Constitutional Wisdom From Abroad

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the British Guardian. He recently attended the London opening of Hamilton, an event that prompted him to reflect upon his prior enthusiasm for America’s Constitution.  As he says, the musical’s idealism “struck a chord.”

In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later – albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.

The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.

As Freedland tells it, his homage to our written constitution and its checks and balances came just before a series of somewhat embarrassing U.S. upheavals: the Clinton impeachment, ” hideous, only-in-America” mass shootings, and similar dysfunctions culminating in the election of Donald Trump, who–despite getting fewer votes–defeated “an infinitely more qualified opponent.”

Initially, Freedland says, he responded to these unsettling reminders of our lack of social perfection by reminding himself that he was admiring a founding ideal, not our nation’s flawed reality. But little by little, he has come to recognize some inadequacies in that founding ideal.

It’s time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.

The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.

Freedland enumerates some of the norms Trump has ignored: refusal to divest himself of his business interests, appointing unqualified family members to high government posts (although, really–how would this unbelievably ignorant and incompetent man even recognize other people’s lack of qualifications?), firing James Comey. Etc. Then he returns to the institutional point:

But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.

Impeachment, of course, is a remedy, but as Freedland (and every other sentient observer) recognizes, nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.

In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today’s Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.

Ironically, if someone like Trump emerged in England, it would be easier to get rid of him; a parliamentary vote of no confidence is, as Freedland concedes, a lower hurdle than impeachment.

As perceptive as this essay is–and I encourage readers to click through and read it in its entirety–we are inescapably products of our own legal system, a system dependent upon adherence to our own democratic norms. (During the Constitutional debate over the addition of a Bill of Rights, Hamilton was among those making the point that written laws cannot address every possible way in which government can go off the rails.) Standards of behavior, expectations of decorum and propriety, and measures of competence are ultimately cultural artifacts, their breach punished by public opprobrium.

In November, we will see the extent to which America’s “unwritten Constitution” and democratic norms still hold.

31 thoughts on “Constitutional Wisdom From Abroad

  1. “Constitutional Wisdom From Abroad”! I love this title and the content of today’s blog; we, as Americans, need to be paying as closer attention to the current goings-on as those abroad appear to be doing. Primarily our many long-time allies who see Trump, not “warts and all” but “all warts”; they have found no redeeming factors in Trump, his administration, his family, his Tweets, his repeals, his Executive Orders…or Congress allowing it all to continue unabated.

    Some of the “norms” Mr. Freedland refers to that Trump has ignored are simple rational behavior, expected to be followed by all thinking people, they are not relegated only to the president.

    “Ironically, if someone like Trump emerged in England, it would be easier to get rid of him; a parliamentary vote of no confidence is, as Freedland concedes, a lower hurdle than impeachment.”

    Amendment XXV is beginning to be referred to as a solution (similar to England’s parliamentary vote of no confidence?); but this presents a problem as Mr. Freedland refers to regarding the strangle hold (my terminology) the Republican controlled Congress has on this entire country. Read the Constitution, Article II, Section 1, paragraph 6; “In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office,…” Then compare it to Amendment XXV Section 1; “In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President”. Notice the glaring absence of “…or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office…”. Then read Section 3: “Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.” Could this action by our government be considered on the level of England’s powerful “parliamentary vote of no confidence”?

    Are McConnell and Ryan waiting for Trump to declare himself unable to “discharge the Powers and Duties” of the office of President? This will never happen. Or are they afraid to put Pence in control? This appears to be their only option in both the Constitution and Amendment XXV; Trump and Pence were their choices for candidates for President and Vice President. Are Republican members of Congress beginning to remember that old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”?

    “In November, we will see the extent to which America’s “unwritten Constitution” and democratic norms still hold.”

    Whatever the thoughts of this Republican controlled Congress; November 2018 seems eons away for me.

  2. Shamelessness – this defines both trump and almost all GOP member of Congress. In addition to being shameless, they have shown how heartless they are.

    Their hunger for power and personal wealth gain at the expense of the citizens they supposedly represent is in full view, yet people continue to believe their lies and vote them back into office for multiple terms.

    The GOP has learned that if they repeatedly lie to the public and create misplaced anger over thing s that don’t exist, they can win elections and then give their wealthy campaign donors whatever they ask for.

  3. Never fear! I have seen many Republicans who are interested in impeachment. Yes, they want to impeach Hillary as quickly as possible. Even the venerable Faux News called for her removal from office and for prosecution for all of her many criminal activities, like collusion with Russia.

  4. Either Madison or Hamilton (I forget which) wrote in The Federalist Papers that the problem described here could be muted, if not eliminated by staggering the terms of office of the various members of Congress, so that factions could not dominate.

    Clearly, they did not anticipate the effects that factions providing large amounts of dark money could override that safeguard by seeing to it that their minions would dominate Congress.

