Saturday, February 4, 2017

Listen: checks and balances exist, and this is how democracy works.

Originally, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation.  This was our country's first form of government, and it was lousy.  Nothing could get done and everything ground to a halt.  And so, after only five years, all of the states sent delegates to work up something new: the Constitution.  But once it was designed, they still needed to convince people to abandon the Articles of Confederation and adopt the new governing document.  That's the origin of The Federalist Papers, a long series of arguments submitted to the public under a pseudonym by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (but mostly Hamilton).

It may provide some comfort, then, to look back on their arguments and notice that they specifically and deliberately designed a constitution that would protect against the over-reach of a temporary majority or the abuses of a demagogue.  Even in those times, they wrote, when the legislative branch is dominated by one passionate faction and the executive branch is led by someone with neither restraint nor wit, there is a remedy: the judicial branch.

In Federalist 78, Hamilton writes:
This independence of the judges is equally requisite to guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humors, which the arts of designing men, or the influence of particular conjunctures, sometimes disseminate among the people themselves, and which, though they speedily give place to better information, and more deliberate reflection, have a tendency, in the meantime, to occasion dangerous innovations in the government, and serious oppressions of the minor party in the community.
The judicial branch balances against the others and restrains them from violating fundamental principles, checking their power to keep it within limits.  And while they check the judiciary, as well, the process by which they do so is slow and uncertain.  For example, the president appoints justices to the Supreme Court, but as many factions have discovered over the course of our history, it's very difficult to reliably appoint someone who will always agree with you.  Justice Stevens was supposed to be a conservative when Ford appointed him, but he ended up as one of the most liberal justices in recent years.  And Justice Roberts was supposed to be the swing vote to strike down Obamacare, but instead he wrote the opinion upholding it.

All of this is to say: today's circumstances are what our democracy was designed to look like.  The rise of a demagogue who would try to overstep his authority was anticipated, and provision was made.  The corruption of a powerful faction that would try to consolidate its power was aforethought, and preparations were laid.

While this era's troubling events may rise up before us, strange and new and shocking, rest assured: we are in charted waters.  Concentrate on adjusting the ship's course, not fretting over the seas.

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