By Tom Lamia
On the road to partisanship, we have traveled all but the last mile. If there is no off-ramp to be found before or at the November elections many, if not most, of our representatives in Washington, D.C., in our state capitals, and in the cities, towns and special purpose districts throughout the country will continue their accustomed role of serving their individual interest in winning their next election. I could include in this group the unelected staff, aides and bureaucrats whose expertise in legislation and administration is fundamental to good governance. Their jobs, and careers too, now seem dependent on pleasing the President; and they are not just his political appointees.
Backed by the Attorney General, the President claims a free hand under Article Two of the Constitution to administer all executive power without constraint, whether of law or custom. Using that simple idea, and extending it as a shield against Congressional or Judicial oversight, he has hired, fired, demoted, transferred, humiliated, disgraced and sought the investigation and criminal prosecution of those who have crossed him—all without effective reprisal. This is not representative democracy; it is medievalism of the kind that existed in England before the Magna Carta. The heads of all who do not please the monarch are on the chopping block.
As a foreign observer commented recently in a London publication, “The pro-democracy cause [outside the U.S.] has been weakened drastically since Trump took office. How do you defend a system that gives power to a celebrity with no knowledge of international relations who filed for corporate bankruptcy half a dozen times?” Well, one might say, that would be easier than defending an unelected dictator, but that would not fully offset the criticism. Democracy does demand a free exchange of ideas, free elections and a free citizenry. Partisan regimentation is incompatible with these needs.
Our current dilemma is a primary consequence of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. In expanding the First Amendment protection of free speech to include campaign financing, unlimited and anonymous contributions in support of political causes gained protection from regulation, corporations included. Those seeking election no longer can get by on placards, posters and policy handouts. The big money is there to be had; it only requires faithful devotion to the cause, a condition inseparable from heavyweight financial support. Chamber of Commerce support was once enough for Republican votes. More is now needed.
The character of a president in the current social, political and financial environment seems the only protection that our Constitutional government can rely on, and that is a slim reed. If we can elect (“ . . . a system that gives power to a celebrity [etc.] . . ..”) a person with no knowledge or appreciation of our form of government or of our founding principles and historic reliance on checks and balances within government—a person who does not respect public officials, other than himself—both we and our system have failed to protect the democratic republic entrusted to us. A system that has allowed this result is not a working democracy. It has fallen into partisan control in the most naked of terms: control no longer lies with the individual citizen; it has passed to the representatives of special interests. It has become a dictatorship of a partisan “base” (an electoral core for whom loyalty to a leader is the definitive issue). Such a “partisan democracy” is an oxymoron.
Devotion and loyalty to a person who holds power over others based on extortion and fear is not a basis for democracy. Our form of state and federal representative government has evolved over our history. It has never been stagnant, never perfect, always subject to and open to criticism. With the exception of the years immediately before and after the Civil War, the constitutional tenets of our federal republic, have been generally honored, if not always praised. When disagreements over slavery erupted in secession and war, the country was saved only by military victory that came at an appalling price. Lincoln’s assassination and the elevation of a Southern sympathizer to the Presidency sidetracked Reconstruction and led to the early removal of United States troops from the former Confederacy. The lesson was that neither the law on the books nor military victory, alone, can compel unity and rub away the resentments of defeat. A victory requires a defense of what has been gained.
As military victory brought power and control to the North and held the country together, allowing enactment and ratification of the Civil War Amendments (XIII, XIV and XV) to the Constitution, what might have been a regionally unpopular but peacefully enforceable mollification and law enforcement process of reunification, left the defeated South to nurse resentments and to deny full rights of citizenship to the formerly enslaved. These resentments linger “on both sides,” as our President likes to say. The Union Army folded its tents and the federal government folded its cards in 1865. Now we have rebels in every corner of the country believing that their resentments are also worthy of recognition and accommodation under the banner of Confederate flags and the paraphernalia of armed resistance.
Partisanship will keep us from our goal of peace, security and good government through representative democracy, unless we recognize the danger and defend against it.
In January 2021, we could have a new President, one who can lead us out of the awful partisanship and mean-spiritedness that now engulfs us.
These combative factions—the white nationalists, American Nazis, hinterland anarchists, gangster militias, media trolls, and other “good people on both sides”—are a part of the solution because they‘re a part of the problem. Somehow a way must be found to put the positive whole before the negative part. If we cannot do this we will have run out of democratic road and, finally, be consumed by partisanship.