  5. Re: “…what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate…”

    I am convinced Trump didn’t trample over our social fabric but rather identified a web of them that most of us thought didn’t exist.

    I’ll give a somewhat related example. Merriam-Webster reports the most searched for word in 2017 was “feminism”. Similarly In yesterday’s column Ms. Kennedy reported the U.S. is more segregated than ever. This begs some larger questions.

    Do people have to be taught there is oppression? Or conversely, do they have to learn it?

    Additionally, why should we be surprised that words in a 200+ year old document don’t reflect today’s social norms?

  6. I would like to think there is a “blue wave” coming in November, but it sure seems like the Overton Window has already moved. I’ve seen a number of news stories, when discussing the Roy Moore issue, refer to Luther Strange as “the moderate Trump backed”.

    When we’ve moved Luther Strange to middle of the rode moderate, there may not be any coming back. It’s hard to imagine reams of right-wing, but not truly insane, people being voted out when we’ve determined that Moore is the baseline for bad and Trump is the baseline for unstable. Everyone (nearly) will look better than them. I fear a tremendous disappointment come November.

  7. THE CONSTITUTION IS DEAD
    QUESTION MARK
    Proof of life is called for. While the U.S. Constitution prevented subjection to internal tyranny for Americans, we had some assurance that it lived. Now, that it has failed in that regard, now that it has stopped breathing, there is one more proof of life left–its heartbeat: Does the Constitution contain a remedy?

  8. The unwritten codes and cultural standards of civility and decorum are all but lost in our society, and who’s to blame? We are.

    After years of tolerating, then accepting, and ultimately excusing rude, crude, and uncouth behaviors from all manner of people across our society, we’re suffering the culminating event with Donald Trump’s election as President. We’ve no one to blame but ourselves.

  9. BSH; sad but oh, so true. We are reaping what we have sown for decades and it is now biting us in the ass.

  10. John Neal,

    “I am convinced Trump didn’t trample over our social fabric but rather identified a web of them that most of us thought didn’t exist.”

    Your analysis is much more closer to the truth. That WEB you’ve mentioned has been expanding not undetected but unreported like the LOCH NESS MONSTER for over 50 years.

    As BSH commented: “We’re no one to blame but ourselves.” The massive materialism has made us appear to be blind. But that’s not the case. We’ve a nation of CIVIC COWARDS who have to look to someone like Jonathan Freeland of The Guardian for a deeper look. The Guardian doesn’t have the ability to rescue us from this CALAMITY. And it’s looking more and more like we don’t have the ability as Americans to do any better.

  11. With this congress, there is no way we can amend the constitution to include “must have” qualifications for congress members, SCOTUS or POTUS. Maybe we need to define a new profession like Civic Leader that can pass a civics exam, a citizenship exam and a history lesson about politics in this country. It seems that the “smart” people out there are in the wrong roles and we are stuck with an incompetent leader that is embarrassing us all over the world. I’m not hopeful in this current set up and a revolution is needed to rewrite some areas of our constitution in order to get some actual government for the people, by the people. All I know is I want off this reality tv show of look here, look there, look everywhere but straight ahead and see the mess we’re in. We need to start over and rewrite our documents and qualifications and make sure that the people we elect are actually capable of governing. The world is watching and they are worried too.

  12. AgingLGrl,

    “All I know is I want off this reality tv show of look here, look there, look everywhere but straight ahead and see the mess we’re in.”

    You might end up by yourself. We’re suffering from a massive case of COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. It doesn’t feel good, but It feels much better than dealing with the hard and difficult TRUTH.

  13. As one of my astute history professors postulated, Society lives as a pendulum. We swing from one “edge” to another, during which we lose momentum little by little, until we come to a stop, or interruption. And then, societal forces must expend great amounts of energy, or a “windup”, to restart the pendulum. I believe we’ve just witnessed an utter halt. Now it’s time to warm up for the Big Push to get this train called America back on its democratic rails.

    Btw, for those calling out to rip up our Constitution, that “old” paper is a framework, not a user’s manual. That was the genius of our country’s founders. There were racists and bigots, adulterers and power mongers among the erudite and visionaries in this country’s annals just like those who exist on today’s congressional rosters and in our hallowed national halls and corridors.

    Our wisdom, as a Society, lies in recognizing that what oftentimes shows up as heresy and treason is disguised as patriotism and loyalty. Integrity and accountability is what works. Anything outside of honoring one’s word and being authentic is just a popularity contest—or a tv “reality” program.

    Don’t like the show? Change the channel. Better yet, transform oneself beyond the glass teat (a nod to Mr. McLuhan). One caution: beware of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  14. Never fear, there will be a flowering of youth this year that has produced some QUALIFIED educated literate gentleman and lady candidates. Choose the ones that DON’T emulate the present temporary crop of illiterate trash the likes of which you will expel by November when the GOP led by imposter Trump will self-destruct.
    With your help, a new Congress will convene and restore sanity by ousting all vestiges of the GOP. A new truly conservative party will be born. The present “leadership” will be consigned to history.

