Two events that feed America’s demise
America is dead. Long live the United States.
On April 6, America’s celebrated civic culture turned inward and ate itself alive, What died was not the United States, but its spirit — that “city upon a hill,” as John Winthrop declared back in Colonial times, and “the best hope for the world,” as Thomas Jefferson proudly affirmed about the new country.
America’s death signals the end to Thomas Paine’s defiant declaration of, “We have the power to start the world over again,” and Herman Melville’s affirmation that Americans were destined to “bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
America’s death was the consequence of two political actions.
The first was when the United States Senate changed its rules so that a majority of senators could confirm Neil Gorsush to the U.S. Supreme Court; the other was when President Trump launched an air strike in Syria after telling, after telling reporters he was not about to tell anyone about what he would do.
These two events altered the delicate balance between the type of democracy in which the intrinsic values of “America” could survive, and those of any other country in which political ambitions and personal interest drive governmental action.
Regarding the bombing of Syria, the people of the United States have put an end to what all Americans have taken as dogma — that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.” In any other government, Trump could keep silent about what he would do even on issues of war and peace, but not in America. Here, “We, the people of the United States” are the sovereign, and governmental action must achieve our consent, especially in questions of war.
This key element of the American ideal is gone, withered away by Trump’s assertion that he does not tell anyone about what he is going to do. In this regard, the presidency of the United States has morphed into a monarchy, one in which the King declares war, raises an army and launches military offenses simply because he is the King.
All of this, of course, is taking place as Congress surrenders its constitutional responsibilities and the American people remain silent, ignorant of the transcendence of what is happening.
The other cause of America’s death was the changing of Senate rules to allow Gorsush to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by a majority vote instead of the traditional 60 votes to get the matter to the floor. Historically, the rules of the Senate have embodied the belief that wise policies are not determined simply by the counting of votes, which would inevitably give way to the political ambitions of politicians and to the personal interests of the powerful.
Instead, the free, unfettered and unlimited debate in the Senate, as determined by its rules and traditions, is testament to the belief that the interest of the country can best be determined by a legislative process that depends on the free expression of ideas, of compromise — a process that strives for consensus. These rules and traditions used to be venerated in the Senate because they were seen as providing individual senators and numerical minorities with the means to influence the Senate’s agenda and decisions. Without them, we would be under the rule of the majority — something the Founding Fathers knew could be oppressive.
Senators would exercise self-restraint so that the Senate as an institution could operate with reasonable order and efficiency, and it was this respect for rules and traditions that made the Senate different from other legislative bodies. The political winds are always shifting, but the Senate was to be a stable and deliberate body, expected to act responsibly and thoughtfully if not necessarily harmoniously.
These were the peculiarities of governance that made America great. Once this is broken, the country is left not with a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” but one in which the political system depends on the whims of the majorities — whether they be liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.
As such, the America we idealized is dead, and unless you believe in resurrection we are left only with the United States — a country governed like many other countries in the world.
Fernando Pinon is a professor of political science at San Antonio College. He is the author of “Searching for America in the Streets of Laredo.”