By Rudy Barnes, Jr., August 20, 2022
The future of American libertarian democracy depends on balancing individual rights with providing for the common good. The Constitution created a framework for democracy, but the values of American voters determine its political future. Just 71 years after the Constitution came into force, the Union was dissolved with a terrible Civil War--and it could happen again.
Once again the fabric of American democracy is threatened by polarized partisan politics that ignore the common good. The Constitution cannot save America from itself. Standards of political legitimacy need to change to give primacy to promoting the common good over divisive partisan interests. America needs a change in its values rather than its Constitution and law.
In accepting his nomination at the Republican Convention in 1964, Barry Goldwater proclaimed, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” That sounded reasonable to me as a young man fresh out of college In 1964. I didn’t foresee that it would lead to the insurrection of Trump supporters and election deniers at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
The framers of the Constitution knew that American democracy was the product of political extremism and the violence of the Revolutionary War, and that the Constitution would have to stand the test of extremism and violence in the future. They didn’t foresee that the Union would be dissolved in 1860, shattered by secession and Civil War.
The Constitution was restored after the Civil War, but the polarized political conflicts that undermined political legitimacy in 1860 remain, and they boiled over again on January 6, 2021. It was a reminder that democracy depends more on political values than on the legal mandates of a Constitution. In a democracy, the people are the masters of their own destiny.
The Constitution is the foundation of American law, with the Bill of Rights defining the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech; but freedom and justice for all depends on a majority committed to provide for the common good. That requires altruistic values that cannot be enforced by law to promote the reconciliation of contentious issues in America's two-party duopoly.
Providing for the common good is a derivative of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races, religions and politics, as we love ourselves. It’s a universal moral imperative taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted as a common word of faith by Muslims. It requires political reconciliation in a democracy, and was considered essential to America’s democracy by the Framers of the Constitution.
Free and fair elections are at the heart of the Constitution. Most winners in recent GOP congressional primary races are Trump supporters and election deniers; but we’ll have to wait until November to find out whether most American voters respect election results and support the Constitution--or not. The future of American democracy hangs in the balance.
Danielle Allen has asserted that social media has undermined our constitutional architecture. “After the Revolution, the nation was grinding to a halt under the Articles of Confederation. Congress couldn’t get a quorum. It couldn’t secure the revenue needed to pay war debts. Polarization — or as they called it — “faction” brought paralysis. The whole point of writing the Constitution was to fix this aspect. James Madison made the case that the design of the Constitution would dampen factionalism. He argued this in the Federalist Papers, the famous op-eds that he, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton wrote advocating for the Constitution. Madison argued that building a representative instead of a direct democracy would mitigate the problem. Robust disagreement would always be part of any constitutional democracy, Madison argued. It is freedom’s necessary price. Tamping it out is not only impossible but undesirable. But reasonably public minded representatives would synthesize opinion from around the country. Coming together in Congress, they would refine public opinion and deliver a moderated, filtered version to steer the nation. Madison also expected that the breadth of the new nation and geographic dispersal of its residents would themselves dampen the consequences of those robust disagreements. “Extend the sphere [of the country] … and it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. … The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States.” Because of geographic dispersal, people would have to go through representatives to get their views into the public sphere. This would mitigate the impact of faction. In short, geographic dispersal was an actual premise of the Constitution’s original design. Madison couldn’t anticipate Facebook along with the equally powerful social media platforms that followed that broke our democracy. Representation as designed cannot work under current conditions. We have no choice but to undertake a significant project of democracy renovation. We need a renovated model of representation that suits the world as it has become, yet is designed with respect for long-lived and durable principles of self-government.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/15/facebook-social-media-constitutional-crisis-reform/?utm_campaign=wp_opinions_pm&utm. See also, Our Common Purpose, Report of Recommendations from the Commission on Proactive Democratic Citizenship in Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century (2020), co-chaired by Danielle Allen.
On Liz Cheney’s defeat in Wyoming, see https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/08/16/us/wyoming-election-cheney-alaska?
Murkowski’s election in Alaska shows that ranked-choice voting can minimize partisan factionalism. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/18/murkowski-alaska-senate-results-ranked-choice/?utm.