American democracy is not guaranteed by the Constitution. It has no impregnable defense in law, and in the coming midterm election it stands in mortal jeopardy.
A derelict Republican Party must be defeated on November 8 if our democracy is to survive. Massive, responsible, and informed voting will be necessary to do so.
"Constitutional Democracy" is an oxymoron. Far from establishing democracy in our fundamental law, the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution deliberately and ingeniously to render it impossible. These men were dead set in their opposition to popular democracy. For understandable reasons they were certain the rank-and-file citizens of a nation, any nation, were incapable of governing themselves.
We have to say now the Founders were mistaken. Today we do govern ourselves and tolerably well: we've created a makeshift democracy in spite of the Constitution. But it is fragile, easily damaged or destroyed. It will survive only if we defend it, and today this vulnerable democracy faces its greatest threat ever: the Republican Party claims it doesn't work, insisting our last national exercise of democracy in the 2020 Presidential election was fraudulent.
Fifty secretaries of state unanimously certified the integrity of the election, 60 courts of law confirmed the secretaries, cabinet officials appointed by Trump himself testified to it under oath.
Donald Trump fashioned the voter-fraud story to foment an insurrection, attempting to remain in office. The Republican Party leadership quickly joined the charade, continuing a long history of growing dereliction.
The Party's claim of fraudulence intends to undermine an existing government. Similar accusations with similar motives were registered a century ago by the two most catastrophic fascists in modern history, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. If we fail to renounce the Republican Party's claim and reject their candidates in the pending midterms, we will face some measure of fascism here. We will be ruled by a party that denies evidence, that denies truth, that in fact denies democracy.
The 2020 Presidential race was a display of universal suffrage, showing how well our cobbled-together democracy works.
But universal suffrage has a very brief history. In the 1790's in England, as the Founding Fathers were busy writing the Constitution, on a tiny stratum of Englishmen were authorized to vote: just 3%, the English nobility. When our Constitution was ratified not even that many people in the U.S. were qualified to vote: just 2.5% of our citizens. These fortunate people comprised an American crypto-nobility, matching its English counterpart in status: they were white, male, free, over 21 years of age, and owners of property. No one else could vote.
The Founding Fathers were not malevolent tyrants, intent on suppressing the masses. They were men of intelligence and good will, well educated, and committed to assuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for citizens of the new nation. But they were men almost exclusively of Europe, where an accepted cultural concept had long defined national governance: it was the responsibility of the nobility to set the rules, to assure the welfare of the masses, those of common birth. The concept was known as noblesse oblige, and since the Middle Ages it had been held only by the most noble of all: the Kings...Monarchy. The Renaissance attenuated that a bit, by introducing Parliaments, elected by the nobility: by the 1790's King George was sharing the mantle of noblesse oblige with that 3%.
The Founding Fathers were vigorously opposed to monarchy, but nowhere on earth was there a template for any other sort of government. Popular democracy was beyond the scope of their imaginations and unthinkable: the people at large should be cared for, not asked to govern. Flying blind they created an ingenious, utterly unique sovereign government that would make the rules, but it wouldn't be a king and it wouldn't be democracy: a tripartite government of checks-and-balances to foreclose any form of tyranny. And it would be elected by the American crypto-nobility alone—the 2.5%. Noblesse oblige was realized, absent a tyrannical king. Brilliant.
But the Founding Fathers did take a bold, unprecedented step when they immediately amended the Bill of Rights. Several proved to be loopholes we soon exploited: the freedoms to speak, to assemble, and particularly to petition government for the redress of grievances.
We set about constructing three institutional workarounds of the Constitution: universal voting, a system of two countervailing political parties, and the America's unique practice of interest-group pluralism and lobbying. This is how we built a makeshift democracy and for many years it has worked, though not without oversights and injustices. But every one of the workarounds is under Republican assault.
First in time, we of common birth wanted to vote, so we attacked the restrictions on doing so. Excising the requirement of property ownership was easy. Under the Constitution, the states establish voting rights, so we asked them to redress that grievance. In 1791 Vermont, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Delaware struck it down, the rest of the states following along eventually. Rescinding the other voter qualifications was exceedingly difficult. The "free" restraint remained until the Emancipation Proclamation, and free black men were not granted the right to vote until 1870, by the 15th Amendment—only to have the right nullified by Jim Crow laws. Women won the franchise in 1920, after being bludgeoned in the streets for seeking it; Native Americans in 1924, having endured the theft of their lands; in 1965 the Voting Rights Act outlawed Jim Crow; and 18-year-olds gained the right to vote in 1971. Just short of 200 years after Ratification, we gained universal suffrage for all adult citizens.
Today universal voting is in the cross hairs of the Republican Party. Republican state legislatures across the country are limiting the access to voting by many ingenious means, and gerrymandering has been a signature Republican tactic for years.
American political parties, nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, developed early and grew rapidly. They functioned to recruit, campaign, and elect the personnel of governance. One was a conservative party, to guard with obstinance, a status quo that was working; the other was a liberal party seeking to correct flaws and injustices by altering the status quo. Both are necessary and both were dedicated to the welfare of the nation at large, and produced it by civil compromise.
Then Republican Newt Gingrich replaced the party's objective of serving the nation with a scorched-earth strategy serving the party alone. Winning elections was paramount. Republicans Karl Rove and Richard Cheney continued the attack, adopting conscientious lying as the weapon of choice—which took the nation into an endless, fraudulent war on terrorism. Donald Trump outdid the liars in the Bush Administration by orders of magnitude, completing a march to fascism with demagoguery to match Hitler's—in four years of continuous political rallies—ending on January 8, 2020.
The Republican Party no longer provides a productive countervailing tension in fashioning public policy, but only reflexive obstructionism. It has collapsed the party system workaround and has nearly paralyzed federal governance.
Our final innovation was the institution of interest group pluralism and lobbying, a structure and a process for seeking redress. Citizen groups for decades organized and lobbied for legislation that served the nation well. The momentum toward universal suffrage was powered this way; so were the many programs of social and economic justice, environmental protection, public education, and stuttering progress toward universal healthcare.
The Republican Party has overpowered this workaround as well—with corporate money. The Republicans have always been the champions of corporate America. Today the Party has become its agents, having enabled corporations to flood political campaigning with overpowering quantities of money, and to overwhelm the arena of lobbying. Corporate campaign funding has transformed legislators into indentured servants, sympathetic to corporate lobbyists.
This was accomplished gradually, by Republican Supreme Courts reducing and finally eliminating restrictions on corporate campaign financing. Beginning in the late 1970's with Buckley v. Valeo and culminating with Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 our makeshift democracy was transformed by a tsunami of money—from corporate sources and a cohort of obscenely wealthy individuals.
Political science researchers recently studied the paths of 2,000 bills working through the legislative process. "Elite interests" and corporate lobbies, their research showed, had substantial independent impacts on passing the bills into law, and citizen groups had little or none.
This is a measure of the Republican Party's success: our democracy, fragile and vulnerable, has been transformed into an oligarchy of corporations and billionaires.
It can be reclaimed, but only by reversing every Republican outrage. We must restore and expand voting rights, resuscitate or create a responsible countervailing political party, and rid the election process of corporate financing.
The midterm election is the place to begin.