Frederick Hall: Don’t mess with carefully crafted U.S. democracy
December 7, 2017
I love democracy. Ours was carefully crafted to avoid abuses of power all European newcomers endured before coming to this land of opportunity. I detest the stealing of our precious democracy.
The Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to prevent those abuses. First and foremost, they divided the powers of government among three organizations: a legislative branch to write laws, a judicial branch to decide their legality, and an executive branch to enforce them. Within the legislative branch, they gave the House of Representatives the power to grant or withhold the funding necessary to implement laws.
They followed James Madison's advice that the Congress should be "dependent upon the People alone." To that end they set representatives' term of office at two years to make them more quickly answerable to the people. By contrast, the terms for senators and the president were set at six and four years, respectively. In these ways they protected the people by establishing permanent barriers against concentration of overwhelming power by any individual or group.
Or so they thought. After all, partisan division was familiar enough to them. They saw honorable men with differing opinions skirmish frequently yet set a stable foundation under our new government. The poor fellows, though, couldn't possibly foresee that television would preempt political dialogue. Nor could their worst nightmare foretell the Supreme Court's Citizens United proclamation that collections of people are the same as living, breathing humans. Unthinkable!
The Supreme Court said that corporations, superPACs and the like should enjoy First Amendment protection of freedom of speech. Why? Because the public would sort things out in the "marketplace of ideas." It is stunning for them to believe that the "marketplace" remained the living rooms, street corners and pubs of the Colonial days.
But how could they not know that Roger Ailes had set journalism on the path to hyper-partisan presentation of news? Surely they also knew that Newt Gingrich had instituted the auctioning of congressional committee chairmanships. It is inconceivable that their debate about the decision's impact on political dialogue could fail to show the emergence of "echo chamber" news sources that reinforce what their followers have already been told is true. Money is louder than our human voices.
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Those echo chambers inflict enormous (though I fervently hope not fatal) damage on democracy. Opinion, innuendo and damnation of those who think differently intrude deeply into reporting. Lies, distortions and heavily slanted interpretations abound. Different sets of "facts" accumulate in the opposing echo chambers. I enthusiastically commend former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for his initiative to create a database of established facts about government, the economy, etc. With it, politicians could argue about policy rather than about the alleged facts as the basis for policy. Just imagine the difference.
The most destructive result of not having agreement on facts is the terrible blurring of the line between truth and falsehood. Immersed in that fog, much of the public believes that it doesn't hurt anything to wink at President Trump's disregard for truth. The same Trump who ridicules media news as "fake" also:
Promised to release his tax returns but still refuses to do so.
Vowed to restore law and order but pardoned the sheriff who disobeyed a court order.
Said he would "drain the swamp" but put Wall Street executives in key government positions.
Pressured Congress to pass a health bill doing the opposite of his campaign promises.
Continued to insist that his inaugural parade was the largest on record after television footage showed clearly that it was not.
Repeated slander after proof that his charge was false.
More dangerous to ignore, though, is Trump's contempt for separation of governmental powers — the bedrock principle that has protected us from tyranny for 200 years. Think what it means that he pardoned that sheriff and condemned his own attorney general for recusing himself from a case although the law required it. Then — remembering his praise for Putin and Erdogan — ask yourself why he threatens to lift broadcast licenses and retaliate against journalists who criticize him.
Journalist David Brooks put this in its historical context. He notes that Trump now incites our working class against the concept of government that keeps Americans free much as Lenin incited Russia's working class against the nobility in 1917. The Russians had no warning that granting the Bolsheviks unlimited power would condemn them to servitude. We must see their disaster as our alert to block Trump's quest for absolute power.
Frederick Hall lives in Grass Valley.
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