Our imperiled democracy
Democracy in the United States, already endangered, took a step closer towards extinction when President Trump declared a national emergency to reprogram federal funds in order to build a border wall separating the U.S. from Mexico.
Warning signs that U.S. democracy has been becoming endangered include presidents:
· Issuing Executive Orders in lieu of obtaining Congressionally passed laws
· Signing statements that identify portions of new laws that the president believes unconstitutional or which the President states the executive branch will ignore because of policy disagreements, attempting to exercise a line item veto when none exists
· Refusing to spend authorized funds in another attempt to exercise a non-existent line item veto
· Waging de facto wars without the Constitutionally required Congressional authorization
Over the second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Presidents have employed those devices – and others – to move government when Congress was either stalemated or the opposition party blocked Congressional action.
Concurrently, economic inequality has been rising sharply, returning to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.
Together, the political dysfunction and economic inequality eerily parallel conditions in ancient Rome prior to the end of its democracy. The poor were kept pacified through distribution of free food. Rome itself was governed by an elected Senate and two consuls. Senators largely came from a recognized wealthy elite. In the face of Senatorial stalemate, senators sympathetic to a consul would vote or figuratively stand aside to allow the consul to exercise greater authority. This increased the power of consuls. The Roman system also allowed appointment of a dictator in an emergency situation. Declared emergencies became more common; consuls acting as dictators gradually seized more power; democracy became increasingly imperiled.
Julius Caesar, returning from wars in Gaul, formed a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. The triumvirate used the combined military power of Pompey and Caesar along with Crassus’ wealth to end Roman democracy.
Although the percent of the population receiving various forms of welfare in the U.S. has remained relatively constant in the last few decades, the percent of people receiving all forms of government assistance (this includes welfare as well as the earned income tax credit, Medicaid, etc.) is rising. Collectively, welfare and other forms of assistance are analogous to first century bread distributions. Both are intended to quiet the poor in the face of staggering economic inequality.
As in Rome, the U.S. Congress is frequently stalemated, regardless of which party controls the House or the Senate.
Meanwhile, authority and power increasingly flow to the executive branch, headed by the President.
Democracy, as the authors of the U.S. Constitution realized, requires a set of checks and balances to prevent any one branch, and any one individual or group of individuals, from acquiring too much power. U.S. democracy is badly bent, heavily tilted in favor of the executive branch.
Democrats and Republicans share responsibility for creating the imbalance, with each successive president since Truman contributing to the imbalance.
Under President Trump, the slide towards tyranny has rapidly gained momentum.
President Trump publicly praises the media and reporters who support him; he castigates media and reporters who oppose him as “fake news,” implicitly redefining truth as what he says rather than as objectively verifiable facts. Indeed, Trump in his public statements and interviews displays little grasp of facts, repeatedly asserting false claims and sometimes contradicting himself. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build a border wall rests on several untruths that Trump repeatedly asserts. Contrary to Trump, (1) the number of illegal immigrants crossing the border is declining, not increasing; (2) illegal drugs primarily enter the U.S. through legal ports of entry, not illegal crossings; (3) few violent criminals and even fewer terrorists enter illegally.
Loyalty now trumps fact, pun intended. This is the behavior of a dictator, or would be dictator, not the behavior of a democratic president. Indeed, during the 2016 election Trump declared that he would not accept defeat at the polls. Will he accept defeat in 2020 or, if re-elected, step aside at the end of his second term?
The U.S. Constitution presumes that government will generally act incrementally rather than through the major changes possible in a parliamentary democracy. Incremental change necessitates compromise, something that legislators from both parties increasingly seem unwilling to do (the most recent appropriations that avoided another government shutdown are a noteworthy exception). In the absence of compromise, Congress usually becomes deadlocked. The executive branch then faces an almost irresistible urge to fill the resulting power vacuum, further contributing toward a slide away from democracy and toward dictatorship.
The Christian tradition has long identified pride as the principle human sin. Checks and balances in the federal system are intended to prevent members of any of the three co-equal branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) from becoming excessively arrogant, gather a disproportionate amount of power and thereby unbalancing equality among the branches.
Justice for all has greatly increased in the last seventy years due in significant measure to Christian efforts. Though justice remains imperfect, Christians now need to shift a major part of their focus to protecting democracy in order to preserve those improvements in justice, gains certain to be lost under a dictatorship. Defending democracy is a core, non-negotiable Christian ethic.