How the System Got Broken, and Why It Can’t Be Fixed

From Bill Moyers:

Whatever happened to the separation of powers?

By Neal Gabler
March 13, 2017

The system wasn’t supposed to work this way. The Founding Fathers deliberately devised a structure in which someone like Donald Trump — a vain, self-centered, mendacious demagogue — could never become chief executive, and in which the legislature could never be captured by a reckless, ideologically obsessed minority bent on overriding the majority interests of Americans. Those Founders labored to create an independent judiciary that was not captive to any single ideology or party. They carefully crafted a set of checks and balances in which no single branch of government could overpower another, and in which each held its own prerogatives dearly. In doing so, they thought they had provided posterity with a wise, cautious and magnanimous governmental operation that would serve the larger public weal rather than advantage any particular group or party, and that could withstand the gusts of any given historical moment.

It actually worked surprisingly well for 250 years, which is not to say that it didn’t have plenty of hiccups or that special interests weren’t often privileged. But it doesn’t work anymore, and though I am optimistic enough to believe that we will have a new president and Congress someday who will change policies and perhaps set us back on the road to rationality and common decency (“Make America Good Again”), the Trump presidency and the Republican Congress have nevertheless exposed the flaws in the system itself.

The prognosis isn’t good: These flaws are embedded in the Constitution and cannot be repaired without wholesale change, which isn’t coming. These defects are now openly visible for the next demagogue and the next gaggle of political hypocrites and power mongers to exploit. You can forget all the alleged fail-safes. The Constitution was supposed to protect us from this. It was expressly designed to do so. It didn’t.

The system failed because the Founding Fathers did not anticipate anything like the modern Republican Party. On the contrary, they believed that extremism and overweening self-interest of the sort Republicans routinely display could always be quarantined. Were they wrong! Instead of the Constitution circumscribing reactionary populism, reactionary populism has circumscribed the Constitution. That is where we are now. And there is no way out.

The Founding Fathers weren’t naive idealists. They understood the deficiencies of human nature, which is why they felt the need to devise structural defenses against them. “If men were angels,” wrote James Madison in Federalist No. 51, “no government would be necessary.” But men weren’t, so it was. Still, our forebears were comforted by four assumptions that would underpin American democracy — four assumptions that let them believe their Constitution would sustain the new nation.

First, they believed that a national government would attract what John Jay described as the “best men,” men “whose wisdom,” Madison would concur in Federalist #10, “may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” In short, they envisioned a government of sagacious men of good will who set aside their own interests for the country’s: the “best and brightest.” Instead, we seem to have gotten the “worst and dumbest.” Examples abound, and this week’s rollout of the new Republican health care plan, which is likely to deprive at least 10 million Americans of health insurance while further enriching the rich is just another vivid demonstration of how the Founders overestimated the quality of future representation as well as our representatives’ dedication to the larger public good. Paul Ryan, the Republicans’ much-vaunted intellectual, doesn’t even know how insurance works!

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