Dylan Etzel, JHU:
I will not beat around the bush; I am about to propose that the United States may no longer be a republican democracy, as strictly defined by the principles contained in democratic rule by and for the people, and republicanism—the notion that public issues are rightfully governed by the public. Although the original United States (the nation governed by the federal government established in 1787) could be considered a republican democracy in name only, the history of our nation is one that gradually attains the essence of republican democracy, and, guided by fear and greed, descends from that status to the state governing us today. This may sound like a cynical argument, but world hegemons rise and fall. The United States is in decline because of its ideological deviation, and therefore it cannot legitimately maintain its current form. If not a revolution, a reformation surely lies in the horizon to correct this maladaptation.
The original “United” States were barely united, and the federalist system in place at the time was democratic only compared to the monarchies of the era. A Bill of Rights was nearly excluded, slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person and the process of candidate selection for the legislative branch was highly undemocratic. Of course, most of Europe’s monarchies cared much less about the will of the general populace even though the Magna Carta had already been in circulation for more than 500 years. Therefore, the United States immediately provided hope for a more progressive future., Many characteristics of republican democracy remained pure at first in the USA: the constitution, though vague, espoused a general framework for a weak executive, a robust legislative body and a relevant judiciary.
Afterwards, the government evolved. At first, presidents like Jefferson and Jackson demonstrated that the executive power could be expanded; yet later in the 19th century, improvements to the electoral process emerged over time. The reaction to the Gilded Age drastically altered the country’s downward spiral. The caucus changed to let the populace elect their lawmakers, not committees in “smoke-filled rooms.” Just as presidential power expanded, the abilities of the other branches to check the expansion were proven, such as when FDR failed to stack the Supreme Court. It would seem that just before the start of World War II, republican democracy was at its purest. This is undoubtedly contentious; Wilson was elected to “Keep us out of war,” but presidents at the turn of the 20th century relied on popular sentiment to steer foreign policy. As much as he itched to enter World War I, the reality is that at the war’s conclusion, Wilson’s popular approval was in the stratosphere.
Republican democracy, however, fell off a cliff after Pearl Harbor. Japanese internment camps violated all of our countries’ principles under the guise of “national security,” a legitimization that is still used, to the detriment of democracy. The wife of the man who signed off on this internment would later help draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (sic: Eleanor Roosevelt). Thus beginning the identity crisis of the United States. At war’s end, the virus of hypocrisy reemerged under a new name. In order to overcome the monster that was the ideology of Communism, republican democracy became the monster. McCarthyism, though only an ephemeral movement, was as abusive of freedom of speech as severe censorship in the USSR. I am not suggesting that the punishments were the same, only that the same principles were ignored. But what is at stake is principle, and it is a lack of principle that leads to reformation; the Estates-General understood this notion as it took its Oath of the Tennis Courts, precursor to the French Revolution. The Cold War led to the support of harsh dictators in Latin America. It led to a vigorous censorship of American intellectualism, limiting the available academia. It legitimized ignoring the pleas of the republic in order to satiate its need to eliminate fear.
Ironically, Roosevelt encapsulated the nation’s problem in one sentence as he endeavored to ignore his own very words: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The country’s fear of Japanese spies led to our ignorance of the Constitution; the Red Scare, however legitimate a fear, shrouded our democracy in a veil of fear. Yes, the Russian nuclear warheads were real, but the state’s covert actions, including the presidents’ use of emergency powers, feared the Russian ideology. And this fear was legitimate; it permeated into the minds of Cubans and Slavs and even New Yorkers. It appeared that republican democracy would return to its former peak at the Cold War’s end, once the enemy disappeared as the curtain rose. But festering under the government’s surface, the ugly truth would arise only moments later.
As the wall came down, and all of Russia’s transgressions became clear, so did those of the CIA, the FBI and greedy corporations. What has become increasingly evident since then is that the president can ignore the constitution’s restrictions with executive orders or legal loopholes (whether he chooses to do so is up to him). 9/11 renewed McCarthyism’s old allegiance to covert action, and civil rights have been violated ever since. The NSA, however useful, finds it more prudent to argue that their infringements do not matter, not that they do not exist. In the public sphere, money rules elections; candidates are acclaimed by their contemporaries not for their ideals, but for their fundraising achievements. The power of the party has expanded such that it has superseded the people, controlling the selection of candidates, via fundraising, and managed to slow our lawmaking to a near halt as both parties puff their peacock feathers. The government is no longer approved of; regardless of the party, since the 21st century, presidents and congresses have been disliked more than they have been liked (using the average percentages of end-of-term polls). For how long can a decrepit system continue without being purified?
All it takes is one radical candidate with enough popular support to reform the system. It is not easy; neither the Democratic nor the Republican party offer an ideology that is overwhelmingly enjoyed, and many voters select the “less bad” candidate. What would happen if a presidential candidate with fundraising capability and government experience advocated the following platform: closing Guantanomo Bay, allowing Americans accused of torture to be tried before the International Criminal Court, closing the NSA, requiring a declaration of war before utilizing airstrikes, and revisiting Citizens United in order to limit corporations’ influence. One reason that this seems improbable is that these actions all inflict self-harm to the executive office. But all it takes in our hypercompetitive bipolar partisan boxing match is the promise of victory. That is, if Americans even want a pure republican democracy at all.