Checkpoint: The Progressive Threat to American Institutions

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Two important features define the Democratic Party entering the third year of Donald Trump’s Presidency: a dramatic realignment towards the radical left by its most vociferous members and a string of political defeats that have stymied the party’s ability to act as an effective check on executive power. Indeed, from January 2017 to November 2018, the Democratic Party watched from the sidelines as the Republican-controlled government dismantled many of their recent achievements. Simultaneously, these repeated defeats emboldened the already rising anti-capitalist rhetoric rife within the Party and paved the way for a new echelon of progressive Democrats advocating for a resurgence of the Party’s power through populist socializing reform.

With the overwhelming success of the Democratic party in the November 2018 Midterm Election, their first congressional victory in a decade, many envisioned a revival of the party and a new era of progressive policymaking and effective resistance to the president. However, the momentary success of the left has so far failed to alter the status quo and, as a result, the pattern of defeat and leftward entrenchment has continued to affect the character and activity of the Democratic Party and its leading figures. Indeed, since the Midterms the Democrats have been able to do nothing more than achieving a Pyrrhic victory in an appropriations battle that was immediately followed by their most humiliating defeat as the president declared a National Emergency to circumvent their authority. In tandem with this defeat, new members of the Party have begun publicly promoting leftist policies such as the Green New Deal in an effort to promote a radically new socialist front.

These persistent features of the Democratic Party during the Trump presidency have led to a reevaluation of political strategy by progressives and a host of newly proposed tactics by the nearly two-dozen presidential candidates campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Victimized by the power of a unified government and spirited by the ideal of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” these presidential contenders have put forward suggestions for institutional change that would facilitate the acquisition of political power by Democrats and strengthen a potential Democratic president’s ability to ensure lasting progressive change. From Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal to abolish the electoral college, to Beto O’Rourke and others’ suggestions to expand the roster of the Supreme Court and to the plans often touted to reform the Senate either through rule change (i.e., elimination of the filibuster) or the complete abolition of the upper house, Democratic candidates are, in the words of Cory Booker, “exploring a lot of options” to ensure a perennial political advantage for the Democratic Party. Rather than improve the country as they suggest, however, these institutional reforms would be dangerous if implemented as they would go against the constitutional foundations of the United States and would facilitate the degeneration of good governance.

Arguments for Reform and the Misinterpretation of America’s Political institutions

The proposed changes to America’s institutions are ostensibly motivated by the Democratic Party’s desire to render the United States more “democratic” and to ensure that American government works to advance progressive and even “ethical” causes. As laudable as these goals may be, they misinterpret an important aspect of American government, that the United States of America is not a pure democracy. From its inception, the country was conceived as a constitutional republic whereby it is governed by institutions operating within the bounds of the Constitution and similarly limited by its provisions. To this end, the system was devised to limit democracy (exclusive rule by the will of the majority) with the intent of promoting Republican ideals (the protection of political rights for minorities).

Nationwide direct democracy schemes are no longer extant due to issues of practicality. However, truly democratic institutions today still exist in a representative form where the majority rules through its representatives in a Congress or Parliament. In political jargon, the absolute power of the majority through representatives is referred to as Parliamentary Supremacy, whereby parliament possesses absolute power over a territory. Key to this concept is the idea that parliament cannot overstep because it is not bound by any authority besides its own. The idea of parliamentary supremacy is popular among democratic regimes and while many are far from oppressive and count among their ranks countries such as Great Britain and Canada, they are not without the theoretical deficiencies that the American system was explicitly designed to prevent.

While such a scenario may seem inconceivable today, there is nothing stopping the British Parliament from legally rescinding the limits of parliaments authority to infringe upon political liberties of English citizens. Similarly, while Canadian socio-political rights have been guaranteed by the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms since 1982, there is no legal provision preventing (rather Section 33 of the Charter explicitly permits) the Canadian Parliament from temporarily revoking fundamental freedoms such as those of expression and worship. In contrast, what makes the American system so successful is its explicit separation of powers through checks and balances that prevent such monopolization of prerogatives. Specifically, by instituting such a convoluted system, such as splitting Congress into distinct branches and promoting a powerful presidency that is not elected directly by the people, the American system is explicitly designed to prevent excessive unilateral authority and protect individual freedoms from the whims of the majority conscience.

