Ideals in fo­cus near the Fourth

U.S. democ­racy has evolved for 241 years, now faces scru­tiny

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Hillel Italie The As­so­ci­ated Press

NEW YORK» In his 4½ years as a state sen­a­tor from Man­hat­tan, Brad Holy­man has handed out ev­ery­thing from flash­lights to Tshirts at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies. But for a gath­er­ing held soon after Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, he de­cided on some­thing more sub­stan­tial: Copies of the Con­sti­tu­tion. “My con­stituents had been ask­ing me, ‘What can I do to help?’ ‘How do I pre­pare my­self ?’ ” says Holy­man, a Demo­crat in his third term who has since dis­trib­uted thou­sands of copies. “A year ago, who would have imag­ined that giv­ing away the Con­sti­tu­tion would be seen as an act of re­sis­tance?”

Amer­i­cans have dis­agreed about gov­ern­ment and civic life since the coun­try’s found­ing, about who should vote, who should run for of­fice and the risks of po­lit­i­cal fac­tions. But as the U.S. nears its 241st birthday, on the Fourth of July, many say democ­racy it­self is in the dock.

Trump, with his la­bel­ing the main­stream press the “en­emy of the peo­ple” and his dis­par­age­ment of “so-called” judges and other tra­di­tional checks on ex­ec­u­tive power, has crit­ics anx­ious about not just a given pol­icy but the fate of self-rule — at the same time that his sup­port­ers view his rise as the kind of anti-elit­ist tri­umph democ­racy is sup­posed to rep­re­sent.

The de­bate ex­tends from class­rooms and pol­icy in­sti­tutes to pop­u­lar cul­ture, to the Trump-in­flu­enced stag­ing of Shake­speare’s “Julius Cae­sar” at Man­hat­tan’s Pub­lic The­ater and the wave of

dystopian best-sell­ers such as “1984” and “The Hand­maid’s Tale.”

“I think it’s highly un­usual and dis­con­cert­ing to have so many peo­ple wor­ried about the foun­da­tions of our democ­racy,” says Wendy R. Weiser, who di­rects the Bren­nan Cen­ter for Jus­tice’s Democ­racy Pro­gram, based at New York Univer­sity School of Law and fo­cus­ing on vot­ing rights and elec­tions, among other is­sues. “We’re al­ways talk­ing about democ­racy and strug­gling to live up to our ideals, but never with so many fun­da­men­tal ques­tions as we’re do­ing right now.”

But when ac­tivists vow to re­vi­tal­ize democ­racy, they don’t mean the so­ci­ety imag­ined by the men who helped cre­ate it.

“None of the founders en­vi­sioned our mod­ern democ­racy, with its broad suf­frage and com­pet­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties,” says Gor­don Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning his­to­rian of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War era. “Run­ning for of­fice was dem­a­gogic and dan­ger­ous. The founders be­lieved in equal­ity but they es­sen­tially meant equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity. Sons of weavers and cob­blers could go to col­lege and be­come gentle­men, but weavers and cob­blers them­selves were not to be­come politi­cians and cam­paign for of­fice.”

Amer­i­can lead­ers in the early years ex­changed ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing too pro-Bri­tish or pro-French, a divi­sion marked by two on­go­ing con­cerns: The coun­try would re­lapse into Bri­tish­style monar­chy or fall into vi­o­lence and law­less­ness like the mur­der­ous “Reign of Ter­ror” dur­ing the French Revo­lu­tion.

In 1788, the year be­fore the French Revo­lu­tion be­gan, Amer­i­cans were de­cid­ing whether to rat­ify the Con­sti­tu­tion. One con­cern, James Madi­son wrote in the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­pers, was “men of fac­tious tem­pers, of lo­cal prej­u­dices, or of sin­is­ter de­signs, (who) may by in­trigue, by cor­rup­tion or by other means, first ob­tain the suf- frages, and then be­tray the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple.”

Some founders lived long enough to watch, and be­moan the po­lit­i­cal rise of An­drew Jack­son in the 1820s. Trump and sup­port­ers have cited Jack­son as a fa­vorite pre­de­ces­sor in the White House, a pop­ulist who de­fied the es­tab­lish­ment and broke down bound­aries against who might be­come pres­i­dent. Trump ally Newt Gin­grich, the former House Speaker, has writ­ten that Trump, like Jack­son, is “an out­sider and a dis­rup­tive force cho­sen to break up ex­ist­ing Wash­ing­ton power struc­tures.”

