A "Threat" to Democracy

The Morning Call corrects the record

We have two bits of bad news to relate today.

The first is that “American democracy” is under attack.  You don’t have to take out word for this, of course.  There are plenty of others around who will prattle on endlessly about how the constitutional order is threatened and the legitimacy of our government is in question and how all sorts of other horrific things are being done “in our name.”

We suspect that the number of people who find the excesses of the federal government to be tyrannical and unconstitutional will shrink considerably over the next four years, even as the threat stays the same or even increases.  Hating and undermining the constitutional order is, like everything else in Washington, different when we do it.

Lucky for us, before the oracles of democratic doom disappear for good, some of them still have enough energy to remind us of all of the damage done daily by people they dislike and disparage.  One of these people, interestingly enough, is a Congressman from Michigan named Paul Mitchell, whose disgust and disappointment with Donald drove him despairingly in the direction of de-Republicanization.  CNN has the story:

Michigan Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell told CNN that his disgust and disappointment with President Donald Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election have led him to request that the clerk of the House change his party affiliation to "independent." Read his letter to Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy below:

The weeks since the 2020 General Election have been traumatic for many in our nation, both voters and those of us who took an oath to serve this nation….

It is unacceptable for political candidates to treat our election system as though we are a third-world nation and incite distrust of something so basic as the sanctity of our vote. Further, it is unacceptable for the president to attack the Supreme Court of the United States because its judges, both liberal and conservative, did not rule with his side or that "the Court failed him." It was our Founding Fathers' objective to insulate the Supreme Court from such blatant political motivations.

If Republican leaders collectively sit back and tolerate unfounded conspiracy theories and "stop the steal" rallies without speaking out for our electoral process, which the Department of Homeland Security said was "the most secure in American history," our nation will be damaged. I have spoken out clearly and forcefully in opposition to these messages. However, with the leadership of the Republican Party and our Republican Conference in the House actively participating in at least some of those efforts, I fear long-term harm to our democracy.

The stability and strength of our democracy have been an ongoing concern for me.

Let us just say upfront that we don’t know a thing about Congressman Paul Mitchell.  Not a thing.  We see that he was first elected in 2016 and, in July 2019, announced that he would not run for reelection in 2020.  When he leaves office at the end of this Congressional term, in other words, he will have served only two terms and will have retired voluntarily – not chased out by scandal and not beaten by an opponent.  Good for him.

We’ll be honest with you.  We expected to respond snarkily to Mitchell, saying, more or less, “Oh yeah?  Who are you to lecture us about the Founders’ intentions when you defy their ‘citizen-legislators’ ideal by ‘serving’ 45 terms in Congress?!?!”  But that’s not the case with Mitchell.  Two terms and he’s done.  Voluntarily.  That’s both unusual and heartening.

Congressional tenure has been increasing steadily since the dawn of the republic.  Today, the AVERAGE tenure of Congressman is nearly FIVE terms.  In the nation’s history, only 29 Members have served 40 or more years, and 28 of them began their service in the twentieth century, when “public service” became a career.  But not Paul Mitchell.  When he leaves later this month, he’ll have served 1/15th as long as his fellow Michigander, John Dingell, who entered office as a 29-year-old and left it as an 89-year-old.  As we said, good for Congressman Mitchell.

Unfortunately, all of that notwithstanding, our second bit of bad news is still directed at you, Congressman.  We understand that you’re bothered by what you’ve seen these past few weeks.  We sympathize with you about the frustration involved in the entire process.  Heck, we even empathize with you in your complaint that the president’s lawyers talk a good game but ALWAYS fail to deliver.  That’s been one of our chief complaints as well.  It’s mindboggling, frankly.

Nevertheless, you should know that your fears about the destruction of American democracy are misplaced – or at least, they’re late – about 100 years late.  American democracy has been dead for a long, long time.  It’s unfortunate that you’re only learning about this now, but it’s probably better that you know.  You are correct, we suppose.  America’s democracy is indeed under attack.  But there’s really not much left to destroy.

Now, before we get into the details of the death of American democracy, we want to correct a couple of mistakes in your analysis, Congressman.  For example, you write, “It is unacceptable for political candidates to treat our election system as though we are a third-world nation and incite distrust of something so basic as the sanctity of our vote.”

