America prides itself on being a “young” country, which it certainly is in cultural terms and in demographics. The median age in the U.S. is now just over 38—about a decade younger than Japan or Germany, many years below that of most European countries. For as long as there has been global pop culture, the U.S. has been a self-renewing fount of what is fresh and new.
But in governmental terms, this “young” country is not just mature but geriatric. I’m not talking about the people who now run the branches of government, old as many of them may be. I’m talking about the branches themselves, under the shaggy balance-of-powers, evolving-democracy system set up in 1787.
The United Kingdom and some other countries have lines of succession going back even before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. But practically no other modern nation still runs on rules set up long before the use of electricity, or knowledge of the germ theory of disease—from the days when no image could be captured except in a drawing, when the only means of instant communication was through drums or smoke signals, when the fastest means of transportation was the horse. From the days when millions of people within the new United States were held in slavery.
Of course these revolutions in technology don’t directly affect governance. (Slavery obviously did.) But they illustrate how long ago this one country’s rules were set. Other countries are not like this. They have changed their rules, with the times, more substantially than the U.S. has.
Has the United States grown to behemoth size and strength because of these antique rules? There are people who will argue that is so. I think they need to get out more, and see more of the world.
My line has always been that, on the contrary, only a country with as much already in its favor as the U.S. has— size, location, assets, natural riches, ability to absorb endless waves of newcomers and become the platform for their success—could have gone so far for so long with this defective framework. We have succeeded in spite of our antiquated rules, rather than because of them. Countries that weren’t as “lucky” as the U.S. had to go back to the drawing board long ago.
Which brings us to luck.
A ‘fortunate’ country, shaped by luck good and bad.
In the fundamentals of its place in the world, the United States is very fortunate. But it has been profoundly shaped by incidents of luck, good and bad.
—The good has mainly involved certain leaders, in certain times. What if George Washington had dreamed of clinging to power after his first two terms, rather than stepping aside? What if Abraham Lincoln had not been available in 1861? Or Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and 1941? Or Martin Luther King in the early Civil Rights era? Or someone more impulsive and insecure than John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis?
—The bad has mainly involved moments of abysmal history-changing misfortune. What if Aaron Burr’s bullet had been a few inches off, rather than hitting Alexander Hamilton in the torso? Or John Wilkes Booth’s bullet? Or Lee Harvey Oswald’s? Or James Earl Ray’s? Or Sirhan Sirhan’s? What if the Palm Beach County registrar had not produced “butterfly ballots” in 2000? What if George W. Bush had paid more attention to the al Qaeda warning memos a few months later? What if James Comey had kept his peace one week before the election in 2016? What if the major media had realized that “But her emails!” was a stupid and destructive theme to keep harping on?
What if, what if, what if.
A string of intentional actions and luck have brought us to the current thin-ice moment of national governance. I laid out both categories in a previous post here.
—The intention includes Mitch McConnell’s sequence of stonewalling one Supreme Court nomination, and ramming another through on a rocket-docket basis. Plus gerrymandering, and weaponization of the filibuster, and much more.
—The bad luck includes Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s reckless bet that at age 80 she could outlast Barack Obama’s second term in office and beyond, rather than putting her successor’s appointment in Obama’s hands. What if, what if: If Obama had appointed a successor to Ginsburg just after his re-election in 2013, and if any Republicans had dared counter Mitch McConnell’s stonewall of the Garland nomination in 2016, none of what the Court has done in this past month could have happened. Roe, gun control, the EPA, gerrymandering, church and state, the Indian Laws, the foreshadowing of more, and more radical to come—none of it. What if.
By intention, and by luck, June 30, 2022, brings the U.S. to a moment when all three branches of its now-antique governing system are under exceptional strain.
Three branches, all struggling.
—The executive branch has until recently been under control of a man actively plotting to overturn election results by force. And who apparently was thwarted only by “luck”—that some of his associates, young and old, decided not to go along.
—As for the judiciary, the Supreme Court has a new majority arising in circumstances that to anyone with a judicial temperament would have dictated restraint.
Those circumstances? One person in a seat someone else should be occupying; another, rammed through on election eve; the third, Bret Kavanaugh. And all three appointed by a man who took office with minority support, and with the least regard for the law or democracy of anyone ever to sit in the White House—as every one of these Justices is fully aware. And the senior member of their bloc being married to someone credibly accused of abetting the January 6 insurrection, and resisting Congressional requests that she testify about it.
Yet in these circumstances, where stepping back would be the wisest course, they have instead swung for the fences. They have overturned whatever they felt like, based on a high-school-debate level selective rummaging through “history” (I speak from experience) and a radio-talk-show host’s glee in “owning the libs.” It is as if Hannity, Carlson, and Jesse Watters had been given the controls. The judiciary has gone rogue, in a way no living American had previously seen. (As I wrote online after the Indian Law ruling, the Court’s motto has been changed to l’etat, c’est nous. Which I will intentionally mis-translate as, “We are the law.”)
