Democracy & Government

A Historian Speaks to the Current Moment

A Historian Speaks to the Current Moment

We are possibly at one of the most dangerous moments in our 233 year history as a nation. The delicate arrangements of our Constitution to protect us from tyranny are imperiled. If they should fail the world would lose a model document establishing that a “republican” form of government could sustain itself over a long period of time in a continental expanse of territory embracing a wide diversity of peoples. That radical proposition existed nowhere else in the world in 1787.

A man who wishes to be that Caesar sits in our White House now. Every day he exhibits the wish to rule by whim.

It was no accident that the word “republic” should be applied to the newly created and free United States rather than “democracy.” Among the principal framers of the Constitution were men steeped in the history of the ancient classics. To them, the record showed that giving the vote to the uneducated and unwashed of Rome and Greece had all too often resulted in a chaos of riots and clashes among followers of different leaders, a state of political and social degeneracy that led to a demagogue who would restore order, a Caesar who flattered, bought and bribed his way to power and then used it to destroy any resistance to his rule.

A man who wishes to be that Caesar sits in our White House now. Every day he exhibits the wish to rule by whim.

There was, however, another strain of thought fermenting in eighteenth century thought. It was embedded in our Declaration of Independence. This dazzlingly different philosophy proclaimed that all men [and ultimately, women] were created equal, with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (defined then as safety, prosperity, and a state of well-being for an entire public —the “general welfare” hailed in the Preamble to the Constitution.) No longer should societies be divided between kings and aristocrats “divinely” empowered to rule over others commanded to obey. To preserve that state of affairs in the new nation the makers of the Constitution, after long debates, spelled out clear written rules, among them that no state could grant titles of nobility and that the United States should guarantee to each state a “republican form of government.”

The word “democracy” is nowhere found in the document because of its negative implications to the framers who indeed remembered the lessons of history, but the Constitution’s makers hammered out that document in accordance with a blueprint called “the spirit of the laws” conceived, paradoxically, by a French nobleman, the Baron de Montesquieu, who sought to reduce the power of absolute government. Government should be divided into parts that “checked and balanced” each other to prevent despotic rule by any one of them.

The result? A tree with three branches: Congress, composed of two houses, to make laws, to which both had to agree. A single Executive President to approve of and execute those laws and only those, and a national judiciary to interpret the clashing claims among state courts and whose word should be the Supreme law of the land.

Moreover, all of these interlocked checks on arbitrary power exist within a framework of “federalism,” that gives some exclusive powers to the national government, some to the states, and some to be exercised jointly. If ever there was a system all of whose parts were necessary to establish absolutism, this seemed to be the one that held the most promise of its never happening. An anti-tyranny machine that would run by itself if left alone. A triumph of reason reached by the debaters in Philadelphia.

But in checking the power of the Chief Executive there was a hitch. The framers thought it s essential especially in temporary times of crisis such as war, to give the President special tools-— energy, speed of execution, sometimes even stealth — that could allow him ¨temporarily” to bypass the restraints of reasonable institutions of government.

Unhappily these exceptions could not prevent the emergence and 2016 election of the most cruel and venal President of all 44 to precede him — Donald J. Trump, who by exploiting those very privileges would grasp for the unlimited power of one-man rule. This is where we are now. His reign has brought us face-to-face with the possibility of democracy’s demise.

The latest blow has been this: Reason has fled. In its absence remains the caprice of one man astonishingly buoyed by the absolute loyalty of the Republican party. The provision for impeachment deliberately inserted in the Constitution to rein in a runaway Chief Executive succeeded in the House but was ended by a Senate marching in lockstep with the President. The President’s partisan protectorate refused to condemn his aggravated assaults on common decency, his contempt for allies, his denial of threats such as global warming that he pronounces in his own self-described “unmatched wisdom” and “stable genius” to be a hoax, and his sheer mendacity and sneering disdain for alliances and allies that have left us increasingly friendless in the world community. All of these things will reflect poorly on those of us who failed to stop him and the sycophantic partisans in politics and the media who have fallen cult-like behind him.

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.

— Edward R. Murrow

I have lived for nearly a century and experienced first hand its crucial events. I witnessed the Great Depression and saw the American people gather behind President Roosevelt as he devised programs of relief and reform without resort to dictatorial power, though some conservatives might still argue differently and I would still think them wrong. As a member of the United States Army I took part in the war that defeated the bid of fascist nations to dominate the world. At its conclusion I enjoyed the benefits of the G.I. Bill of Rights which lifted millions of us veterans into the middle class. I witnessed and supported the brave descendants of slaves, with the collaboration of courageous politicians in the Federal government, bring to fruition the civil rights movement that finally ended officially sanctioned segregation and guaranteed to African-Americans the right to vote.

These were the achievements of the progressive generation that made America truly a great nation, working to expand the boundaries of freedom by patiently and slowly fighting against racism, poverty and bigotry. But the demands of a Cold War created areas of darkness and repression and we progressives pushed back against those, too. Now, early in the twenty-first we are beset by challenges to the very survival of humanity as climate change imperils the earth itself and a galloping pandemic strikes fear in the hearts of people around the world, both threats met by the feckless and irresponsible leadership of a President whose incompetence and malevolence are as incomprehensible as they are dangerous.

It is time, fellow Americans, to remember the warning of the great journalist Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.” Let us together become the coalition of generations that closes the gates to the wolves ready to devour our freedoms.

Bernard Weisberger

Bernard Weisberger is an American historian now in his 9th decade. A frequent contributor to this site, he is the author of more than a dozen books, including The LaFollettes of Wisconsin, They Gathered at the River, and America Afire. He collaborated on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns.