We’re in jeopardy of losing our democracy. This past week the Democracy Index, an international ranking of the health of democracy in world’s nations, downgraded the United States from a “Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy”. University researchers recently concluded in a study that the United States is an oligarchy, that is we’re dominated by the rich and the average person lacks meaningful political power. Despite all of our pledges, flag waving, verbal accolades regarding the wonders of democracy, and declarations of defending freedom to the death, American democracy is on the ropes. No, Donald Trump is not the cause. He may be a symptom, but there is plenty of reason to be concerned about American democracy apart from Donald Trump’s authoritarian fascism.
Our government is a system of checks and balances between the three branches: the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive. In theory, no branch is greater than the other and each operates to keep the other in check. Only the legislative branch is subject to direct election on the federal level, although on a state level both the judiciary and the executive may also be directly elected. The federal judiciary is insulated from the electoral process by virtue of lifetime appointment of federal judges by the Executive and confirmation by the legislative branches.
However, recent years have witnessed an accelerating decline of this system of checks and balances. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of what I call the “super legislature”. Certainly, there has been a lot of scrutiny paid to the use of Executive Orders by the President in the face of congressional gridlock, but if you pay attention to what’s happening at the state level, and then look back at the federal level, you’ll see that it’s not the presidency with which we need to be concerned. It’s the legislative branch, which have become increasingly single party nationally and whose members dominated by big money, where we see the most blatant attempts to overturn our system of checks and balances.
For example, according to the Florida Bar News, there is currently a bill in the Florida legislature, introduced by Republican Julio Gonzalez, to amend the Florida Constitution to allow the Florida legislature to overturn any Florida Supreme Court decision that rules any law to be unconstitutional. This bill, should it become law, would remove the Florida Supreme Court from its traditional role of having the final say regarding the Constitutionality of our laws. In other words, the legislature, not the Courts, would get to review the constitutionality of the laws it passes.
In North Carolina, the Republican dominated legislature recently passed laws severely restricting the power of the Governor following the election of a Democrat to that office. Fortunately, this law was struck down by the Courts. However, I suspect that the North Carolina legislature will engage in a war of obstruction, similar to what President Obama experienced, designed to thwart the will of the voters by making it impossible for the Governor to effectively govern.
On the Federal level we have witnessed years of obstruction culminating in the absolute refusal of Republican Senators to hold a hearing on President Obama’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. This refusal was not based upon an objection to the nominee, but as a mechanism to prevent the President from performing his duties.
I see this happening in other areas too. For example, through binding consumer arbitration clauses, the legislature has removed jurisdiction from our courts for the majority of claims arising from consumer transactions with banks, credit card companies, car dealerships, employment contracts, etc. The profound impact of this was recently seen when the lawsuits of consumers who were defrauded by fake accounts created by Wells Fargo found themselves unable to sue due to arbitration clauses in their account contracts and a federal statute called the Federal Arbitration Act.
I suspect that underlying all of this is a fundamental nationwide deficit of civics education. According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of our government. This lack of even the most basic civics education and understanding leaves voters vulnerable to misinformation during elections and campaigns such as when an ad claims that a presidential candidate is going to raise or lower taxes. (Taxing and spending is controlled by Congress). Indeed, it often appears to me that most voters ignore candidates for all offices except president, whom they seem to believe is some sort of temporary all-powerful king.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. It’s always seemed to me that patriotism should demand more than flag waving. It should demand that we educate ourselves and our children regarding the structure of our government, the people we elect, and the work in which our politicians and bureaucrats are engaged. True patriotism should demand more than claim that all politicians are crooks, because they’re not. I ran for office a few years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. While I did not agree with the ideas of some of the candidates, I found the majority to be decent people who were interested in the issues and improving the lives of citizens. Money in politics is certainly a problem, but voter ignorance and apathy is an even bigger problem. Additionally, partisan voters, who have given over their minds in exchange for allegiance to a political party that they follow like lemmings, make campaigning based upon ideas extremely difficult, because so many minds are absolutely closed and people vote blindly according to party.
In closing, I want to say that whatever the problems we have in our system of government, we need to be careful and to stay true to democratic principles above all else. If we’re not careful, we can lose this democracy, and I believe that what comes next will be most unpleasant.