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.