Therefore, since America is not a democracy per se, there is no rationale behind attempts to make it more “democratic” short of upturning the entire constitutional system itself. Furthermore, ethical principals cannot be inculcated into republican institutions since ethics are moral principals established by individuals. If ethics in politics in this sense is taken to mean what the majority deems to be ethical, then injecting ethics into American politics would be tantamount to discarding the theoretically unbiased non-majority conforming institutions of the American constitutional system. For all intents and purposes, if Democratic candidates truly place their faith in the American constitution, political “ethics” are defined by what is constitutional, not by what the simple majority deems “ought” to be constitutional. By understanding the inconsistencies between the candidates’ ostensible motivations and the bedrock of American governance, the truly insidious nature of the reform proposals becomes clear: to ensure the monopolization of power by the Democratic Party with the goal of forcing progressive reform.

The Progressive Democratic Power Grab Implicitly Hidden Within the Reforms

First, by abolishing the electoral college Democrats are proposing a means for them to solidify power at the expense of ideological dissimilar political minorities (i.e., conservatives). With a Republican president having won an election without the popular vote twice in the Twenty-First century, the apparent injustice of the electoral college has been championed in liberal political circles and accused of unfairly acting as a check to the will of the majority. Indeed, abolishing the electoral college would lead to immense political benefits for Democratic presidential candidates since in the past thirty years Democrats have won the popular vote for the presidency all but once and have recently led vastly more successful “get out the vote” campaigns than their Republican counterparts. With democratic registration outpacing that of Republicans and with a majority of those Democrats now identifying as “liberals,” such a reform is likely to benefit a Democratic presidential candidate in general and its progressive adherents in particular.

Second, by eliminating the Senate, progressives intended to replicate this socio-demographic advantage at the congressional level. With red-states now outnumbering blue-states and with the inherent equality of state representatives in the Senate, the latter is now perceived as a major source of Republican political power. Therefore, by eliminating the upper chamber progressive Democrats intend to monopolize power around an omnipotent and popular House of Representatives. However understandable this scheme may be, it is also important for Democrats to recognize the potential for it to backfire should political whims change. Indeed, conservatives still outnumber liberals at the national level and those in between largely self-identify as “moderates." With the Democratic Party-leaning more to the left (and likely to continue this trend in the future), a dangerous and unintended situation may arise where the majority sides with their opponents, a situation that may prove fatal to the progressive cause. In fact, the very idea of a Senate (and to an extent the electoral college), is to provide a stabilizing force to counteract the clamors of the majority that exert themselves in bi-annual House elections. A similar argument can be made in regards to the Senate filibuster which, while having impeded the passage of Democratic reforms, has also been used by the Democrats to their advantage, most recently in Dec. 2018 to prevent funding from reaching the proposed border wall, prompting calls from Trump himself to end the practice.

Finally, shocked by the new young conservative Justices appointed by the Republican Senate, Democratic candidates are eying a move to pack the Supreme Court with loyal progressives, thereby giving conservatives a taste of their own medicine. Prompted by fears of the overruling of precedent such as Roe v. Wade (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Democrats hope to ensure the continued preservation of key progressive rights and win unconditional judicial support for socialist policies, such as the expansive Green New Deal, that are sure to elicit lawsuits on constitutional grounds. Unlike the other institutional reforms which so far have only gotten as far as proposals, the Court Packing scheme has a precedent with FDR’s attempt in 1937 to expand the seating at the high bench in order to push through his own controversial New Deal. While Roosevelt’s efforts failed due to division within his party, the increased partisanship of today’s era may lead to success on this front in order to ensure the lack of a judicial challenge to the progressives’ revived New Deal program. Packing the court in this fashion is, and was recognized as a direct affront to the Constitution’s explicit system of checks and balances are risks undermining the stability of U.S. governance.

From the above, it seems clear that these institutional reforms will degrade the ability of American republican institutions to counteract a possible “tyranny of the majority” and will give the Democratic Party an absolute edge over their Republican counterparts should the electoral system remain bifurcated between two contending political parties. Thus these proposals are dangerous to American political liberties and can be seen as nothing more than a progressive Democratic power grab aimed at the heart of the Constitutional system. Thus, while many of the candidates may sincerely believe in the conviction that progressive ideals are beneficial to public wellbeing and the general advancement of the commonwealth, the fact remains that by drastically reforming America’s institutions Democrats are pursuing an “ends justify the means” strategy that risks provoking a structural collapse of the U.S. political system.