Sorry…but LOL.  Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention can tell you that in many places and many ways, the United States IS a third-world nation – ESPECIALLY when it comes to counting votes.  There is fraud in every American election.  You know it.  We know it.  And you know we know it.  EVERYONE knows it.  It’s never been proven to be significant enough to change the results of an important election.  But it’s there, and pretending otherwise is just plain silly.  More to the point, even in cases where there is NO fraud, some places are still backward-ass hellholes.

A few of these places are in swing states, where people discover votes and videos and USB drives for weeks after elections.  But that’s not the half of it.  There are at least two states in the union that would make Zimbabwe blush but which are rarely ever discussed, mostly because their vote tabulations don’t matter.  New York and California are frighteningly incompetent when it comes to “the sanctity of our vote.”  Consider, if you will, this piece, which was published by CNN on November 18. FIFTEEN DAYS AFTER THE ELECTION:

New York was called early on election night for President-elect Joe Biden, but if the Empire State had been a presidential battleground, the drama that gripped the country for a few days might now be stretching into its third week.

There is no state slower at counting its ballots and, despite Democratic control of the state government, New York remains home to some of the country's most byzantine voting laws and procedures. Its painfully slow and, in some localities, oddly staggered approach to counting votes means the results of a number of US House and key state Senate and Assembly races remain unknown.

"It's embarrassing," said state Sen. Michael Gianaris, the Democratic deputy majority leader. "And if we were a swing state in this presidential election, this would be a national scandal."…

New York isn't the only heavily Democratic state to deliver its results days or even weeks after Election Day.

"This year's delays are another example of the BOE's incompetence," said New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. "What was an antiquated absentee ballot process morphed into broad mail-in voting. With more than one million New Yorkers voting by absentee ballot, the review after the return process created an enormous logjam."

Stringer also condemned what he described as a lack of urgency in the efforts to address decades of decay.

"We have a President who won't even acknowledge that he overwhelmingly lost the election using mail-in ballots as a prop and an excuse," he said. "And here, we're sort of accepting that we can't have competent elections. That's not what our democracy is about."

By CNN's count, the state -- as of Wednesday afternoon -- had only reported 78% of its estimated vote total.

That bit at the end is great, isn’t it, Congressman?  Fifteen days AFTER the election, and New York still had 22% of its votes left to count.

As for California, it’s better than New York, but not by much.  It counts votes that arrive up to THREE DAYS after the election.  It allows some votes to “cure” – like meat or wine or cheese for heaven knows how long.  And it never gets anything done expeditiously.

For the record, those are the first and the fourth most populous states in the country.  Their problems alone are enough to earn the United States the “third-world” label.  But then, as you know, their problems aren’t alone.

Congressman, you also write, “it is unacceptable for the president to attack the Supreme Court of the United States because its judges, both liberal and conservative, did not rule with his side or that ‘the Court failed him.’ It was our Founding Fathers' objective to insulate the Supreme Court from such blatant political motivations.”

Not to be pedantic, but again, this is mistaken.  The Founders didn’t really get their knickers in a twist about the Supreme Court.  They intended for it to be weak.  The arguments between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists over the judicial branch weren’t arguments about whether the courts should be weak or strong, but whether they should be weak or weaker.  The Supreme Court we know today is largely a creation of the Progressive Era.  Starting with Teddy Roosevelt and extending through his cousin’s four terms and then on into the ‘60s and the ‘70s, the Court took on greater and greater relevance in American politics, even though the Founders specifically eschewed such a role.  The Progressives were happy enough to allow this to happen because A.) they hated the Constitution anyway, and B.) they were able to create – by appointment and coercion – a judiciary that did their bidding.  On February 21, 1910, at the Ohio State Constitutional Convention, the aforementioned Teddy Roosevelt summed it all up nicely:

If the Constitution is successfully invoked to nullify the effort to remedy injustice, it is proof positive either that the Constitution needs immediate amendment or else that it is being wrongfully and improperly contrasted. …

Our aim is to get the type of judge that I have described, to keep him on the bench as long as possible, and to keep off the bench, and, if necessary, take off the bench, the wrong type of judge. … Therefore, the question of applying the recall in any shape is one of expediency merely. Each community has a right to try the experiment for itself in whatever shape it pleases.

