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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Democracy on the cliff

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On Nov. 8, 2016, mere days after the presidential election, Tom Friedman of The New York Times quoted an immigrant friend in his column: “You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football. But it’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. You can break it.” That friend, Lesley Goldwasser, moved to the U.S. from Zimbabwe in the 1980s. What is remarkable about Goldwasser’s admonition is that she had made it years before he shared it in his column. In other words, her warning was based on her observations over time, not in response to Donald Trump’s election.

We are witnessing the rigorous, reckless and intentional mishandling of our democracy. At last count, roughly a dozen senators and more than 100 congresspeople — all Republicans — planned to protest the will of the majority of voters who selected Joe Biden as president. While the predictable failure of that effort will be manifest by the time this column is published, that failure is beside the point. The fact that so many duly elected members of the House and Senate have willfully, knowingly and publicly chosen to subvert the democratic process is something that I never contemplated would take place in modern America.

To be sure, there are antecedents to such seditious acts, with the Civil War being the most prominent example. Another example is the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, when it was common for Dixiecrats to posture about secession.

Demagoguery and charlatanism have always been features of political life — in America and elsewhere. Yet, the years following the 2016 election have stunned even the most jaded and world-weary among us. What is to be done — what can be done — about the men and women who have pledged to disenfranchise tens of millions of their fellow Americans?

Under the Constitution, both houses of Congress are empowered to “punish its Members for disorderly Behavior, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” The first such expulsion occurred in 1797 when the Senate nearly unanimously voted out William Blount for conspiring against the nation. Then, shortly after the Civil War had begun, the Senate needed to decide the fate of its members who had chosen to secede — but had not resigned their seats. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln chose the symbolic date of July 4 to convene Congress. Of the original 22 senators who had voted to secede, 10 remained. The Senate voted 32-10 in favor of removing those senators for the same reason that Blount had been expelled 64 years earlier: conspiracy against the United States. Later, in February of 1862, the Senate removed four more senators for assisting the Confederacy.

While the Senate has considered such expulsions 16 additional times since 1862, no other members have been removed. (Not coincidentally, the first members of the House to be expelled were removed for taking up arms on behalf of the Confederacy. They were John B. Clark and John W. Reid of Missouri and Henry C. Burnett of Kentucky.) The road leading to traitorous behavior is short and straight. That road is paved with bad intentions, not the least of which is subversion of democracy. The remedy for these modern co-conspirators is removal from their seats of privilege.

In his seminal work, “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville primarily expressed admiration for our system of government after he and fellow Frenchman Gustave de Beaumont traveled the country in 1831. However, Tocqueville warned about the potential for a “soft despotism” to take hold in the U.S. Unfortunately, that potential is now a reality. As I have written previously, Donald Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism — though constrained by the separation of powers under the Constitution — is an example of what Tocqueville had in mind.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, the congresspeople who have sided with Trump are attempting a soft coup. Edmund Burke famously wrote in a letter to Thomas Mercer, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That may be true. But the active participation of those who have bad intentions makes it imperative for good men (and women) to do something.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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