Today is Independence Day or as it is more commonly known in America the Fourth of July. On this date in 1776 a small group of brave Americans risked their lives by signing a Declaration of Independence from England on the behalf of their fellow American colonists. To this day the Constitution serves as the basis of law in America. It was unveiled to the public on September 17, 1787. It wasn’t the law of the land until New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify it on June 21, 1788. On May 29, 1790 Rhode Island was the thirteenth and final state to ratify it. Contrary to right wing mythology the founders, let alone the original citizens, were far from a homogeneous group of like thinkers. However they designed an experiment in democracy that has endured and become more perfect over the ensuing decades. Today I fear for the future of a democratic America. Let’s explore.
Part of the brilliance of the Constitution was the sets of checks and balances it contained in an attempt to stop any one man (in those days it was only men who had any political power) or a small group of men from becoming too powerful. The Constitution provided for three separate and co-equal branches of government that kept each other in check. One of those branches is the judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. That branch was designed to interpret the Constitution in as non-political a manner as possible. To borrow from Chief Justice John Roberts, (if only he would live up to his own standards), the Constitution designates the parameters of the strike zone and the Justices should determine if the pitch was in it or not.
Today our Supreme Court has become as political as Congress. The problem is that a legislative body in a representative democracy is supposed to reflect the political views of the voters; the Court is not. With the recent retirement of Anthony Kennedy it appears the Court will become even more clearly partisan. The justices may as well have an “R” or “D” after their names.
The founders feared a corrupt President as evidenced by the Emoluments Clause and the impeachment provision. Donald Trump has totally disregarded the Emoluments Clause. The founders expected in the case of a corrupt president that the Congress would remove him from office via impeachment. They required a majority of the House to impeach (think: indict) and two-thirds of the Senate, acting as a jury, to “convict’ and thereby removed from office. They were patriots and men of courage; their mistake was to assume that future Congresses would be composed of mainly people of such character. Today we have a House majority that is so afraid of personal political repercussions that they will not lift a hand against President Trump. In fact several are actively running interference for him in an attempt to disrupt, discredit and sabotage the major (and only one of significance) investigation into Trump’s conduct.
Almost never discussed is a safeguard the founders put into the Constitution designed to prevent a totally unqualified person from becoming president in the first place. That is the Electoral College. In full disclosure I have been and remain a critic of the Electoral College as it has evolved. To be honest I have a problem (although lesser) with its original design in today’s America. Technically Americans do not directly elect their president; instead they vote for Electors who actually elect the President via the Electoral College. Today the Electors are pre-pledged to the candidate and the rest is a charade. The original design was that the Electors would vet the resumes and character of the available candidates, much like a hiring manager weeds out poor prospects for a job opening, and hopefully hires the best qualified applicant. That system would have saved us from Trump, but like many of the original provisions of the Constitution (like indirect election of Senators) was not democratic enough.
The real bottom line is that the people still have tremendous power in picking their representatives in America and collectively we do a lousy job. A representative democracy requires a participatory and informed electorate in order to function properly. Foremost that means voting. Before you vote you need to make certain your vote is an informed vote. That means getting accurate information from credible sources. Especially in times of trouble (like today) you may have to become more active. You can do so within your comfort zone and abilities. That can take the form of civil demonstration. Volunteering for a candidate(s) is a great way to make a difference. In rare cases running for office is the path for you. Unfortunately no campaign can be successful without financing so if you are able donations are another great way to back the right people.
In the late 18th century patriots liberated America. In the mid-19th century patriots preserved it. In the mid- 20th century patriots saved democracy and America in the process. In the early 21st century there is a call for patriots to save American democracy from domestic enemies and cowards. The good news is that this time around you don’t have to carry a firearm or take a bullet.
Take a day off today to celebrate America and the benefits of being an American. Tomorrow start working to ensure that you still have them in the future. Today you are the solution to the problem; act while you still are. Democracy is wonderful but it must constantly be protected.
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