I’ve only written one blog post that made me as sad as this one. It was my confession of being instrumental in a miscarriage of justice when I was an Air Force lawyer. This one is just as sad, but on a grander scale.
I’ve tried over the course of 160+ posts to keep this blog politics-free, with very few exceptions I owned up to. I can’t maintain this pretense any longer. There’s too much at stake for our kids and grandkids.
I’ve long been a fanboy of Thomas Paine. He was an early professional revolutionary—maybe the first—who after serving as the voice of the American Revolution, then went to France, where he was immediately elected to the National Assembly even though he didn’t speak French. But he spoke—and wrote—incredible English. Like this:
These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
I’ve stood by my country my entire life, as has my family for 300 years. We’ve fought every one of America’s wars, back to the Revolution. I gave the 20 best years of my life to serving in the Air Force. I’ve raised my children as proud Americans. Which is why may hands feel like lead as I type this question:
Is the United States as currently constituted worth saving?
Let me be clear—I haven’t made up my own mind on this question. But it’s time we had the conversation. And as Luther once said in another fateful time, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” If you never read this blog again or buy another of my books, I’ll—regretfully—understand.
There’s nothing preordained or inevitable about the creation or survival of any nation-state. They are human constructs, not divine creations. 350 years ago, Thomas Hobbes framed civil government as a social contract in which people surrender some of their own sovereignty to a central authority for protection of their lives and property, rather than living our “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives in the state of nature.
It feels frighteningly like we’re sliding back into this “war of all against all” about which Hobbes warned us.
I understand that even asking this question will trigger very emotional reactions, even cries of treason. Well, as Patrick Henry said just five miles up the road from where I’m sitting here in Williamsburg, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Or at least hear me out.
Even after 20 years in uniform and 30 years at the Bar—as a lawyer, not a drunkard—I’ve never been one to canonize the Founding Fathers or the Framers of the Constitution. They were men—and they were all men—of their time. They were privileged wealthy white guys who made some atrocious political bargains to get their Constitution ratified. It’s also directly relevant to our current moment that two-thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners, as were about half the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention 11 years later. Slavery was permitted in all but the northernmost New England states, but 90% of the slaves in America were in the South.
The US Constitution was not handed down by Moses on Sinai; it was the result of intense debate and bitter disagreement among the delegates. And they made some very cynical deals to get it done. I need say no more than “Three-Fifths Compromise,” but there were many more unsavory horse-trades made over those four memorable months in 1787, most intended to get the southern slave states to “yes” on the new Constitution. So let’s let some of the air out of the deification of the Framers, shall we?
Kicking the can on slavery, the Original Sin with which the American Republic was born, only got the nation so far. Four score and five years, to be exact. The Civil War was meant to have settled the issue finally—and as a matter of law, it did with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. However, the other necessary revisions to eliminate the structural defects in the Constitution that led inexorably to war were left incomplete and lost steam with the death of Lincoln and the incompetent presidency of Andrew Johnson. The ex-Confederate states were given a free hand thereafter to reconstruct something approaching de facto slavery with the system of legal and political impediments constituting Jim Crow white supremacy, a system that would last 90 years and into my lifetime. Now, seven score and fifteen years after the Civil War ended, we are suffering greatly from those failures.
What we are left with is a rather lightly revised 18th-century constitution that has shown itself inadequate to 21st-century realities. In an age wherein every citizen over 18 can vote, we still elect our presidents indirectly through a creaky and counter-majoritarian Electoral College which has yielded five presidents who lost the popular vote, two in the last two decades. With a population that has concentrated itself in the cities and along the coasts rather than spreading across the rural expanses as it once did, we are saddled with a Senate of two members per state that does a better job representing sagebrush and cattle than it does people. And with an increasingly politicized Supreme Court with lifetime-appointed justices, our political process has become deeply and broadly corrupted by a bottomless well of special-interest money.
These and other structural failures have led to a zero-sum politics of hyper-polarization and pandering to tribal over national interests. The same variety of cynicism that gave us the Three-Fifths Compromise has led our political parties—or factions, as Washington aptly called them—to making common cause with white nationalists and racists in exchange for votes and a grip on power.
This cuts across both parties, with the chronological dividing line the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lyndon Johnson, a scion of the Dixiecrat one-party South, famously said to his then-aide Bill Moyer after signing the Act, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” LBJ was as right about that as he was wrong about Vietnam.
And Richard Nixon’s Republican Party welcomed the racist Dixiecrats with open arms—the essential component of Nixon’s successful 1968 “Southern strategy.” The complete conversion of the Southern states from Blue to Red was breathtakingly fast, complete by Reagan’s victory in 1980.
