Political power struggles

Are American political institutions strong enough to withstand the battering they’re taking today from power-hungry groups and authoritarian-driven individuals? I think so – but I’m not as certain as I used to be.

The genius of the American Constitution lies in its diffusion of power among the institutions it established: the states vs. the federal government, the executive branch vs. the legislative branch vs. the judicial branch, civilian control over the military, the individual freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights – all those provisions seek to prevent the amassing of power in a single individual or subgroup.

One way to view the political history of the United States is to follow the attempts –unsuccessful so far – of the President, or Congress, or the judiciary, or a single party, or a group of states to wrest control from the other power centers in order to rule the entire American political landscape.

It’s not for lack of trying that those attempts have failed. It was specifically the weakness of a central government that brought leaders to Philadelphia in 1787 to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Articles, adopted 10 years earlier by the Founders, proved to be a mulligan that left the states with overweening power. The Constitutional Convention drew up a do-over that has lasted, with 27 amendments (including the 10 in the Bill of Rights), for 235 years.

The Constitution wasn’t meant to create a full democracy. In 1787, when it was drafted, all 13 states restricted the vote to white male property owners. Some also limited it solely to Christians, a requirement that lasted in some states until the 1820s. It took the 15th Amendment in the late 1860s to give non-white men nationwide the right to vote. It took another 50-plus years to extend that right to women. And in real world terms, only in 1965 did the Voting Rights Act finally barred states from discriminatory practices against non-whites at the ballot box.

But despite the original voting franchise limitations on individuals, the Constitution did create a balance among government institutions that so far has succeeded to forestall autocracy in America, and has prevented any one center of power from subjugating the others. The nation has seen fit to tweak the original document as times and sentiments have changed. The Founders anticipated such needs by allowing constitutional amendments in the years to come.

And, also as the Founders expected, the various power centers have repeatedly sought to expand their own reach. Most Presidents have from time to time tested the boundaries of their constitutional authority. Congress has likewise sought to circumscribe presidential power forays and bolster its own strength. The courts have on occasion reined in the ambitions of both the President and Congress. And the Civil War established that secession lies beyond the powers permitted to the states.

The Constitution’s provisions for balance and dispersion of power have prevailed. But it’s increasingly difficult to foresee whether that success can continue.

Technology, and the wealth that can wield it, today challenge the Constitutional fortress. Unscrupulous individuals and groups can trumpet falsehoods nationwide that find too ready a reception among gullible True Believers reluctant to ask for proof. Instant communication to millions of smart phones, computers, and TV sets outstrips the ability, and too often the desire, of voters to weigh the data for its truth content.

The spread of the Big Lie – that Donald Trump received more votes than Joe Biden in enough states to win the Electoral College – proved potent enough to touch off the Capitol mob attack on January 6, 2021. 

Enough governmental leaders and law enforcement personnel did their jobs that day to win one for the Constitution – and our citizens – again. 

But as always, it is up to the American people to decide if the Constitution’s strength will continue to prevail. 

When Ben Franklin was asked, after the Founders had done their work in Philadelphia in 1787, what they had created, he replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

That was the question and the answer then. It still is.

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