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The drafters of the Constitution in 1787 wisely authorized Congress to control space travel, social media and driverless automobiles.
Of course not.
The 39 men who created the Constitution could not have imagined the future. While they proposed a new system of government, their invention was a political design, not a detailed operator’s manual.
They knew they could not foresee the future. But basic features like federalism, three branches of government, checks and balances and regular elections were essential. How they worked might change, though their evolution should always respect the consensus embodied in the Constitution.
If natural evolution, consistent with those common values, did not keep up with the development of the nation, the Constitution would be formally amended. While it has happened less often than they thought, the Constitution has been amended 27 times.
The drafters’ assumption about the survival of their common beliefs has been badly disappointed. Political practices they had envisaged to fulfill the constitutional plan are in tatters.
The Constitution, even with its amendments, is a short document. This column is twice as long as the entire article on the judicial system. The brief document left much room for maneuver to those ready to abandon the underlying beliefs that made it work as the drafters had intended.
Warnings that democracy is in danger are a signal that the common beliefs underlying the Constitution are being replaced by a new set of understandings. The broad scope of the Constitution allows those who reject the common beliefs underlying it to replace them with a more authoritarian system with less popular control.
There were plenty of gradual changes in the underlying understanding over the years, but the sharp detour occurred after the Republicans won the 1994 congressional elections. Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich imposed strict party discipline similar to the way foreign parliaments operate but not previously used in Congress.
Since then, the GOP has developed strong party loyalty. A Republican member of Congress is now more likely to toe the party line than to represent their state, district or personal beliefs. Party loyalty has produced added GOP political strength. That kind of loyalty has extended to state politics.
Voting is an example of the new ways of government. While the drafters only planned popular control to cover elections for the House of Representatives, the Constitution has been formally amended six times to expand popular control. However, it has become a cornerstone of GOP policy to try to limit access to voting.
Through their control of state governments, Republicans have drawn congressional districts to reduce the power of some voters, often minorities. They are now transferring authority from neutral election administrators to partisans who can freely disallow Democratic votes. They undermine methods, like mail ballots, that have increased voting.
Trying to reduce citizen election participation as a way of holding onto office is clearly against constitutional intent and the essence of democratic government.
Historically, Congress has accepted that elections have results and that presidents should have the right to pick their top staff and federal judges. Now, the GOP has chosen to undermine presidential choice. Their refusal to even consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee was a glaring case.
GOP Sen. Ted Cruz single-handedly blocks most of President Joe Biden’s key appointments to the State Department. He won’t relent, he says, until Biden changes his foreign policy in Europe. Biden has been denied his own team for almost a year.
Cruz’s move is part of a larger trend in which Republicans in Congress seek to control foreign policy, despite the Constitution assigning that power to the president. Of course, Congress can try to cut off funding for presidential actions it opposes, but it was not supposed to micro-manage foreign policy.
On routine matters, partisan war replaces normal mutual accommodation. Democrats and Republicans have boosted the public debt and they have usually jointly agreed to raise the debt limit. This year, the Senate voted to force the Democrats alone to do it, but only 14 Republicans out of 50 would agree to even that.
Biden seeks to respond to public concern about deep political divisiveness. He may harbor an impossible hope if the GOP persists on its path to power by relentlessly blocking the Democrats. The Democrats increasingly will seek to do the same.
What is the Republicans’ goal? It seems to be about gaining power for its own sake more than enacting a specific agenda. They steadfastly oppose all Democratic proposals, but offer few positive proposals of their own and refuse to compromise.
In writing this column, I regret seeming partisan, because I strongly believe we need a healthy party system. What worries me is that the system created in 1787 is becoming all about partisan politics at the expense of popular government.