As Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked, “What have you given us?” He answered: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” That probably happened, but even if it didn’t, the exchange captures two fundamental truths about our Constitution.
Most of the attention has focused on the word “republic,” although in recent years that word has increasingly been misquoted as “democracy.” That mistake is both revealing and disturbing. The Founders knew their history; they understood the differences between a republic and a democracy, and with Plato and Aristotle, they approved of the former but not so much of the latter.
One key reason for their disapproval of direct, as opposed to representative democracy, was that disruptors like Donald Trump who talk a good game can get themselves elected in a direct democracy. They are less likely to prevail in a republic, which builds multiple levels of vetoes by elites into the selection process for leaders. That feature of democratic republics insures a modicum of consensus, which is necessary for government to function.
Unfortunately, the Electoral College never worked the way the Framers intended. States passed laws requiring their electors to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state, rather than to exercise their independent judgment about who would be the best president. An extra-constitutional feature that once functioned to temper direct democracy with checks and balances was the selection of candidates by political parties rather than primary voters; since the 1970s, politicians have become independent policy entrepreneurs who no longer depend much on political parties.
It is inconceivable to me that a Donald Trump could have emerged as the candidate from the “smoke-filled rooms” that once reigned supreme at national presidential nominating conventions. He probably could not even have made it past a vote by party leaders such as the “super delegates” that the Democrats have wisely retained beginning on the second ballot at their nominating conventions.
We have gradually dismantled most of the features that once made us a republic, not a direct democracy. That has created the current crisis in which a democratically elected president is relentlessly opposed — and hated — by a large portion of the elites in our society but is popular enough with the people that he might well get re-elected. The response by the disloyal opposition, “the Resistance,” was described brilliantly by Attorney General Barr in his historic speech to the Federalist Society. Most of it is a sophisticated account of constitutional history and a defense of executive power against encroachment by the other branches, but what is most relevant for present purposes is that many people who should know better are so angry that they will stop at nothing in what they see as their sacred mission to obstruct President Trump. A sure sign confirming how bad things have gotten is that some “Nevers Trumpers” actually called for Barr’s impeachment for delivering what they called a “lunatic” speech to the “authoritarian” Federalist Society. Ever hear of the First Amendment guys? Ironically, they confirmed his point.
This level of hostility is puzzling because many of President Trump’s policies were once espoused by those who now revile them. A good example is pulling back the U.S. military from quasi-imperial missions to promote “stability” around the world. Ending “American imperialism” was the signature program of the Left in the wake of the Vietnam war, but if Trump wants to end “endless wars,” they now oppose it. Another example is building a wall on our southern border, which prominent Democrats including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Chuck Schumer all voted for when it was someone else’s wall.
A lot of the loathing of President Trump is stylistic. Vanity Fair called him a “vulgarian.” He is not the son of a great political family, nor did he work his way up through the ranks of politicians. He is a nouveau riche outsider from Queens and it shows. He delights in doing crude things that defy convention such as having affairs with porn stars, making public references to the size of his genitalia, and poking fun at the physical features of his opponents in Congress. These boorish behaviors are “not the way we do” in polite society. Worse yet, he does not consult with the career staff as they think he should, and that slight may yet be his downfall.
In view of the partisan mess that our country is now because the press and about half of the political establishment want to topple a duly elected president, we should all bear in mind a second aspect of Franklin’s famous answer that often goes unnoticed: its use of the singular indefinite article, “A Republic,” or in the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But only if you can keep it.
Today it is increasingly in doubt whether one nation indivisible is something we can keep. We live in different worlds, depending upon our sources of information. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” How quaint and old-fashioned that seems; today both sides live in different realities created by CNN and MSNBC, or Fox News and Sean Hannity.
Recently the second edition of a book advocating the secession of Texas from the United States was published, Texit: Why and How Texas Will Leave The Union. There is also one about the secession of California, Calexit. It was originally a comic book about heroic revolutionaries who resist a fascist president who wants to deport all illegal aka “undocumented” immigrants. Somehow a comic book seems appropriate for that simplistic narrative about a complex problem, but the idea of California seceding is now also a serious movement.
A century and a half ago we fought the first American civil war over whether we would continue as one nation indivisible. I doubt whether any modern-day Lincoln would send troops to fight the secession of Texas or California; instead, like the Brits and the Scots in 2014, we’d probably hold a polite referendum.
My father told me that he and my mother had a deal: “We would discuss decisions, but if we couldn’t agree, she would make all of the little decisions and I would make all the big ones. After 45 years of marriage,” he continued, “we have not had to make any big decisions, but if we ever do, I intend to make them.” I chuckled, nodded and went on with my life as a clueless teenager. Years later I understood: in a marriage — as in a nation — there aren’t many “big” decisions that are worth putting the union itself at risk over.
A letter in Lincoln’s handwriting hangs on the wall of the Wadsworth Atheneum museum in Hartford. Lincoln personally was opposed to slavery, but in reply to abolitionist editor Horace Greeley, Lincoln maintained that even abolishing slavery was not worth sacrificing the union: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
I don’t agree with Lincoln that saving the union was more important than abolishing slavery, but then, he is one of our greatest presidents and his letter shows how important he considered preserving our republic as a single nation.
As we consider the impeachment of Donald Trump, I hope that both sides will keep their grievances in perspective and remember that it is only “a Republic” if we can keep it. Or in the lingo that millennials understand, “Democracy … means sharing a country with ass–les you can’t stand.” Thank you for that, Bill Maher. Ben Franklin and Abe Lincoln are nodding and smiling.