A Constitutional crisis has come… and gone – but few have noticed.
Americans have great confidence in their form of government. From an early age they are taught – and, of course, they come to believe – that the Constitution forms the unbreakable backbone of an exceptional democratic system, unmatched in the world.
Although most think about it rarely, they know the basics, i.e the key role of the three independent pillars of the government – the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary – and the importance of the Bill of Rights attached. They may even understand the delicate balancing act the three institutions perform to maintain a system which has largely resisted tyranny for so long.
It is not altogether surprising, however, that few in the US have grasped the nature of the constitutional crisis that has now gripped the body politic.
On the one hand, people fervently believe in American exceptionalism, and on the other hand they have become progressively (excuse the term) less involved with democracy on a daily basis. Moreover, they have come to see the political sphere as an arena of mostly senseless partisan bickering, while paying ever less attention to the debate content.
So when the headlines blare about “partisan” politics and “beltway gridlock,” they look away, rather than probing benearth the headlines. The fact that it is one side of the partisan divide that is consistently working to subvert the truth and the Constitutional workings of government is lost on most.
It is also true that the Constitutional order has been under sustained assault for many years. Its end has come with a whimper, not a shout, because over time it has become more symbol than reality.
A few prescient observers have noticed the collapse of the Constitutional order. Peter van Buren, a Contrary Perspective contributor wrote about it in 2013.
Before that, Edward Snowden was shaken to his core when he discovered that in its efforts to penetrate the digital life of citizens, the Intelligence Community was knowingly ignoring the Bill of Rights He spent years collecting documentation of programs that are clearly both illegal and unconstitutional before making them public in as clear a way as he knew how. Some of these programs date back decades.
He shared the documents with journalists who published them in the mainstream media and, most recently, has written a moving book sharing in detail his increasing disillusionment with a government that he had sworn to support. Coming from a “military family” and tracing his roots back to the Mayflower, Snowden is both an unexpected whistle-blower and an astonishingly brave individual. (The Government is so afraid of Snowden, that they are attaching his income from sale of the book.)
The result of Snowden’s revelations? People are more careful online than in the past, he is no closer to returning to the US as a protected whistleblower, and there has been only a collective shrug at his revelations about the explicit effort to undermine the Constitution.
OK, you might say, but the Constitution describes a system that will heal itself: the separation of powers means that no one can subvert the entire system. At least that was the idea. And it worked, more or less, for over two centuries. But, as many – from the Heritage Foundation to the Broadway hit “Hamilton” – have so correctly put it, the US system was a “experiment in democracy.” Not a guarantee for the future.
The Founders envisioned a world where those who swore to uphold the Constitution – and the role they play in it, whether in the Executive, the Legislature, or Judiciary – would be true to their word. If not, there was a process by which they would be relieved of that role. In the past, Congress has jealously guarded its prerogatives, perhaps never more than during the Watergate hearings when Nixon was threatened with impeachment.
The Founders also expected the Executive to try to seize more power at the expense of other branches of government. Congress and the Courts would hold them accountable.
Although the blatant disregard for the Constitution by the current White House is appalling, it would come as no surprise to the Founders. They feared, perhaps more than anything else, a new king who would run roughshod over the balance of power and the rights of citizens.
Congress and the Courts, however, would be sure to hold the White House accountable. The tension of the Watergate Hearings attest to the seriousness by which Members of Congress, even Republicans trying to find a way to defend Nixon, took their role in the Constitutional order.
The Founders did not, however, anticipate a craven Congress, willing to give up its independence by “coordinating with the White House” instead of investigating it. Rather than upholding their oath of office to protect the democratic underpinnings of the Constitutional separation of powers, Republican Senators have gleefully thrown in their lot with the White House, explicitly making a mockery of the process.
This is corruption of the Constitution at its core. When Congress refuses to play its allotted role in the Constitutional order, then that order itself has been lost.
But everyone, including frustrated Democrats, continues to play along as if the orchestra is just a little out of tune, rather than the instruments themselves having disintegrated in their hands. The US has moved into a new, post-Constitutional order. It is unclear what will eventually replace it, but it is likely to be far less stable and create a far more dangerous political arena, both domestically and internationally.
It is perhaps ironic that the system which laid the stable foundations for a political/economic entity to eventually became the sole world superpower is in the process of collapse, exactly when the place of the US in the world itself has peaked. That is not good for US citizens and, given the economic and military might of the US, it is dangerous for all the inhibitants of our planet.