America is two nations on many fronts: The rich America and the poor America; the white America and the America of color; the America of the elite and the common America; the secular America and the America of the devout; and so on. But few parallels are as dangerous as the America of democracy, and the America of those who view representative government as a quaint, outdated concept.
When Benjamin Franklin famously replied “a Republic, if you can keep it” when asked, upon the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, whether we have a republic or a monarchy, he most certainly understood that the forces seeking to undermine the “Great American Experiment” were well at work before the ink was dry on the paper. And, indeed, much of the history of this country can be measured in the struggle between those who demand of America that it uphold its ideals of liberty and justice for all, and those who have sought to subvert those ideals in the name of greed and power.
It is no secret that Americans hold a somewhat uneasy truce with their government. While, on the one hand, we take great pride in our ability to select those who govern us, we also hold those we choose in a high form of distrust and disgust, as if to subconsciously acknowledge the false choices which we are often provided by our political machines. For while this country has suffered through more than one crisis of confidence by its people – one of which was decided by civil war – the period we are currently enduring is perhaps one of the worst.
It can be argued that the longevity of any regime not controlled by martial law is in no small part due to the ability of the masses to negotiate a governing arrangement with their rulers. While it is no secret that, even in America, the forces of law and order exist to enforce the wishes of the moneyed elite, no country can long afford to completely suppress its population. Any government seeking to last longer than a generation must, on some level, enlist the support of the governed, whether by instilling worship of the divine right of hereditary leadership, acceptance of an aristocracy, representation of the masses by those selected by birth or money, or through the ballot box. That any native-born American, regardless of economic status, can theoretically arise to the highest levels of power is one of the greatest, enduring strengths of our Constitution.
Yet, that contract has come under enormous stress as of late. Whether through the gerrymandering of a permanent majority of one of our two major political parties in the House, the acceptance of tyranny by the minority in the Senate, the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court, the overriding power that moneyed interests have over selecting the presidency, the open graft and corruption of our elected officials, the attacks against universal suffrage, the extreme polarization that has become the norm for governing, the seemingly immutable power of the national security state to erode civil rights, restrictions on the liberties of freedom of speech and protest, and many other examples, the confidence in government required for a functioning democracy has ebbed lower than at any time in modern history.
And where have the people been in all of this? Asleep at the wheel, one might say. Distracted by those seeking to undermine the social contract. Pampered by the illusion of monetary success. Unduly willing to hand over civil rights paid for dearly by the blood of others for some false sense of security. Cowed by the heavy hand of the national security state. And, regrettably, with the seeming blessing of a significant minority of the population who are willing to turn over their place in a functioning democracy for promises of alignment with some totalitarian regime seeking to impose their divine world view on the rest of the country.
For, in addition to the social contract, a functioning democracy requires a willingness to sometimes go with the flow, once all arguments have been heard and registered, by bowing to the will of the majority. Yet, can anything be more antithetical to the Libertarian ideals of personal freedom than the submission to the many? We are, after all, a country that prides itself on individualism and the unrestrained liberty to spectacularly succeed, or fail. Where does the ethos of the frontier man, the rugged individualist, the inspired loner who wins at all costs, the embodiment of personal liberty, fit into an ideal where the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
Consequently, we find ourselves in a conundrum. With confidence in our democratic institutions at an all-time low, the masses for whom the social contract has, in their minds, ceased to function, have begun to walk away precisely at the time when their collective power to effect change is needed the most. Thus, the forces that have only their own personal greed at heart have seized on this opportunity to further enshroud their power and further disenfranchise the people with their government, reinforcing the downward spiral that can only end with the destruction of any sense of unity and faith in representative rule.
So, this is the existential question currently being asked of the American people: if not democracy, then what? If the powers that be succeed in drowning our government in a bathtub – as is their expressed intent – what will follow? When tyranny by the minority descends into totalitarianism by the few, what recourse will we have, then, as a people to pursue our individual agendas? When our aristocrats-in-all-but-name succeed in finalizing their power, and the social contract enshrined in our tattered Constitution is finally laid to rest, what for the future of our country? Are we to so frivolously squander this great gift of self-government, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, who paid for it so dearly?