  15. Dear All, I am not pretending to see a solution of this political/moral crisis. I think it was Churchill who remarked that a qualitymeasure of good government is the way how it treats minorities. Your president, your congress and your senate ignor, even worse, attack minorities like they are the enemy. No wonder, the US as a whole, suffers. In civic society everyone counts. My hope is that lost value will be found back in this year 2018.

  16. I’m in agreement with Carrie’s statement, “Society lives as a pendulum. We swing from one “edge” to another, during which we lose momentum little by little, until we come to a stop, or interruption. And then, societal forces must expend great amounts of energy, or a “windup”, to restart the pendulum.”

    As a loose parallel, I also consider Germany’s Weimar Republic and its period of relative decadence and debauchery that preceded Hitler’s rise. The pendulum swung beyond the edge, and the natural consequence was an opposite reaction of swinging too far to the right in an attempt to recalibrate some sense of civility and decorum in German Society. We do not want that to occur in the US, and occasionally I believe we’re at that point. Both the far-left and the far-right bear responsibility. Cooler and more moderate heads must prevail.

  17. Carrie, I didn’t say rip up the constitution, I said it needs to be amended but the current critters in congress won’t do anything, much less add an amendment for qualifications for important leadership positions. Especially since most of them in congress right now, wouldn’t qualify.

  18. BSH,

    “As a loose parallel, I also consider Germany’s Weimar Republic and its period of relative decadence and debauchery that preceded Hitler’s rise. The pendulum swung beyond the edge, and the natural consequence was an opposite reaction of swinging too far to the right in an attempt to recalibrate some sense of civility and decorum in German Society. We do not want that to occur in the US, and occasionally I believe we’re at that point.”

    We’re not at THAT POINT. We’re past it. That’s what Trump/Pence/ Bannon represent……. A VICTORIOUS POLITICAL swing way to the right. Until that reality is admitted, absolutely nothing will improve.

  19. OMG’s hope for a political renaissance in November had better be accurate, or we may just burn up what’s left of our social, economic and spiritual resilience.

    Then what? Where will the energy come from to move the pendulum?

  20. Continuing to deny the existence of the massive web John Neal mentioned in a prior post [“a web of them that most of us thought didn’t exist”] won’t make it go away. Trump/Bannon hijacked it and rode it to victory. You can’t CONTINUE TO deny that EXPANDING VIRUS in the BODY POLITIC anymore than a virus in your own body.

  21. Vernon,

    “OMG’s hope for a political renaissance in November had better be accurate, or we may just burn up what’s left of our social, economic and spiritual resilience.”

    As you know, we need much more than just HOPE at this juncture. HOPE=SUICIDE. We need REALISTIC HOPE based on an understanding of ALL the facts to be considered. As you have warned, IT WILL BE OUR LAST CHANCE.

  22. “But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.”

    “In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today’s Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame.”

    I can’t think of anything to say that can add to those words.

  23. Just listen to Congressman Cohen from Tennessee on MSNBC. That should be a wake-up call to anyone as to the IMPOTENCE of the Democratic Party AT THE PRESENT TIME.

    His main line of attack was criticizing Donald Trump for being a poor father to his 11 year old son.
    WOW! Let’s follow our new leader [over a cliff like a bunch of sheep].

  24. Thanks, Marv. As I’ve also said before, we all need to start working to change the paradigm that is killing our nation. We only have the vote, so far, so we’d better make sure that what gets elected or passed is in the best interest of the country, the entire country, the middle class of the country, or we will no longer be a democratic republic, warts and all.

  25. Earlier today I picked up my 2018 Primary Election Candidate packet from the County Clerk’s office.

    The rest of you could/should run for office too. Even running for a local position is attainable and would be helpful. I hope there are others among this group who are choosing to run for office this year.

    The change can start with us.

  26. Our founding fathers were driven by patriotism. It never occurred to them that anyone seeking the office of President of the United States would be primarily motivated by egotism and self-aggrandizement. It never occurred to them, because there was no federal taxation at the time, that members of Congress would be so totally beholden to the uber-wealthy who don’t want to pay their fair share of taxes, that they would allow someone patently incompetent to continue occupying the White House after demonstrating a clear pattern of unfitness for office. As Sheila has previously noted, perhaps the fat Dotard’s main legacy will be to stimulate the primeval patriotism upon which this country was founded. Let’s hope so.

  27. Our systems: political, economic, religious, cultural or social, etc., are rooted in the idea of morality. We can have all the rules, regulations and laws but without a core value that governs our actions for the greater good of society these controls can be circumvented. The Trumpet (aka – Agent Orange) is the overt manifestation. The Trumpet is not unique, he represents the ugly face of plutocracy, which had been hidden behind a mask.

    Union General Carl Schurz is quoted as saying:
    “Ideals are like stars; you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the sea fearing man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny”― Carl Schurz

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