Thomas Paine wrote in 1782 after the American Revolution: “We are really a different people now.”
What Paine meant in part was that the new Republican form of government required a new and different kind of person, a new kind of citizen. People were used to being subjects of the Crown, ruled monarchically through fear and violence. The young republic, which had committed itself to freedom, was faced with the challenge of reconciling freedom and a kind of government agency. As noted historian Gordon Wood has noted, it would not be enough to repeat Paine and merely change the structure and nature of authority and government: “The people themselves,” he wrote, trying to capture the feel and urgency of the time , “Have to change too. “
In short, holding the republic, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, really depended on the people, on the behavior of the individual. Indeed, the central governing principle of the new republic became a so-called “public virtue”, referring to the value and conduct of putting the common good before personal greed or interests.
If that political premise sounds poor, that’s why. As Wood describes it: “A republic was such a delicate polity precisely because it required an extraordinary moral character in the people.”
Recalling the delicate nature, perhaps even the shakiness of the foundation of the American republic, is perhaps useful for this present moment when democracy seems under siege. Many in our nation watch with concern, wondering whether our democratic system – its norms, structures, and laws – can withstand the onslaught of Trump and the largely complicit Republicans of Congress.
However, it may be less about our systems and structures than about individuals who are difficult to account for.
The mutual control system designed by our founders provides certain safeguards and mechanisms to prevent autocratic rule and preserve democracy. But look what happened both after the Müller report and in the impeachment hearings. Despite a wealth of information and evidence to suggest it “The Russian government disturbed in the 2016 presidential election in flat-rate and systematic Mode, ”and that the Trump administration was deeply involved in Russia, the Senate Republicans simply refused to scrutinize Trump in order to effectively support and encourage threats to US democracy and national security.
On Nov. 27, 3rd Circle Judge Stephanos Bibas, a Trump-appointed federal judge, wrote the ruling for the court rejecting the Trump campaign’s efforts to challenge the Pennsylvania election results and upholding a democratic process that rooted power in the people and insisted, “Voters, not lawyers, elect the president. Ballot papers, no briefings, decide about elections. “
Bibas said in the decision: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Injustice charges are grave. But calling a choice unfair doesn’t make it that way. Fees require specific allegations and then proof. We don’t have any here. “
This decision, however, was based on people who may or may not maintain the spirit of democracy in their decisions and in their interpretation of the law.
In fact, we see many Republicans still trying to question the election results in court. And the decision a court makes may depend less on the law itself than on the individual judges who interpret and enact the law. That’s why Trump was in such a hurry to appoint Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and have the Senate ratified. Whether she goes along or not, Trump realized that his ability to reverse an election result could potentially depend on a single judge, as it did in 2000 when the Supreme Court ruled George W. Bush in a 5- 4-Decision effectively appointed to the presidency. A judge.
For the same reason, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stacked federal courts with ideologues.
In mid-November, for example, the Senate confirmed Trump’s appointment of Kathryn Kimball Mizelle to the federal bank in Tampa, Florida, even though she is only 33 years old and has never tried civil or criminal proceedings as a senior attorney. What she has is a record of working for Trump to push back civil rights.
And do you remember the beginning of 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission?
President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address shortly thereafter, cursed the Supreme Court decision and its dire consequences for democracy, rather presciently – and rather dramatically in a violation of behavior:
“With all due respect for the separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates to special interests – including foreign companies – that we can spend indefinitely on our elections. . . I don’t think American elections should be funded by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people. And I would like to urge Democrats and Republicans to pass legislation that will help resolve some of these problems. “
What we are seeing is that our democracy actually depends on the moral character, the virtue of the individuals who wield power in our systems. As we see with the Republicans who refuse to challenge Trump, be it cowardice or complicity, to overthrow democracy, it will not last if those who live in democracy do not want it and work against it.
Wood gives a taste of the moment the American Republic was established, citing a speech from the day when a speaker praised the importance of virtue:
“Without part of this generous principle, anarchy and confusion would arise instantly, and the harrowing interests of individuals, self-reliant and indifferent to the well-being of others, would continue to exacerbate the agonizing scene and with the aid of selfish passions. it would end in ruin and subversion of the state. “
And here we are, with many who cannot be on a mask, shelter, or social distance to care for the well-being of others. And the Supreme Court ruled again to allow large gatherings in the name of religious freedom but to be contrary to the common good and the good of others.
It is worth remembering what our republic depends on if we are to keep it.
We cannot fully protect our democracy from individuals like Trump because that depends on individuals being committed to the values and behaviors of democracy.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.