An Upgrade, not a Rebuild
Bear with me for a moment, but to understand the conservative case for preserving the guardrails of democracy, one has to understand the M1 Abrams main battle tank. Introduced in 1980, it was the most powerful land warfare vehicle ever devised by the mind and industry of man. In 2022 it is still unmatched on the battlefield.
But it’s not quite the same M1. It’s had gun upgrades, armor upgrades, and targeting upgrades (to name just a few of the improvements over more than 40 years of service). There was the M1, the M1A1, the M1A2, and now the M1A2 SEP. It’s still the same tank. It even looks much the same. But it’s substantially better—built to withstand the challenges of modern war.
And so it is with the Constitution and American democracy. First, there was Democracy One, the original document that was, at the time, a remarkable advance for democracy and human rights, but it was flawed. It permitted slavery. Its most potent human rights protections—the guarantees of the individual liberty in the Bill of Rights—didn’t apply to the states. So the system was unstable. It was not going to age well.
And it didn’t. The nation ripped itself apart in the Civil War, and the victorious Union created Democracy Two, with a substantially updated Constitution that, over time, extended the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty from every organ of American government. But still, it wasn’t enough. Black Americans continued to confront the “badges and incidents of slavery” in the form of a brutal system of racial oppression that depended on both public and private discrimination.
So along came Democracy Three, the post-Civil Rights era. The power of that state expanded dramatically. The government began to touch virtually every aspect of commercial life. The administrative state grew until it became the most potent branch of government. And while the United States is absolutely more just than it was—and citizens enjoy a greater degree of legal equality than in any previous iteration of the American experiment—the strains are beginning to show.
Congress, intended to be the most powerful branch of government, is now the weakest. Campaign finance reforms that were intended to empower the grassroots and disempower the wealthy elite have backfired. Radicalized small-dollar donors drive the financial bus. Progressive reforms that were designed to give power to the people through primaries have sidelined political parties. Now small minorities of activist primary voters exercise disproportionate power and further polarize our politics.
Taken together, these developments mean that
Article from Reason.com