Until the 20th century, only two states in the modern world had attempted to devise a government from scratch: Haiti and the United States. Haiti has not fared well, and was occupied by the United States between 1915 and 1934. The thirteen American states, after rebelling against Great Britain, only barely kept together a rag-tag national army under George Washington. With victory in sight, they adopted a governing compact, the Articles of Confederation, which ceded so little authority to a central government as to leave the new country not only vulnerable to interstate disputes but to reconquest.
Agreeing on little else, the newly-fledged states decided to revise their compact. The result, shrouded in secrecy until it was announced, was the American Constitution. When asked what its nature was, its senior author and statesman, Ben Franklin, famously replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.” A republic can be many things, and in America it has been. The Constitution vested sovereignty, exercised through representative government, in the free white males of the country — “We, the people.” But governors, and, until 1913, United States senators, were elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote. Not for most of its history did the U.S. describe itself as a democracy, or govern itself with anything like a majority.
Nonetheless, the long-term arc of American history has been toward democracy as a political and civil culture. Abraham Lincoln called it that, defining democracy as government of, by and for the people, and added that whatever differed from that ideal, to the extent of the difference, was “no democracy.” No American ever spoke more challenging words. Lincoln was daring us to become a democracy, and to accept the risks, responsibilities and rewards of such a polity. Now, as 2020 moves toward an unpredictable end, that question is before us as it has not been for a long time.
The three branches of our government are in serious disarray. We can begin with the branch stipulated by the Constitution as the primary and most responsible one, Congress. Congress was vested with the power to make laws with (but if need be without) the president; to raise federal taxes and appropriate all funds collected; to declare war and approve terms of peace; and to supervise the conduct of the other two branches, and if need be remove judges, justices, cabinet officers, the president and the vice president from office.
The Founding Fathers set up a system of checks and balances to regulate government, but if there was any single center of sovereignty in the system it was in the two houses of Congress. Congress has lost, abandoned or seen vitiated its critical powers. Laws are largely written today by the executive branch, and those are critically shaped by private lobbying interests operating out of sight. Congress has not declared war since 1941, nor deliberated about peace since 1921. The executive branch expends funds with no effective oversight, and the Supreme Court has recently declared that the president may divert appropriations to projects specifically rejected by Congress, a ruling that goes far to negate its power of the purse altogether. Donald Trump has regularly defied subpoenas for testimony by Cabinet officers and others, although the chief such officers are appointed by and hence directly responsible to the houses of Congress.
The largest problem currently faced by Congress and the country as a whole is that our two-party system no longer exists. Although the emergence of political parties in the 1790s alarmed the Founding Fathers, it has been the practical basis of government ever since, and since the 1850s the same two parties, Republican and Democratic, have dominated our electoral process. This is no longer the case. The Republican Party has long ceased to operate within a democratic framework. As a minority interested in serving wealth and power, it has systematically worked to suppress voting, and, with Trump, to disparage and even delegitimize the electoral system as such. It is a cabal, and, with Trump, has become the enabler of a cult. Its near-unanimous refusal to remove him from office last February despite gross evidence of impeachable crimes was its final abdication of public responsibility.
The Democrats are no paragons of virtue, but there are at least dissenting voices among them that represent general interests. The executive branch of government has worked to extend its powers at the expense of Congress and the courts since the time of George Washington, and it has been nearly fifty years since any serious attempt was made to curb its overreach. That this has led us to the brink of dictatorship in Donald Trump should come as no surprise, even if his personal vulgarity and indecency continues to astonish us every day.
The Supreme Court has become the focus of discussion at the moment because of Republican efforts to pack it, as well as the federal court system as a whole. But the Court has long been a regressive institution, devoted to defending so-called property rights beginning with the “right” of slavery. Further, it has exercised a usurped power to undo legislative statutes for more than 200 years, a power nowhere suggested in the Constitution and claimed by no other judicial body I know of. It, too, is in urgent need of reform.
What, then, should be done? The largest problem of our politics is not in the present imbalance in our system of checks and balances but in the flood of private money, and therefore private interest, that distorts and corrupts every aspect of it. In a capitalist system, this is hardly surprising, and Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, only spoke candidly when he described the body he serves as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the banking system. The Supreme Court, however, removed virtually all restraint on our cash and carry politics with its 2010 decision in Citizens United that defined money as free speech. In a word, getting rid of corporate lobbyists and breaking up the monopolies they serve, is job one. It’s primarily the job of Congress to rein in the presidency. It must reclaim the powers it has lost, notably regular oversight and strict control of the purse and of war-making powers.
Congress itself, though, must look to its own houses: forbid gerrymandering districts in the House of Representatives and create a Senate in line with the Lower House, namely where each state is entitled to at least one seat but where representation is otherwise apportioned on the basis of population. (Whether a Senate is actually necessary or desirable is another matter.) Term limits on Supreme Court justices would, among other things, equalize the balance of seats to be filled on the recommendation of any one president. Presidents should be required to fill all federal vacancies promptly, and the Senate to deliberate on them within a date certain of submission.
The Supreme Court should have the responsibility to advise Congress of difficulties in the law and remedies for them, but under no circumstances to invalidate statutes. Executive orders by the president should be limited in scope and duration, and subject to Congressional review. War, of all things, should never be declared by one man or one woman, but only by the people’s representative as the Constitution demands. And, of course, we should abolish the Electoral College. Congress, in particular, will have a lot of hard work to do if these proposals are adopted, and will need to call directly on the services of nonpartisan federal agencies for expertise. This will mean a closer, more structural relation between the executive and legislative branches, with hopefully more responsible conduct by both.
It can work, clearly, in a parliamentary system of government, toward which we might possibly evolve. The larger question is whether democracy as such is compatible with the devices and imperatives of capitalism, or for that matter planetary survival. But, baby steps first.