What the ensuing 50 years have brought is ever-increasing tribalism and hyper-partisanship, near total Congressional paralysis, ceaseless accumulation of power in the Executive branch, and the filling of vacant Supreme Court seats morphed into Mad Max in the Thunderdome. Not exactly indicators of a healthy democracy.
And then came Trump. We mistakenly see him as sui generis—something completely unexpected and utterly unique. He’s not a rejection of politics as we’ve known it for the past five decades—he’s the natural outcome. He’s not a bug, he’s a feature. What began as “dog whistling” by Nixon and Reagan—“law and order” (against black criminals!) or “welfare queens” (who are all black!)—has become a bull horn for Trump. The single-issue über tribalism of evangelicals (abortion) and Second Amendment devotees (anything restricting guns) has been added to and overlaps with the race-based “culture warriors” of the radical right who came to prominence during the brief but tectonic Congressional reign of Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay in the ’90s.
It was of course necessary to find an equally radical opponent, real or imagined, so the radical right created a bogeyman by labelling even modest Democratic attempts at reforming the tax code or providing expanded healthcare or protecting voting rights as “socialist” or “un-American.” And to spice this already toxic brew, liberally fold in 280 million privately owned firearms.
So again, I ask the question: Is the USA worth saving?
Our own increasingly untenable notion of “American Exceptionalism” blinds us to the centrifugal forces that we see in other countries. The Soviet Union atomized into 15 successor states, although Vladimir Putin appears set upon piecemeal reassembly. The Czechs and Slovaks managed a velvet divorce. The United Kingdom barely survived a Scottish independence referendum six years ago. Spain reels from the persistent political support for independence in Catalonia. And the Northern League that controls most of the wealthiest regions of Italy has threatened to secede from the poorer south and central regions for decades.
Why then should we be arrogant enough to believe the seriously fractured and increasingly violent United States is immune from these widespread forces of dissolution?
This question should be considered in the same way the Framers of the Constitution approached their task. What is it worth to us to have a more effective federal government in place of the collapsing Articles-of-Confederation Congress? What are the costs and benefits?
In our present America, most Blue States might well ask why they should continue contributing an outsized share of revenues for the federal government when they, in comparison to most of the overrepresented Red States, are net losers in what they receive back. On the other hand, are issues like banning abortion or allowing unrestricted gun ownership so important to Red State voters that they’d willingly jettison any need to compromise with Blue State interests?
We may be to a tipping point where California and New York—or Texas and South Carolina— no longer see our constitutional system as serving the best interests of their citizens. My sincere wish, however, is that if we choose to end this imperfect Union, it’s with a velvet divorce and not widespread violence.
Very interesting question and one that you’ve articulated far better than I ever could. I was pondering essentially this very question on my morning walk. My question was:
‘What level of homogeneity in purpose and beliefs (not religious, but in justice, in equality, in compassion, etc.) does a country need to have in order to have a functioning democracy.’
I didn’t come up with an answer…my walk was only 3 miles…likely would have needed about another 100. So have we devolved to such a lack of common purpose or middle ground that we can never have a functioning country? An analogy comes to mind from when I worked for a major electronics company during the emergence and dominance of PCs. We had 100 companies each trying to buy enough microprocessors to be 10% of the PC manufacturers. (And unhappy that they couldn’t have all they wanted) So coming full circle it seems we have too many factions in the US wanting to have it ONLY ‘their’ way. No room for compromise even on such fundamental issues as healthcare. I too fear for our democracy when even COVID 19 has become a politicized. REALLY! A F****ing worldwide pandemic needing all the focus of the world hearth community and governments and scientists to work together to keep us all the people of the world healthy and not die. But consider how our president has chosen to first ignore it and then when he couldn’t ignore it any longer, he moved on and ignored it anyway. (Of course he has lots of company in some of the other emerging totalitarian and totalitarian -wannabe regimes in the world hoping to push their twisted agendas by ignoring something they apparently don’t have any interest nor desire to understand.) So China did seem to get it though in their approach to the pandemic…interesting counterpoint.
But back to the question…I really don’t know, but fear that unless
we can find enough common ground we may not have a democracy that looks like anything we have known for the last 50-100 years.
