Of late I’ve had occasion to dig into several interpretations of democracy. Books, articles, arguments, that sort of thing. How democracies were formed, how they die, and what it takes to promote the furtherance of democracy in our time. Moreover, this idea has been on my mind for a while.
I’m not foolish enough to think that democracy is assured, or even literally present, in our world today. I’ve often even heard the argument that the United States is not a true democracy and that it was never intended to be as such. We are a “republic” I hear or, at best, a “representative democracy” because the founding fathers were afraid of the will of the people.
The very first words in the preamble to the Constitution, however, are “We the People,” not “We the Representatives of the People.” The preamble in its entirety is a powerful statement on the desire for democracy in the United States of America. It was always intended to be such and, failing intention, the soul of the first words of the Constitution put forth the notion that it would be, could be, and should be a true democracy in time.
The Constitution itself, it has been said, is brilliant in its presentation. One of the most wondrous documents ever writ. I tend to agree. It is very specific where it thinks it needs to be (“No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years”), vague enough where it thought it ought to be (Amendment I), and entirely up to individual interpretation in others (Amendment II). The wording and style, unfortunately, belie a different, simpler time but that is no fault of the founders.
And it is a breathing document, open to interpretation (as I stated) and change. As we have evolved in our ambitious democracy we have amended the Constitution to better serve the changing world. The Bill of Rights itself was just such an addendum as specifics to the vague wording of the original document were needed. The abolition of slavery was another such evolution in our world and in the document. Suffrage. Presidential tenure. Time and time again new life has been breathed into the founding document, and new interpretations of the old words have come again. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. But that is the definition, blessing, and curse of a living document.
But has it assured our democracy? Has it ensured our domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, and blessings of liberty? Has it established justice in the pursuit of a more perfect union? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
As I’ve said, of late, I’ve had occasion to reflect upon the power of the Constitution and the integrity of democracy. The nation has been challenged as it has not been in some time. We elected an autocrat to the office of the President of the United States, an entity self-absorbed and feeling himself the heir to a kingdom and not a democracy. Surprisingly, a large majority of one philosophical body still adheres to this autocrat with tenacious loyalty. This comes at a time of great polarity between the established parties, when the norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance have broken down. This combination of ingredients, history has shown us, is a recipe for unbridled internal strife and the beginning of tyrannical rule. That is something the founders most certainly intended to shed in their original document 232 years ago.
How strong is that document? How powerful its balance and presentation?
We are going to find out. In the year 2016 the United States made perhaps its most egregious misstep when it elected not just a narcissist or autocrat, but a buffoon as well. The circus has been on display ever since. If the founders and writers of the Constitution of the United States truly had the genius we often label upon them, then the pendulum will swing from this absurdity quickly, self-correcting our error and safeguarding our democracy in 2020. Luckily, we have seen in the 2018 midterms some corrected measures already, ensuring that the sovereign power this executive seeks is checked institutionally. There is hope those corrections will continue.
I believe it will come to pass. We have seen the cracks in the structure around this president, cracks that formed almost immediately have turned to gaps and fractures. This is a broken presidency on display for all the world to see. It may take us some time to repair the damage done by our mistake and his presidency, but it is not the first time America has had to heal. It also won’t be the last. But we will learn from our dance along the edge, we will value again the principles of the preamble, of the Constitution, and of its better amendments.
America will rise from this inglorious moment in history.
Democracy, I believe, shall prevail.