The Subtle Strengthening of American Institutions
On Independence Day it is worth remembering that the Republic is stronger than it was three years ago.
Americans are feeling pretty pessimistic about their country on this Independence Day, and in some ways it is hard to blame them. This past week brought another spate of school shootings. Some of the most powerful, wealthy people in America hold galactically stupid opinions. Some GOP candidates for president are running campaigns designed to look backwards rather than forwards. And some Democratic candidates for president are conspiracy freaks.
It is easy to despair about the state of the union. On July 4th of all days, however, it is worth remembering that this country has always been populated by a cornucopia of killers, idiots, and bigots. Heck, our Founding Fathers were fully aware of this fact, which is why they designed the Constitution the way they did. As Federalist 51 noted:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
In other words, the institutions of government were not designed for the best of us to run them, but to guard against the worst of us abusing them. That can sometimes lead to frustrating outcomes. But it is also worth remembering that sometimes, the system learns to protect itself.
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Both the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and the Guardian’s Margaret Sullivan noted over the past week that the federal government has been fortifying itself against a Trumpian attempt to run his post-election 2020 playbook with greater success. As Sargent notes, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against the independent state legislature theory helps to eliminate GOP-dominated state legislatures from thwarting the will of the voters. But that is merely the latest in a long series of steps taken to prevent an extralegal transfer of power:
Along with the ruling, virtually all election-denying candidates for governor and secretary of state in key swing states lost in the 2022 midterms. Congress reformed the law that governs how presidential electors are counted. And the national response to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection has been surprisingly robust, from the House hearings documenting the gravity of that event to the successful prosecutions of many attackers….
In key respects, our national response to Jan. 6 has been unexpectedly good. It has been animated by the idea that Jan. 6 wasn’t a fleeting spasm of MAGA rage but, rather, a sign that Trump and parts of his movement pose a lasting threat to our constitutional order.
All these developments vindicate that reading. By dramatizing it, the Jan. 6 hearings helped bring down election deniers in 2022 and inspire reforms to the Electoral Count Act, which might not have happened if the public hadn’t been on high alert about threats to democracy.
Sullivan makes similar points in her column:
A recent big price tag for Fox News – $787.5m to settle a defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Systems – is another encouraging development. It provided some accountability for the way the cable network knowingly spread election-related lies after the 2020 election; when that settlement was followed by Fox’s firing the reprehensible Tucker Carlson, it began to look as if legal challenges could do what advertiser boycotts could not.
The various criminal prosecutions and investigations to hold the January 6 insurrectionists accountable are heartening as well. Those potentially include Trump himself – in Washington, in Georgia, and according to the latest news, maybe in Arizona, too. To some degree, the democratic guardrails are holding and the rule of law prevailing.
That last point is key. There has been a lot of gnashing of teeth about the multiple prosecutions of Trump strengthening him in the GOP primary. In the long run, however, these prosecutions will alienate most Americans and force Trump to reckon with his illegal actions during and after his presidency. And his worst enablers are also beginning to face their own consequences from supporting him.
Representative democracy cannot function without the rule of law. The Trump presidency highlighted the vulnerabilities of that system to the whims of an amoral, vindictive man-baby. The past few years, however, reveal that the system has fortified itself against further abuse. That is a pretty good sign — one of many — that there will be many more enjoyable Independence Days to come.1