the Congress to collapse as a co-equal branch of American government.
The Death of American Democracy
We now have an all-powerful Presidency, backed up by a subservient Judiciary, and no one left to check the undue might of the Executive Branch. So much for “the harmonization of interests for the sake of the interests being harmonized.”
And when we see babies in cages, families being separated, and wholesale violations of everything good and noble about the American experiment in Democracy, we can remember where we were when the Republicans let it happen.