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  • Louis Putterman

Perfecting our democracy … not only that “republic, if you can keep it”


On the afternoon following election day, presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden gave remarks in which he said “yesterday, once again proved that democracy is the heartbeat of this nation. [It] has been the heartbeat of this nation for two centuries. And even in the face of pandemic, more Americans voted this election than ever before in American history. Over 150 million people cast their votes. … And if we had any doubts, we shouldn’t have any longer, about a government of, by, and for the people. It’s very much alive, very much alive in America. Here, the people rule. Power can’t be taken or asserted. It flows from the people.”


I loved the tone of the speech, reassuring listeners that he would not claim victory until the votes have been counted, and stressing that if elected, he will not be a Democrat president, nor the president of Blue states but not Red states, but will work hard as president of all of the American people.


But there was a flaw on the remarks of Biden and many others who stated that American democracy had worked, a flaw simple enough to be recognized by any attentive American who has ever had a good civics lesson and paid followed the twists and turns of recent U.S. history. The flaw stood out for all to say as we waited days to see which states, with how many electoral votes, fell one way of the other. The U.S. does not have a democracy, when it comes to electing its presidents, nor in determining representation in its Senate and thus in appointing justices to its Supreme Court. We have a system in which the voters in states having smaller populations are given more political clout than those having larger ones, both in the choice of a president and vice president in the electoral college, and in the election of 100 members of the powerful legislative body, the Senate (and of its potential tie-breaker, the vice-president). We can and have had, accordingly, the undemocratic nomination and approval of several justices of our Supreme Court. Only due to this system did Donald Trump end up as president from 2017 through 2020, only through it did he fail to be impeached early in 2020 for treason committed to attempt to secure his reelection and to favor his foreign dictator friends, and only through it was Barack Obama unable to replace deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016 but Trump allowed to push through three picks for the court during his never majority-ratified presidency.


Only due to the same undemocratic features of the electoral college and the rules for electing a powerful house of Congress—the Senate—did the presidential election of 2020 seem close for a time, despite a four million person popular vote gap between Biden and Trump. Only due to the equally undemocratic features of the Senate will Biden and Harris face great difficulties in enacting the wishes of most who voted for them, during at least their first two years.


It is a huge relief for those who view the American experiment with partial democracy as a beacon shining forth to all nations, that the president who refused to commit in advance to accepting the will of the voters in either 2016 or 2020, the president whose disdain for science and unwillingness to accept responsibility led to at least two hundred thousand avoidable deaths in the Covid-19 pandemic, the president who palled around with dictators while feeling uncomfortable with our traditional democratic allies, been repudiated by a majority of voters in an election that saw the highest turn-out rate in our history.


Our partial democracy was improved in the nineteenth century by reducing property qualifications, improved in the 20th century by beginning to restore the vote to African Americans after the long eras of slavery and then of Jim Crow, and by granting the vote to women. But for those who believe in the idea of democracy, it’s past time to recognize that the United States as it has existed until now cannot be called one. Those who believe democracy to be the best form of government should call for a democracy in the United States of America. The electoral college needs to be abolished or at least thoroughly reformed so that the winner of the popular vote occupies the White House, period. The Senate must either be abolished, be made into a mainly advisory body rather than one able to wield huge amounts of power in such matters as Supreme Court nominations and impeachment trials, or reformed to make its voting outcomes consistent with democracy (all voting citizens have equal weight in electing its members).


So the meme that has been popularly circulating in recent months, the one about a woman asking Benjamin Franklin “Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy?” and Franklin replying “A republic, if you can keep it” is lovely as an anecdote about an elderly American Quaker sage replying to the question of the day 233 years ago, but it’s not good enough for the world of today. The United States, the first major country to adopt institutions that would evolve towards modern democracy, way back in the 18th century, needs to become an actual democracy at last, rather than a highly imperfect patchwork that offsets the democratic impulse with remnants of planter privilege.


Finally, while all of the above can undoubtedly be agreed to by nearly all believers in the ideal of democracy, I feel that we need to speak frankly about something potentially more contentious—the question of how the United States are to be defined in a territorial sense. There may be states in our country in which the majority of the people are opposed to having the United States of America be a democracy. Many people in those and some in other states openly oppose democracy, just as they fight against equality of the races and against having a government that can help to secure a high quality of life in our country, the kind of quality of life that governments in advanced democracies elsewhere in the world have been achieving for decades now. Those who find the norms of equality and democracy anathema and who wish instead to establish white-only theocracies by suppressing the votes of non-white and non-Christian residents, should, perhaps, be allowed to live on their own, letting the forward-looking people of the remaining United States govern themselves without their pernicious influence. Lincoln, one of our most principled but in this respect perhaps not our wisest leader, forced states that had seceded to rejoin the union, without living to help defeat their ideology of racism and anti-democracy. That ideology then resurfaced and surged into the forefront within our country in the decades from Nixon through Trump. Would it be so bad to let those still longing for a Confederacy to take their majority-racist-and-anti-democratic counties or states out of the United States of America so that the rest of us can get on with the business of building a democratic system of government? If they wish to build a racist, authoritarian, religiously intolerant country, why not let them have some chunk of territory, let the map be redrawn so that it is no longer within our borders, and let them give safe passage to those wishing to leave? Their human rights crimes will of course need to be on the agenda of the international community, which we can now rejoin, but at least we who remain as the United States of America can finally build democracy free of their opposition. Give it some thought. In unity there is strength, but is it not time to admit that U.S. inclusion of so many reactionary bastions, and failure to own up to the injustices of our past, is the main reason we’ve become so backward in comparison with the countries of western Europe and their offshoots in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, the main reason that we became the laughingstock of the western world during our shameful years of Trumpocracy? I say no to insisting that a confederation of white racist theocrats remain part of the United States. Let them go and let’s create a democratic, forward-looking country that twenty-first century Americans can be proud of, at last.

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