We don’t mean to be insulting, but if you think that Trump’s comment about how the Court let him down is unconscionable, then maybe you should get out more.

And that leads, conveniently enough, into our discussion about the death of American democracy.  Although the Progressive Era technically ran from 1896 to 1920, the destructive spirit of Progressivism reigned until at least 1945.  That’s a long time.  And a LOT of destruction.  Ironically enough, though, even it had not been that long, it still might have been equally destructive.  You see, most of the profound and enduring damage was done over the course of just 10 short months, beginning on February 3, 1913.

On that date, the United States ratified the 16th Amendment, giving Congress the power to levy income taxes and, thus, to undermine much of the Founders’ carefully constructed constitutional order.

In writing the tax provisions of the Constitution, the Founders were very deliberate and very specific.  Their debate over this section was long, intense, and complicated.  It focused on two primary concerns; the first relating to the possible abuse of the power to tax, and the second involving the type of taxes that the federal government could use, given that the states would have to tax citizens also.

The Founders had many lengthy discussions over these issues, which covered everything from matters of punctuation to the use of federal funds to finance disaster relief in cases such as the great Savanna fire.  What they never discussed, however, what never even crossed their collective mind was the idea that taxes should be levied disproportionately across various categories of citizens.  And so the provision on which they settled read (emphasis added): “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”

The Founders found the notion of a tax levied inconsistently to be so outside of the realm of serious consideration for a government dedicated to liberty that they almost never even mentioned the idea.  It is broached once, in Federalist #10, by Madison himself, but then only tangentially, as part of a broader discussion of the importance of preventing certain factions of society from acting in concert to “carry into effect schemes of oppression” against others.  

Nevertheless, on February 13, 1913, ten days after ratification, President Taft’s Attorney General, Philander Knox, quietly (and some insist, to this day, fraudulently, due to errors in the way several states had handled the approval) signed the 16th Amendment into law, thereby introducing the graduated income tax.  We don’t want to sound hyperbolic here but save the attack on Fort Sumter, the graduated tax was almost certainly the greatest intentional assault on the values of the Founding in the nation’s history.  Not only did it undermine virtually all of the key characteristics of the American experiment in self-government, ranging from the inviolability of private property to equality under the law, but it also set the stage for the great American political game of using the tax code to punish and reward specific behaviors and thus to punish and reward various interest groups.

Three months later, Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, announced that the 17th Amendment, allowing the direct election of Senators, had been also ratified.  And finally, two days before Christmas of that year, Wilson signed the third and final piece to the Progressives’ master plan to change the country, the Federal Reserve Act.

These three acts of government, plus the Mann Act, which was signed in 1910 and greatly enlarged the scope of the Commerce Clause, worked in concert to expand the federal government, expand its ability to cause damage to the fabric of the nation, and thereby to expand the opportunities for corruption and government malfeasance far beyond the dreams of avarice.  Suddenly, the federal government had access to the kind of money necessary to do just about anything.  It could punish or reward segments of the population at will.  And it could reach deep into minute matters of local and regional import, taking for itself the power that legitimately belonged to the states.  In short, these actions conspired to destroy the Constitution and the republic built upon it.

Congressman Mitchell, please understand that we like the Founders’ constitution as much as the next guy.  It was a great and carefully constructed document.  But note here the use of the past tense.  That constitution hasn’t existed in more than a century.  And nor, for that matter, has American “democracy.”  The constitutionally established democratic republic has been winding its way from Kallipolis to timocracy to oligarchy and towards tyranny for longer than any of us has been alive.

You can be as annoyed and frustrated and sick of Donald Trump as you want.  And we can assure you that you are not alone.  We know any number of people who are equally annoyed with him.  But don’t pretend that he represents some sort of unique and unprecedented threat to the nation and its political traditions.  He’s THE RESULT of the traditions as they’ve been practiced over the last century, and he won’t be the last or even the most perfect incarnation of the American republic’s slow but steady collapse.

As we used to mention all the time but haven’t in a while, but this is precisely what our old friend Angelo Codevilla had in mind in the weeks before the election when he warned that a line had been crossed, the republic would be sacrificed, and that we would all look back wistfully one day at the comparative moderation and decency of Donald Trump.

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