But Thomas Jef­fer­son, in sen­ti­ments crit­ics have echoed about Trump, wor­ried that Jack­son “had very lit­tle re­spect for laws and con­sti­tu­tions” and added that “His pas­sions are ter­ri­ble.”

His­to­rian Sean Wi­lentz calls Trump “al­most a car­i­ca­ture of the Cae­sar-like char­ac­ter the (Con­sti­tu­tion’s) framers so deeply feared.” Wi­lentz, whose books in­clude “The Politi­cians and the Egal­i­tar­i­ans: The Hid­den His­tory of Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics,” said, “Madi­son, et al., knew noth­ing of cor­po­rate glitz and re­al­ity TV. Oth­er­wise, though, Trump is ex­actly the kind of fig­ure whom the framers feared too much democ­racy would pro­duce.”

Sta­bil­ity mat­tered more than in­clu­sive­ness for the new coun­try. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton es­sen­tially ran un­op­posed for his two terms as pres­i­dent, and was voted in by white, male landown­ers. Madi­son and oth­ers called the new gov­ern­ment a repub­lic, with a po­lit­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy from lo­cal to state to fed­eral, the lead­ers pre­sum­ably be­com­ing wiser and more dis­pas­sion­ate the fur­ther re­moved from pop­u­lar whims.

Joseph El­lis, au­thor of the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning “Found­ing Broth­ers” and bi­ogra­phies of Jef­fer­son and Adams, said that even the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence was more an at­tack against monar­chy than a man­i­festo for what to­day we would call democ­racy.

“Op­pos­ing monar­chy doesn’t mean there’s con­fi­dence in democ­racy,” he said. “And the func­tion of the Con­sti­tu­tion was to take demo­cratic foun­da­tions and run them through lay­ers of re­fine­ment that al­low the gov­ern­ment to sep­a­rate what is pop­u­lar in the short term from what is in the longterm in­ter­est of the peo­ple.”

Over the past two cen­turies, the coun­try has be­come more demo­cratic than many of the founders wished — with­out ever reach­ing the stan­dards ac­tivists have called for. Crit­ics cite par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing, vot­ing re­stric­tions, the in­flu­ence of money on elec­tions and strik­ing in­come in­equal­ity, say­ing the United States falls short of mod­ern demo­cratic ideals.

The Democ­racy In­dex, com­piled by the Bri­tish-based Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, ranked the U.S. at 21st world­wide in 2016, tied with Italy and trail­ing Nor­way, Canada and Uruguay, among oth­ers. While Nor­way and sev­eral other Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries are con­sid­ered “full democ­ra­cies,” ac­cord­ing to the in­dex, the U.S. last year fell to “flawed democ­racy,” re­ceiv­ing low scores for “func­tion­ing of gov­ern­ment” and “po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion.”

Within the ac­cepted views of the time, the founders did dif­fer widely on what kind of gov­ern­ment they fa­vored. Thomas Paine may have been the clos­est to what we now call an ad­vo­cate for democ­racy. Jef­fer­son was highly sus­pi­cious of fed­eral power, at least un­til he be­came pres­i­dent, while Alexan­der Hamil­ton fa­vored a strong chief ex­ec­u­tive.

“Like Jef­fer­son, he (Hamil­ton) wanted a nat­u­ral aris­toc­racy to rule, by which both of them meant an aris­toc­racy of tal­ent, that is, men like them­selves,” Wood said.

“But his vi­sion for Amer­ica was to make it a great fis­cal-mil­i­tary state like Bri­tain with a stand­ing army and navy and a huge bureau­cracy and a Bri­tish fi­nan­cial sys­tem, a state that would even­tu­ally be able to take on the Euro­pean pow­ers on their own terms, some­thing that Jef­fer­son and Madi­son found ap­palling.”

By 1802, with his ri­val Jef­fer­son in the White House and his own ideas un­der at­tack, “Hamil­ton was in de­spair and wrote ‘This Amer­i­can world was not meant for me,’ ” Wood said. “On the eve of his duel (with Aaron Burr) in 1804, he said that Amer­ica’s ‘disease’ was ‘democ­racy.’ ”

Char­lie Riedel, AP file photo

Vis­i­tors watch while work­ers pres­sure wash the gran­ite faces at Mount Rush­more Na­tional Memo­rial in South Dakota.

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