“A republic, if you can keep it.”
Not in my lifetime have I been so concerned as I am now about our ability to retain the freedom our nation has enjoyed for over two centuries.
Upon the completion of the nation’s original Constitution, Benjamin Franklin, who always seemed ready with a wise and/or witty quip, was asked what kind of government had just been created. He answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Such has been the challenge we have since faced and, to date, we have managed to succeed at keeping our republic.
Although the terms “democracy” and “republic” are often used interchangeably, there is a distinction and Franklin, as always, chose his word carefully. Both are based on governance by “the people,” as opposed to a monarch or a dictator. However, a republic always relies on decision-making by representatives of the people. A democracy may operate as a republic or in a manner by which the people themselves vote directly on (at least some of the) issues rather than relying on representatives.
Does our government today live up to the term “republic?” That is, do our elected officials actually “represent” us? In many ways, the answer is a clear “no.” Examples abound.
Getting elected to office now requires a ridiculous sum of money. Thus, our “representatives” are dependent on donors to acquire and keep their jobs. With income inequality what it is, who do you think are the most likely source of donations? And, whose voices captures the ears of politicians? The ordinary person has lost their voice in our government to those of significant financial means.
The Supreme Court won’t be coming to anyone’s rescue, either. I have described them as among the most unaccountable people in America. That “design” could be a strength, but we have politicized and radicalized the Court so thoroughly over the past generation or two that they seem an extension of Congressional Republicans as opposed to an independent third branch of government. The Court today is probably the most extremist branch of our government when it truly should be the steadiest and most trustworthy.
The authors of the Constitution did not find “the people” up to the task of choosing their own President, so we got the Electoral College, in which we elect representatives who, in turn, ultimately make the final choice as to for whom to cast ballets. The structure of the College has problems, though, as it: a) essentially ignores the wishes of voters of minority parties in states having a clear majority; b) focuses candidate attention only on “battleground” states, thus failing to encourage them on embracing the country’s interests as a whole; c) is currently too often failing to elect the candidate with the most votes; and, d) has loopholes that some are now trying to use to actually rig presidential elections. The Presidency is the only office we vote on as a whole country. Every vote should matter.
“Independent” voters now far outnumber those registered as either Democrats or Republicans. Theoretically, this should weaken the power of both parties, but their role as gatekeepers keeps both powerful. As party affiliation weakens, though, declining membership reduces the number of different voices and creates increasing polarization as the “true believers” come to dominate who is left. Frankly, there are too many extreme voices in each party and they have disproportionate influence. On one side are those who want to “defund the police” while on the other extreme there are those who embrace the most ludicrous of conspiracy theories to justify their attempt to overthrow the government. And, some of these people actually end up in office.
This is because of the gatekeeper issue. Even if over 40% of the nation’s voters are “independent,” that doesn’t mean that we get “independent” candidates. We don’t. Running for office requires both money and a sophisticated organization. Both are hard for any candidate to acquire, but the challenge is greater for independents as party candidates can plug into established campaign infrastructure. Consequently, the parties, who are increasingly out of the mainstream, pick the vast majority of “electable” candidates, most independent voters lean towards one party or the other instead of being truly independent, centrist politicians disappear from the scene, and we end up with a dangerous level of national division.
James Carville, a campaign strategist for Bill Clinton, famously said at that time, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The greatest enemy of freedom is inequity of economic opportunity. The issue that matters most to people is that they can provide for themselves and their families in a way that also allows them to have real lives. This is closely followed by a legitimate desire for fairness.
Social issues seem to be front and center in our politics today, but they are prominent only because neither major American party is truly motivated to address the economic gulf that has emerged over the past three to four decades between the haves and the have-nots. Republican economic policies favor the wealthy and business, especially big business. The economic policies of Democrats, meanwhile, predominantly benefit the professional and upper-middle classes.
Where does all of this leave working class Americans? Without proper representation and without a voice in the governance of our country.
It’s long past time for our representatives to get to work representing “the people,” far too many of whom are struggling to make ends meet. The one thing this constituency agrees on is that “the system is rigged” against them and they are desperately searching for a voice in their governance. Regaining a voice, though, will require a different approach than what’s been tried over the past fifteen years or so. We will need to forge a movement that transcends party affiliation to amend some of the rules through which our “representatives” get elected. We also need to constrain how they conduct themselves once they are elected.
No single elected official and no one party can get this done—it’s a job only “we the people” can accomplish. Our country is in trouble and our freedom hangs in the balance. It’s time for all of us to get to work to save the foundation on which our freedom and liberty are based.