The aftermath of the 2020 election – cancerous denial of its legitimacy, Trump’s criminal extortion and seditious congressional efforts to overturn it, deadly violence and insurrection within the Capitol by a mob in denial – triggers alarm that American democracy is ending.
Indeed, the life of this nation is in jeopardy – not because democracy is failing, but because it never existed.
American institutions have perpetrated a durable lie about democracy. We communicate and think as if we believe it. The lie has created unreal expectations, and extraordinary disappointment and resentment. America has fought wars to defend the lie and created wars under the pretense of spreading it.
If America were a democracy, the Senate would not exist. The judiciary would not sit for a lifetime, prejudiced by anachronistic ideology and values held by a minority of the people. A Supreme Court as it exists today is anathema to democracy and, like the Senate, it would not exist.
If America were a democracy, the president would be elected unambiguously by popular majority, answer to the people, and not have imperial powers. The Iraq War would not have happened and more than 360,000 Americans (to date) would not be dead from an uncontrolled viral pandemic.
The truth is America is not and never has been a democracy – a democratic republic, more precisely – of, by, and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln mythologized at a Gettysburg cemetery in 1863. The American Constitution is a labyrinthine design to isolate government from the people. It’s a contradiction of majority rule, the fundamental principle of democracy. Except for the House of Representatives, the least powerful body of government, every major provision of the Constitution is an anti-democratic construction to enshrine minority rule.
“We the People” quite literally were a few score among a privileged colonial minority of wealthy white men who created the Constitution in sessions held secretly from the general populace, in order to protect and preserve the property (then including slaves) by which their wealth was measured or created. They feared the majority. They feared the people.
As George Mason foresaw in 1787 (“Objections to the Constitution of Government Formed by the Convention,” Library of Congress manuscripts), America is fundamentally an experiment in autocracy. In the five-plus decades since Nixon committed treason to sabotage Lyndon Johnson, and most especially in just the past four years, Constitutional safeguards and the rule of law have been proven useless against a regime determined to take and hold power.
In November 2020, American autocracy paused at the verge of fascistic tyranny, just one Constitutional flaw from tripping over that precipice, in a cycle that repeats every two years.
Democracy can fall to tyranny, as the histories of Rome and Weimar Germany testify. Democracy is, however, a barrier against tyranny as long as the people sustain the capability to distinguish truth from lie, to decide through intellect not emotion, through knowledge not belief; as long as the people maintain vigilance and participation.
America is in no condition to become a democracy today – not when half of voters hold values contradictory to majority rule, reason and the common good, and any politician can incite or exploit popular antidemocratic fervor with impunity.
Under the Constitution, America cannot become a democracy. Article V guarantees the Senate will endure and those with authority to change the Constitution, through amendment or constitutional convention, are the very minority who profit and survive by its present construction. Extra-Constitutional action is necessary for America to become a democracy, and time is running out.
Nations expire. The average lifetime of world constitutional governments over the past three millennia is roughly two centuries and, since 1789, they have lasted on average only 17 years (Thomas Ginsburg, Zachary Elkins, and James Melton, “The Lifespan of Written Constitutions,” The University of Chicago Law School, 2009).
History writes the epitaph of nations. Ours will be ignominious and brief: America – at best, it beat the odds.
David Tubbs lives in White Rock.