Anyone who in 2022 still respects Donald Trump, can in 2022 still respect this radical court. These rest of us shouldn’t. I don’t.
—In the legislative branch, we have a Congressional committee that has done an exceptional job of investigating, collating, connecting, and presenting material, as discussed here. But they are nine members, of 435 in the House. And two Republicans, of 210.
Of those 435 total, all of them should be out registering their patriotic alarm about what they have learned from the hearings, and their patriotic determination that the United States remain a democracy under rule of law. So should all 100 Senators.
Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, made a speech to exactly that effect last night at the Reagan Library. I disagree with Liz Cheney on virtually every point of policy. I agree entirely with what she said there —and admire her lethally calm presentations during committee hearings.
But the number of Republican Senators and Representatives who have spoken up for the working of democracy is … anyone? I hope to be corrected, and to learn that the number of patriots is more than zero. I will collect any of their names here.
Can luck run out?
Here are the people who, according to recent testimony, the U.S. is “lucky” to have had at the right place, at the right time:
—Jeffrey Rosen, and his colleagues Richard Donoghue and Steven Engel at the Department of Justice, who defied Trump’s orders to announce that the election was stolen, in contrast to the complaisant Jeffrey Clark.
—Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling, Republicans in charge of Georgia elections; Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, also of Georgia; Rusty Bowers of Arizona; and others who refused to knuckle under to Trump election claims. And their counterparts in other states.
—Cassidy Hutchinson, who gave her extraordinarily poised and straight-arrow testimony this week, centering on the crucial, uncontroverted evidence that Donald Trump knew the mob was armed, and still urged them toward the Capitol.
But: What if Jeffrey Clark had already been in place, rather that Jeffrey Rosen?
What if election deniers had moved Raffensperger and Sterling out of place, and Moss had been terrorized out of doing her work?
What if Hutchinson had been enticed, threatened, or in other ways persuaded not to give her testimony. under oath?
What if the numerous bills giving controls of election results to partisan state legislatures had already taken effect?
We are on thin ice.
I am on long-time record as an American optimist. But we’re counting on continued luck, while hearing the ice crack.
Michael Beschloss has been around nearly as long as I have, and has read much more history, and is also famously long-time optimistic about the U.S.
“I can't predict to you whether we'll be living in a democracy five years from now or not,” he told Nicole Wallace last night. “I hope we are."
I share his hope. I share his reluctance to predict.
It depends on luck. And courage. And the vote.
Your article presents frightening thoughts to a nation without the tools to think rationally. I would have hoped you might have had a word about the rotting effects of late-stage Capitalism. It's greasing the skids of Republican decline (pun intended).
Thank you for pointing out Phil Klay's new book in "Undemocratic Wars," NYTBR 3 July '22. With reference to your review, you might be interested in this, as well, written 10 years ago. Check the comments of Sec Def Gates: https://psmag.com/social-justice/america-in-the-hands-of-a-professional-military-30240
Presidential Speeches, Woodrow Wilson
...I earnestly believe in the democracy not only of America but of every awakened people that wishes and intends to govern and control its own affairs.
It is very inspiring, my friends, to come to this that may be called the original fountain of independence and liberty in American and here drink draughts of patriotic feeling which seem to renew the very blood in one's veins. Down in Washington sometimes when the days are hot and the business presses intolerably and there are so many things to do that it does not seem possible to do anything in the way it ought to be done, it is always possible to lift one's thought above the task of the moment and, as it were, to realize that great thing of which we are all parts, the great body of American feeling and American principle. No man could do the work that has to be done in Washington if he allowed himself to be separated from that body of principle. He must make himself feel that he is a part of the people of the United States, that he is trying to think not only for them, but with them, and then he cannot feel lonely. He not only cannot feel lonely but he cannot feel afraid of anything.
My dream is that as the years go on and the world knows more and more of America it will also drink at these fountains of youth and renewal; that it also will turn to America for those moral inspirations which lie at the basis of all freedom; that the world will never fear America unless it feels that it is engaged in some enterprise which is inconsistent with the rights of humanity; and that America will come into the full light of the day when all shall know that she puts human rights above all other rights and that her flag is the flag not only of America but of humanity.
What other great people has devoted itself to this exalted ideal? To what other nation in the world can all eyes look for an instant sympathy that thrills the whole body politic when men anywhere are fighting for their rights? I do not know that there will ever be a declaration of independence and of grievances for mankind, but I believe that if any such document is ever drawn it will be drawn in the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence, and that America has lifted high the light which will shine unto all generations and guide the feet of mankind to the goal of justice and liberty and peace.