Our Nation Is Broken: Stop Defending An Untenable System Because You Think It’s The Patriotic Thing To Do
There’s a scene in Downton Abbey that I’ve linked it below (relevant scene starts at 2:27), where Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives in England from America for the wedding of her granddaughter, Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery). Upon arrival, she runs into her daughter’s mother-in-law and her nemesis, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). The year is 1920 and World War I had recently ended. Europe was in political turmoil with monarchies falling in Portugal, Russia and Germany and on the verge of falling in Greece and Spain. Britain was left in financial and social ruin from the war, and at risk of similar social upheaval.
Martha and Violent make casual passive aggressive conversation during which the conservative and traditional Violet informs the modern, progressive Martha that she will like her new grandson-in-law, himself a man of the modern era. Martha asks to meet him before Violet responds that he has turned in for the night – tradition dictates that the groom cannot see the bride before the wedding. Martha smiles and shakes her head in disbelief:
“Nothing ever alters for you people, does it?” she exclaims. “Revolutions erupt and monarchies crash to the ground and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.”
“You Americans never understand the importance of tradition,” Violet snaps back.
“Yes we do,” Martha calmly answers before placing her hands on Violet’s shoulders in a condescending way, as if to comfort a child. “We just don’t give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war, maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”
When I first saw this episode, way back in 2012 – I can’t believe it’s been that long – it struck me as a historian as the perfect portrayal of the divergent cultural paths erupting on either side of the Pond at that time. The United States was seen as a rising, modern forward-thinking power, while Britain desperately clung to its past, struggling to not get swept away in the tide of time. It’s working class population looking toward new, progressive ideals, while its aristocracy looking to hold on to traditions and ideals that, in their minds, were responsible for building and sustaining the largest empire the world had ever known.
But the scene also stuck with me because I felt as much as Martha was speaking to the British a century ago, she was also was speaking to Americans in the present day. Europe plunged into two centuries of war and unrest starting with the French Revolution and ending in fall of the Iron Curtain, because the systems that sustained it for over a millennium, notably the feudal system and religion, had broken down, and no one with the power to do anything about it could accept it or was willing to change it. Starting with the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union 200 years later, the continent saw one bloody and violent battle after another as countries endured a deeply painful cultural reckoning.
I watched the episode during the 2012 presidential campaign, where there was some discussion over the possibility that President Obama could lose the election by losing the Electoral College, while winning the popular vote – as had happened to Al Gore 12 years earlier – and discussion that aggressive gerrymandering by Republicans meant Democrats could win more votes for House of Representatives and not win the House majority. The latter did happen, but the former did not, at least not that year. It did happen in 2016, the same year the Republican Senate majority, representing about 42 percent of the nation’s population, refused to do their Constitutionally-mandated duty of advising and consenting on a Supreme Court nomination by Obama – leaving the seat vacant for over a year until it was filled by Donald Trump, who won the presidency while losing the popular vote by 3 million votes.
The Electoral College, acting on the plurality, not the majority, of votes in several key states elected Donald Trump to the presidency, who thereafter broke every rule in the book with no accountability. Trump:
- Hired his family for key jobs
- Used the Department of Justice for his own personal benefit
- Used the White House for political campaigning.
- Used his own properties and forced taxpayers to foot the bill for security and rental space.
- Used his office to dig up dirt on his potential 2020 political opponents, for which he was impeached and acquitted by a Senate representing 40 percent – a minority – of the country’s population
- Left millions of American citizens in Puerto Rico without vital aid after a devastating hurricane
- Nearly took us to the brink of war with North Korea and Iran
- Downplayed, ignored and fumbled the response to the worst pandemic in a century, leaving over 200,000 Americans dead
- Encourage and celebrated violence against opponents and journalists
- Did nothing when a foreign adversary put out a hit out on American soldiers
And what is our way out of this? Well, Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives for his involvement in trying to use official business to dig up dirt on his Democratic opponent Joe Biden from the Ukrainian government, but he was acquitted by the Senate in a near party-line vote. A majority of the United States Senate, half of the legislative branch designed as a check on the president’s power, is instead doing his bidding – and voters made his party stronger in the Senate in 2018, adding a net gain of two Republicans to the caucus, all of whom are staunch allies of Trump – even as Democrats won more votes nationwide and took control of the House of Representatives by a huge margin. How? Only a third of the Senate is up every election year and by sheer stroke of luck, the 2018 map favored Republicans.
After their 2010 election win, in which voters chose Republicans as a check on Obama’s power, the GOP instead went ahead and cemented their own, using redistricting to draw Democrats out of power for most of the decade on a federal and local level. Gerrymandering meant Democrats have not been able to win the House despite winning more votes in 2012, and control of legislative bodies at the state level despite winning more votes several times over. Democrats won over 200,000 more votes than Republicans for the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2018 – an eight point margin – but remain well in the minority, holding only 36 of 99 seats. Democrats also won the popular vote for both houses of the North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures, but didn’t take control of any of the six. All four states have Democratic governors, meaning aggressive gerrymandering by Republicans in 2011 denied Democrats full control of the state governments in those states that voters voted for.
From these legislative bodies, came action – or inaction – on issues dealing with education funding, policing, criminal justice, women and gay rights and infrastructure. It has been most notable during the COVID-19 Pandemic, where state legislators in those states tried to throw wrenches in their Democratic governors’ responses. In Wisconsin in 2018, the legislature actually wen so far as to try and strip power away from the incoming Democratic governor in a naked power grab.