I wouldn’t disagree with a thing you’ve said, Rand. Painful as this is, it’s a question that needs to be examined. We watched a similar process unfold in Scotland six years ago. Kathy and I met there as students and still have close friends there. They agonized over the independence referendum and what it would mean, but they were being ruled by a Tory party in London that was essentially extinct in Scotland—just 1 MP out of 59 at that time. But there was also a strong emotional attachment to the UK and “Britishness.” In the end, our friends voted Stay, along with 55% of the Scots—which meant 45% voted to leave. Since Brexit—-which was soundly rejected by almost two-thirds in Scotland and 56% in Ulster—-the numbers supporting independence have crept up over 50% and I suspect will keep climbing. (The Scottish First Minister asked for a second independence vote in January, but Boris Johnson rejected it. Not over yet.) I see a lot of the US—-the parts with most of the people and money, mind you, following the same trajectory. Why should we continue submitting to what’s to us a minority government controlled in whole or in part by an increasingly intolerant conservative party that clings to power nationally through creaky old counter-majoritarian features in the Constitution, gerrymandering, and voter suppression? Is the game still worth the candle to populous wealthy states like California or New York or Massachusetts? An independent California, for example, would be the 7th or 8th largest economy in the world. Does anyone really doubt an independent Republic of California would do just fine on its own? Same for Texas or Florida. It’s the underpopulated/over-represented and the poorer/net “taker” states that would suffer most—-Alaska or Wyoming or Mississippi, for example. We need to keep asking this question and ask it seriously.
Jeffrey, I have often thought maybe we should have allied the South to secede instead of fighting a war that separated brothers and killed hundreds of thousands. What for I ask myself, just to exchange one kind of slavery for another? Undocumented workers are here on a wind and a prayer until trump’s minions decide they are the next meat to be served to please his base. Nobody even talks about the most terrifying scenes of this administration, children in cages separated from their parents, just like African children in 1619.
If we have what you call a velvet divorce, who
Would we be divorcing now? The Deep South only or maybe throw in Minnesota, which doesn’t seem to have recognized that all men are created equal either?
We are of a mind on this, Natasha. Thanks for commenting.
Another great, thought provoking blog but, I fear, a tad misdirected. I believe that the question should be “can the US, as currently constituted, be saved”. I strongly believe that it should be so perhaps that is why I think the original question isn’t germane. Of course, since I’ve already reached a conclusion, I can safely, in my own mind, move on to the following question – can it be saved. 🙂
I do believe that popular election of the President is not where we should be headed and that the electoral college does provide support to States that are small in population (but not necessarily land). I do not want to be at the whim of voters in CA, TX, FL and NY but do want to feel that my vote/desires are considered at the least (please ignore that I am currently living in CA since I’m trying to further the discussion). I believe that the “give and take” is important. The main issue to me is the total abandonment of principle and character that we currently have in Congress. Our FF foresaw that we’d have a Pres without character or judgement. What they didn’t foresee was a congress without the same.
I recommend a book to you – Only Yesterday, by Allen. It discusses the 1920s (written in 1931 so I had to look some things up) and what struck me were the incredible similarities between then and now. We managed to come back from that so hopefully we can come back from our current mess.
I don’t know how we can get character and principle back into folks who have clearly thrown it over for money and advantage. It is a depressing time for sure.
I understand your point, Rod. What I truly believe we need is a Second Constitutional Convention, convened with the understanding that any state not satisfied with the new document can opt out peacefully. That should focus everyone’s attention on a new compromise. I disagree with the value of the Electoral College–it was part of a Devil’s bargain packaged with other immoral (e.g. 3/5th’s Compromise) and counter-majoritarian (e.g., 2 Senators per state) deals that were the result of straight-up horse trading. It’s how the Framers got to yes. I don’t believe it serves our needs now. People are what matter in a democracy. Fair enough that you “don’t want to be at the whim of voters in CA, TX, FL and NY”–that can be easily turned around. Why should Californians and New Yorkers be at the whim of over-represented voters in Wyoming and Alaska, particularly in the Senate? My biggest fear is that we seem to be exactly tracking the trajectory of American society and politics in the 1850s. And that ended violently, although the result of all the bloodshed was a noble victory.
Thanks for posting this, Jeffrey. It is a difficult conversation – but one well worth having. I equate it to a married couple discussing their relationship – is it worth continuing on like this? I think it is an important conversation for couples, and unified states, to have from time to time. Otherwise we lose sight on the why. You aren’t the only person tossing out these questions either – I have heard it discussed by Univ professor of Ethics on NPR, as well as numerous citizens on social media. You are not alone. As a person living in a ‘net-giving state’ it saddens my heart when I see the quality of life others have in states which are ‘net-taking’ – higher infant mortality rates, lower maternal pregnancy outcome rates, increased childhood poverty (and less likely to leave poverty), poorly funded schools, low rates of insured citizens, and now incoming legislation blocking personal choice which also threatens protection of the LGBTQ+ community which only fuels more hate and pain. I wonder – where is this money going, who is benefiting, and is it worth continuing? Many are beginning to question this relationship.