Thursday, June 15, 2017

Listen: be proud of America -- it's passing the test.

(An expansion and confirmation of my thoughts from February along these lines.)

The institutions of America are holding strong.  We should be very proud.

The founders of America spent a lot of time thinking about despotism.  This makes sense, since they'd just spent years fighting a war to resist taxation without representation and foreign rule.  They were so worried about the prospect of a future despot, in fact, that the first government they devised was a failure because it was too weak.  The Articles of Confederation provided only for a Congress with strictly limited powers, and had no mechanism for allowing any individual to significantly accumulate influence.  The states were treated as sovereign and independent countries joined together only for what seemed to be expediency's sake, despite the fact that everyone -- foreign and domestic -- now thought of America as a single country united by their shared conflict and common interests.

But even with the difficulties such a weak constitution was causing, such as the impossibility of making binding treaties (since such treaties needed to individually ratified by the states), there was still great trepidation in forming a more powerful central government.  After the drafting of the Constitution, for example, when the states were considering whether to ratify it, one Anti-Federalist complained in The Independent Gazetteer:
Is it probable, that the President of the United States, limited as he is in power, and dependent on the will of the senate, in appointments to office, will either have the firmness or inclination to exercise his prerogative of a conditional control upon the proceedings of that body, however injurious they may be to the public welfare? It will be his interest to coincide with the views of the senate, and thus become the head of the aristocratic junto.
Accordingly, the designers of the finer points of the new Constitution took many steps to provide for checks on the power of the executive, and to further balance that power against the power of other branches of government.  There was little risk of this new office of the presidency being seized by a despot and turning into another monarch like the oppressive King George III, advocates argued.  Hamilton made the argument in Federalist 69:
The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for four years; the king of Great Britain is a perpetual and hereditary prince. The one would be amenable to personal punishment and disgrace; the person of the other is sacred and inviolable. The one would have a qualified negative upon the acts of the legislative body; the other has an absolute negative. The one would have a right to command the military and naval forces of the nation; the other, in addition to this right, possesses that of declaring war, and of raising and regulating fleets and armies by his own authority. The one would have a concurrent power with a branch of the legislature in the formation of treaties; the other is the sole possessor of the power of making treaties.
The Federalist Papers spend some time on these sorts of matters because they were all keenly aware of the novelty of the great American experiment in democracy, as well as its vulnerability.  The Revolution had been fought first in the name of American rights as British citizens, and then in the name of their natural rights as human beings.  Even with the acknowledged problems with the Articles of Confederation, Americans feared a tyrant.

Today, we have good reason to be grateful to the founders of our country for their foresight.  Our country has come under grave threat, but it is holding fast.  Our institutions are winning.

There was the potential for real danger.  Indeed, if we looked at the situation with our new president with naive eyes, we might have seen a despot in the making.  A man with a known reputation for dishonesty and cruelty, flush with the support of unquestioning millions, bolstered by a craven and acquiescent Congress, hungry for power and prestige, untroubled by norms of decency, and ignorant of history?  Who couldn't concoct visions of a grim future where he began to restrict press freedom, pushed through laws to punish dissent, and declared federally-administer martial law in the "disaster areas" of liberal cities?  It was a crazy and far-fetched scenario, but was it any more crazy than the fact that this man had won the presidency in the first place?

I never thought anything like that was going to happen -- hence the name of this blog -- but I always understood it.  When it seems like there aren't any rules anymore, then even our darkest fears seem possible.

But our country has stood strong, and we should be so proud of it.

Much of our legislative branch, under the control of the Republicans, has used every tool and genius it could find to try to jam through as many clawbacks of progressive success as possible, as quickly as possible -- and has found poor success.  Beyond several dozen deregulations from the last year of Obama's term, they have accomplished little.  The signature policy item they have pushed for seven years, repeal of Obamacare, is now so incredibly unpopular in every single state that they're trying to sneak it through the Senate before anyone can read it -- and should they actually manage to pass it, they will be surprised to find that the dismal cannons of that single battlefield victory sound particularly desultory in the grim aftermath of a war they permanently lost seven years ago.  And even though we're only in the fifth month of single-party rule, the president is under serious investigation in both houses of Congress for misdeeds.  It can't be overstated how remarkable this is.  Republicans will do a lot in the name of tax cuts, but not anything.

The judicial branch has repeatedly slapped down offensively unconstitutional executive orders, writing opinions at times with visible contempt.  Indeed, so far the Trump administration has barely won a single round in the long process of litigating the Muslim ban, losing in three districts at then three appeals courts.  It's already heading to the Supreme Court, which will be deciding relatively soon whether or not to reverse the injunctions blocking the ban.  But even if the Muslim ban is put in place in full, or the mere power to enact it is affirmed -- and that's completely unknown and probably less likely than a partial upholding of lower court findings -- the precedent has been firmly and concretely established that the executive branch's exercise of its powers is still subject to judicial review.  Everyone still agrees on that.

Even the executive branch, of which the president is the head, has pushed back on their own leader.  There are numerous individuals serving in the Trump administration who are honorable and want to serve their country.  I'd even say that describes the vast majority of them, actually.  They will only go so far.  Famously, former FBI Director James Comey resisted pressure from the president to shut down the investigation into former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, of course.  But many people might have missed, amidst the flood of news, the fact that Trump also asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo to intervene with Comey in March.  Both men refused the president, and also refused to publicly state that he wasn't under investigation.  These sorts of people will overlook a lot, but there's a limit.

And adding to our government institutions, we have the private ones.  Enough cannot be said about the press, which has proven itself vital.  While their natural incentives of viewership and false equity led them to some dark places during the 2016 race, the press has been doing amazing work in its aftermath.  There are almost daily revelations in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, thanks to a relentless set of reporters that smell blood and Pulitzers in the water (plus an executive branch more focused on infighting than effectiveness).

And last of all, we have:


If Republican members of Congress weren't acutely aware that their constituents were paying close attention and were passionately interested in how they handled a rampaging and impulsive president, then they would not bother to do more than mouth a few empty platitudes of concern before returning to their agenda (although to be fair, that does describe a certain fraction).  They'd spend no time at all on oversight or investigation.  And if Democrats were acutely aware of their constituencies' feelings about the president or his plans, they wouldn't resist with quite so much diligence or doggedness.

If the judicial branch didn't have the protection of the people on which to rely -- the knowledge that Americans ultimately simply would not stand for a president who tried to defy the law -- they could not handle the legal issues with a free hand.  The courts don't need to fear men with guns because they know that for every soldier at the president's command, there are ten more who will stand up in defense of the rule of the principle that we are a nation of laws, not of men.

If the executive branch was not aware that they are acting for posterity, both for their own in later years and that of future generations, they might not be so able to stand up to their own boss when they've needed to do so.  These are men and women who want to be respected, admired, and honored for their contributions... and for most of them, that means far more than a bit more money or power.  In the White House, there's one Steve Bannon, one Donald Trump, one Mike Pence.  But there are a thousand Rod Rosensteins.  A thousand Robert Muellers.  A thousand James Comeys.

Millions marched throughout America on the day after Inauguration Day.  The Women's March was the largest protest in American history -- in fact, estimates have it as at least three times larger than the largest previous protest movements!  More than one out of every hundred people in the country marched for a single cause on a single day!  And millions more supported them, cheered them, drove them, or watched children for them.

I don't know how you felt on November 12th: sad, shocked, hurt, scared?

But I know how you should feel today: proud.  Because our institutions have been put to the test, and so far they are passing.

I am so proud to be an American in 2017, and you should be, too.

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