I saw a Tweet this week that made me laugh a little. Someone had shared a video of the flooding in downtown DC on Monday when that deluge of rain came through. The National Archives had tweeted the footage and pointed out that you could see their building beyond the waves of the flood waters. An historian at Georgetown said he hoped the Constitution had been kept dry because “we might need it again, someday.”
To be sure, this is some gallows humor, but it speaks to a sense of crisis that permeates our politics right now. Everything feels consequential. Everything feels dire. There’s a permanent sense of crisis, daily (sometimes hourly) a new outrage; and a never ceasing media frenzy around the latest scandal—or purported scandal.
The results are toxic to our constitutional system.
Democracy doesn’t operate best in a state of constant crisis. Democracy requires cool heads and dispassionate compromise. Our republic requires political leaders that put country over their own political interests—whether personal or party. And it requires leaders and citizens who are able to distinguish between support for a political leader or policy and love of country.
Those distinctions—as well as those ideals—seem lost, now. An op-ed contributor in USA Today the day after the President’s July 4th speech alleged that Democrats were “upset” about the speech, “not because it was political or partisan,” but because “it was patriotic, and that is what annoys the left the most.”
It would have been garbage if the parties had been reversed. It would have been garbage if the criticism was about collective intelligence of one party over another. It would have been garbage if the criticism was about one’s faith in God. We ought to be able to stipulate that none of us have any basis to question the patriotism of others, the intelligence of others, or the reverence of others.
But that’s where we are at this moment in our politics, and my greatest concern is that I don’t know how to begin to fix this in the absence of some catastrophic event that gets Americans thinking, again, as Americans, first. If you listen to the way so many of us engage with our political opposites, there’s a “purge this land with blood” mindset in both parties. But I also hear constitutional scholars and typically cool-headed observers wondering aloud if we are nearing the end of our current constitutional system—that the break down in checks-and-balances is nearly complete; that the co-equal branches of government designed by the founders no longer operate as such. When the executive branch simply refuses to comply with legitimate congressional oversight; when the Congress is unable because of partisan loyalties to assert its prerogative; and when any president responds to a ruling by the Supreme Court with a threat to act by executive order, we are perilously close to tyranny.
What’s at stake isn’t Republican or Democratic control of Congress or the White House. What’s at stake is the American republic—this glorious experiment in democracy and self government, of, by, and for the people. We are Americans, first, before we are Democrats or Republicans, or whatever other label might be hung on us. We are Americans—and we all need to remember that before it’s too late and we carelessly throw away something we all truly love.