When he emerged from the Pennsylvania State House on September 17th, 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether the citizens of the new United States would have a monarchy or a republic. Pausing for a moment on the stairs, he responded “A republic, if you can keep it”. Even at the triumphant birth of a new nation, Franklin knew that the government he had helped bring into the world must be maintained through constant vigilance and action.
All nations can fall. All democracies can slip into autocracy. Sparta and Athens did both, as did Ancient Rome. France has managed to emerge from autocracy again and again only to succumb to the temptations of imperial rule. There is no reason to believe the United States is fundamentally different.
Though Frances Fukayama argued in 1989 that the rise and spread of liberal democracy may have meant the end of history, recent events have challenged that thesis. Though America likes to pat itself on the back for having found the perfect form of government (or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the worst form of government, except for all the others”), there are plenty of reasons to believe that liberal democracy—whether in its purely democratic, republican, or hybrid forms—is on the brink of some kind of disaster.
The United States, in particular, seems closer to the edge than any time since the 19th Century. We have become a starkly divided nation, and support for liberal norms and institutions are shockingly low. At the root of our failure is our inability to deal with basic flaws in our Constitution.
As evidenced by the Three-Fifths Compromise (a compromise reached between Northern and Southern delegates that agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person when counting population in order to determine Congressional representation), the Constitution was less a timeless document than a set of accommodations to the political realities of that moment. Though that particular compromise has been properly excised from our founding document, some of the fundamental problems remain. In particular, the outsized importance that the Senate and the Electoral College plus Congressional gerrymandering gives to the citizens of sparsely populated states has fueled the drive of our partisan division and the radicalism of the modern Republican Party.
Such relics still operative in our Constitution has caused our political system to calcify, which is a mortal danger. As Jared Diamond argued in Collapse, societies that do not adapt to changing realities are the most likely to be destroyed. And there is no doubt that modern America is struggling to adapt to the realities of the contemporary world, whether that means the echo chambers of the internet, growing automation, income inequality, the rise of other Great Powers to challenge American hegemony, or the unknowable world that will be created by anthropogenic climate change.
This recitation may sound quite academic and even highbrow to some people. But that does nothing to diminish its importance.
We have to get past that type of deflection and take head on and deal clearly and firmly with these ever too real threats to the survival of America as we have known it.