Back on the federal level, Trump has been allowed to stack the third branch of government – the courts – with over one hundred conservative jurists and allies, many of whom filling seats Senate Republicans refused to fill with Obama appointees from 2015-2017, including that one seat on the Supreme Court – for which they were rewarded with the presidency and continued Senate control.
And now, with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump has the opportunity to appoint a third justice, solidifying a 6-3 conservative court for decades. If he does, a majority of the court, five of nine justices, will have been appointed by presidents who won their initial elections without winning the popular vote.
Trump and the GOP will own all three branches of government, and there will be no checks and balances as the Founding Fathers intended, and none of it won the support of a majority of American voters.
To make matters worse, the United States remain trapped in a death spiral called the COVID-19 Pandemic. With no federal leadership and high unemployment, the Republican Senate and President, neither of which won the majority of voters, refuse to pass more economic stimulus and aid to hard hit states like New York, that was passed by the Democratic House – which did win with the support of most voters. That leaves tens of millions of Americans without a paycheck and social safety net and opens the possibility of dramatic and painful cuts to New York City’s and other cities’ budgets.
To sum up: The system has failed. Our system relied on all actors acting in good faith to put country over party or desire for personal power, and the modern Republican Party – and its tens of millions of supporters – have shown they are not interested in acting in good faith. Aggressive gerrymandering and the debate over the vacant Supreme Court seat is the latest example. The GOP refused to even consider Obama’s nominee in 2016, because it was an election year – ironically blaming a suggestion Joe Biden made in 1992 if there was a vacancy in the court in an election year, but refuses to enforce the rule now with only six weeks to go before the election. No matter how many more votes Democrats deliver on the federal or state level, they still cannot be guaranteed power. Such a situation is unsustainable.
The circuit breakers put in place by our Founding Fathers – Congress, the courts, the electorate, an appeal to fairness, good faith and statesmanship and trust in the voting public – have all failed to prevent the slide into authoritarianism and lawlessness it was designed to stop, and has instead lead voters to unheard and disenfranchised. Is it any wonder we are starting to see lawlessness and apathy to rules and regulations in the general population? If our leadership isn’t accountable, why should we be?
There are ways to change it. But first we have to accept that it’s all broken. The way we elect our presidents is broken; the U.S. Senate is broken; the way we draw our Congressional districts and state legislative districts is broken; our criminal justice system is broken; our economic system is broken; our education system is broken; our infrastructure is broken; our media is broken.
Now you may say, “Well Nick, that’s how it is. This is a republic, not a democracy. Tyranny of the majority is bad” and so on. It’s fine if you believe that (it’s not, but let’s say it is). However, the lesson of Europe a century or two centuries ago is this; it’s fine until the general public no longer say it’s fine. By allowing a government to rule without the legitimacy of the public, you risk the general public’s anger and rage. Things will reach a breaking point, and we may be at the cusp of that right now. I guarantee you people who feel disenfranchised will only stay quiet for long. The situation is a powder keg and ignoring only guarantees the United States will experience what European countries did during the 19th and early 20th centuries – chaos, instability and, ultimately, war. The pandemic, and the social and economic upheaval it has brought, has only hastened that moment, and if we’re not careful, will provide the spark – if it hasn’t already. We can adapt, let go of what doesn’t work and reinvent ourselves, or we can go down a destructive road as a nation. A true patriot would not want the latter.
How do we do that?
- We can fix the Supreme Court problem by adding seats, expanding the court from 9 to 13. It’s been done before, expanded from 5 to 7 to the current 9. Is it a power grab? Sure, it’s an escalation, but the legitimacy of the court is already damaged in the eyes of half the country. If not adding seats, set term limits.
- We can fix the Senate by getting rid of the filibuster, so a simple majority is all that is needed to pass legislation. Before 2007, that’s how most legislation passed – very few pieces of legislation were filibustered. When the Democrats took a one-seat majority in the 2006 elections, Mitch McConnell, as Republican leader, decided everything that came before the Senate would be filibustered by Republicans, breaking a norm that had existed for 200+ years.
- We can fix our elections by eliminating partisan gerrymandering and allowing independent redistricting, expanding the size of the House of Representatives so a million people in Delaware and Montana don’t have the same representation as 579,000 people in Wyoming and 745,000 people in California in a body that is supposed to be representative of the people. We can make the District of Columbia, which is more populated than Wyoming AND Vermont, into a state so they have full representation and, should they choose it, bring Puerto Rico in as a state. Let Republicans compete for Congressional and Senate seats in DC and Puerto Rico the same way Democrats are expected to in Wyoming and Idaho. It will force them to become more moderate.
- We can eliminate the Electoral College and establish instant runoff voting, allowing third parties a chance to get votes without being a spoiler and ensuring nobody becomes president without getting 50 percent or more of the vote. If not, we can push states to adopt the “Popular Vote Interstate Compact” where states agree to give their electors to the popular vote winner, regardless of if he or she won their respective states. This would render the Electoral College functionally obsolete.
- We can enact independent redistricting nationwide, and amend the Constitution to mandate it
Why are we hanging on to those obsolete, untenable institutions and traditions? Out of some deference to our ancestors who fought and died for them? It may have worked for them – debatable – but it no longer works for us. We can’t keep pushing broken institutions and ideas to a breaking point and be surprised when rage and violence erupts when they break. Civilizations around the world from England to Greece to China survived thousands of years by reinventing themselves and adapting to the changes around them and within them. America must follow in their footsteps if it hopes to survive as long as they have.
The paraphrase Martha Levinson; History and Tradition are threatening to take this country into a civil war. Maybe we should think about letting go of its hand.