An oft-told tale: Ben Franklin, when asked what kind of government the Founding Fathers had given us after months of secret conclave, famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” It’s clear at this point that we haven’t been keeping it very well. That would not have surprised the founders, some of whom privately speculated that it might last no more than a century or so. Since it is now 233 years old, we might say that it has passed its original sell-by date and that the only surprise is that it is still around.
The founders worked very hard to ensure that the new republic would not be a democracy. Among them, only Thomas Jefferson believed in majority rule, and he was far away in Paris when the Constitution was actually drafted. The country still does not directly elect a president, rather an Electoral College whose members have until now not been bound to abide by the will of the majority.
In 2000, George W. Bush was declared president by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court, which usurped the jurisdiction of the Florida State Supreme Court and nullified Al Gore’s popular majority in the national vote. The court neither had nor offered a legal rationale for its decision. One of its votes on Bush’s behalf was cast by Sandra Day O’Connor, who had publicly declared that Gore’s election would be a disaster for the country but did not recuse herself. From that, we got 9/11, two failed wars we are still fighting and a financial crash that plunged us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
In 2016, 46 percent of the voting electorate chose a buffoon, swindler and bigot to be president. Almost three million more voters cast their ballots for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump was elected. In no other country in the world would the loser of the popular vote be declared the victor for its highest office. The Founding Fathers had their wish. America is not a democracy.
For three years, we skated along with a president whose utter unfitness was demonstrated daily. We counted on his very unfitness to protect us. Surely, someone as sheerly incompetent as Donald Trump, someone so ignorant of law, history, geography and just about everything else not connected to real estate fraud would be managed by his Cabinet and staff, perhaps more easily than a person knowledgeable enough at least to do real harm.
We didn’t realize far greater damage could be done by a person whose pathological narcissism, given the powers of an imperial presidency, would turn the world into a funhouse mirror reflecting only his own distorted image. At first, Trump seemed to defer to the grownups in the room. Before long, though, he came to realize that the presidency was an ideal setting for an unfettered ego.
Those he could not command he slandered, often to good effect among an electoral base that derived vicarious pleasure from his riffs against “traitors” who opposed his will. Government was hobbled, critics cowed and civil discourse swamped in the unremitting stream of lies, threats and juvenile insults issued from the Oval Office. By simple, unwitting instinct, and with the help of a few eager tutors, Donald Trump found his way to a political philosophy that at last suited him: fascism.
When the constitutional remedy of presidential impeachment failed last February, Trump was exultant. With a juiced-up stock market and a huge campaign treasury, he anticipated a triumphant reelection. True, he might find himself a minority president again. But the Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, had shown him a way to game the system. It wasn’t how many votes you got, but where you got them — and how many you could suppress. Four more years? Trump’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, was just about to get himself an extra twelve.
Then came the virus. And the luck ran out: Trump’s, and ours. For the first time in four years, Trump was called on to do something he was absolutely incapable of: governing. This was bad news that couldn’t be wished away or denied out of existence. It was bad news that required Trump to deliver more bad news: a lockdown that would collapse the economy, and place his reelection in doubt. True, by taking command of the situation, he might steer the country to a safer place, and for the first time win something that had always eluded him: genuine respect. But that would have required Donald Trump to become the exact opposite of the man he actually was.
And so, here we are. The Founding Fathers erected a system of checks and balances precisely to prevent a man such as Trump from winning the presidential office they had created. It worked, more or less, until it didn’t. There is no perfect remedy because there is no perfect society. But there is at least a guiding principle we might look to. It is the one the Founding Fathers did their best to dilute: democracy.
We need direct popular election of the president, as of all other officials. We need nationwide direct proportional representation by population for our national legislature. That means that the U.S. Senate needs to be completely revamped, if not abolished. The principle we adhere to in general is that all votes are of equal weight. In the Senate, the vote of a Wyoming citizen is worth nearly 70 times that of one in California. This has consequences.
In 2010, the Senate was Democratic. By 2014, it had turned Republican, even though nearly 60 percent of all Senate votes cast nationwide in that period were for Democratic candidates. This is not only undemocratic but racist. Smaller states tend to be more homogeneous in population, so that Blacks, Latinos and other minority groups are additionally disadvantaged in the Senate. The Senate also has the exclusive privilege of appointing federal judges and Cabinet officers, thus extending its exclusive sway into the other branches of government.
The politicization of the courts is nothing new, but it has been elevated into a deliberate weapon of late. This has given conservatives a preponderant and permanent advantage in government as a whole. Conservatives are certainly entitled to their voice on a level electoral playing field. They are not entitled to dominion. The Supreme Court itself is the most undemocratic institution in the land. The Constitution nowhere stipulates a power in the Court to overturn legislation, but the Founding Fathers in effect acquiesced in such a power when Chief Justice John Marshall covertly assumed it.
If the court finds a statute or practice unconstitutional, its duty should simply be to advise the Congress of its opinion. To give nine persons, unelected by the public and with lifelong tenure, the power to alter or negate the will of the people through their elected representatives is the negation of democracy itself. From Dred Scott to Citizens United, the deadly mischief this can do is apparent. Our Constitution served an 18th century world. Much amended, most often in a more democratic direction, it needs now to be rethought. That will be the best way to honor it today, and to give us a government of, by, and for the people in the only way it can truly be had — equally.