Thursday, November 17, 2016
It's ironic that the U.S. Constitution, which should definitely be on the list of the top 10 accomplishments of human history, is simultaneously a beacon of hope and optimism and an embodiment of profound distrust of government and our fellow citizens. On the one hand, we're the longest-running constitutional republic in the history of the world, our constitution has been used as a model for many newer governments, and under its auspices the U.S. has become the greatest world power.
On the other hand, the constitution sets up an intricate web of separated powers, because the founders were terrified of "tyranny," whatever that means, and saw it as a potential danger in any system where power is concentrated in one place. So we have power separated vertically, with certain functions delegated to the federal government, others reserved to the states. We also have power separated horizontally, divided among the three branches of government, with the executive, legislative and judicial each checking the others in an elaborate game of rock, paper, scissors. The executive can veto laws, the judiciary can rule laws unconstitutional, the executive appoints the judges, the legislative must approve the appointments, the legislative holds the purse strings, etc. etc. etc.
We refuse to trust any single part of the system, an attitude of suspicion that was understandable in light of the oppression and violation of rights that the founders felt from the British Crown in our colonial days. What is less understandable is that the founders also were deeply suspicious of the people. If you read The Federalist Papers, the essays urging adoption of the proposed constitution, you keep tripping over discussions of how the populace will be easily inflamed and incited and how we needed mechanisms to make sure that popular voice would be tempered by cooler and smarter heads (read, guys like the founders: elitists, members of the establishment).
Yes, the House of Representatives would be elected every two years, perhaps sweeping hotheads into office, but the Senate would be a counterbalance. Senators serve for six years, and were not elected by the people until 1913. (Before that, they were chosen by state legislatures; split up that power!) And most important, the electoral college was set up as an insulator between the people and the presidency. The people voted, but their votes didn't count except to choose electors in each state who would actually choose the president. And the electoral votes were apportioned in a way that gave considerably more clout to the smaller states (small states didn't trust large states; too many of those pesky people).
So fast forward, and although Hillary Clinton received at least a million votes more than Donald Trump, he will become president, courtesy of the electoral college. Just like Al Gore received half a million more votes than George Bush in 2000, but Bush became president, courtesy of the electoral college, with an assist from the Supreme Court. Ah, those checks and balances!
I find it ironic that Trump's campaign, which was built so heavily on distrust of the governmental system and its perceived elitism, succeeded solely because of the elitism of our governmental system. And that Trump supporters who professed to want dramatic change voted in exactly the same Congress they had before.
Much like the U.K. with its Brexit vote, I suspect that the U.S. is going to be awash in buyer's remorse in the not-too-distant future. I suspect a lot of people who voted for third-party candidates "because Trump and Clinton are both rotten" are coming to realize that their votes mattered anyway, and not in the way they intended. I suspect a lot of voters who held their noses and voted for Trump because they wanted an anti-abortion justice on the Supreme Court will realize that's only a tiny bit of what they bargained for and is going to be delivered. I suspect a lot of Republicans who figured the party would come through and keep Trump in check will have second thoughts as more and more mildly or wildly unqualified people are named to his team. And I suspect a lot of people who didn't bother to vote at all may start regretting that laziness or carelessness.