There once was a time when most Americans revered the Constitution. The charter outlined how we mortals structured our government so that reason and fairness were two of the guiding principles. But thanks to Donald Trump and the current generation of Republicans, our governmental structure no longer has clear definition. The rules governing what we can do are suddenly whimsical and chaotic. Where there used to be rhyme and reason, now we have fragmentation and dysfunction. Republican presidents, legislatures and judges have replaced the discretion with how we interpret the Constitution with blatant self-interest.
The reason is that Trump and his followers have little respect for preserving and strengthening the institutions and procedures that for so long have protected our democracy. If the rules do not provide most Republicans with unfair advantages, they rebel against the rules and try to change them, throwing caution to the wind.
The U.S. Constitution outlines a few basic principles that control how government in America is supposed to work. Just for quick review, here are the most fundamental of these.
- Checks and balances. Each level of government has three branches: (a) executive, (b) legislative, and (c) judicial.
- Levels of government. We have our national government, the federal government, the fifty states, and tens of thousands of local governments. Presumably the states are the most powerful because they came first. But the federal government has certain clear rights over the states, such as control of interstate commerce or the power to print money and control banking.
Local governments are closest to we the people and that gives the localities certain inherent advantages. For instance, public schools are controlled by local communities. Yet, the states give charters to local governments including school districts and thus the states can dictate a great deal about how we live, work and play.
Historically, the constitution has helped bring order to how our legislators pass laws and executives enforce the laws. But deciding who makes which rules can be extremely complicated. For two centuries, our constitution was helped by a strong measure of common sense among the electorate. An informed electorate with belief in the Constitution helped in determining which branches of government, or which levels of government (federal, state, or local) would make which decisions, and what would be the parameters of those choices.
Now we are finding that all levels and entities of government are wildly scrambling to advance their own power, regardless of the principles of the Constitution or historical precedent. In the world of the truly absurd, we currently find that the governor of Florida (Ron DeSantis) is telling public school districts that they cannot mandate students and teachers to wear masks to school to provide more protection from COVID-19. This is the kind of problem that historically has been solved by agreements largely forged through precedent and a commitment to promoting the common good. A school board would have control over the day-to-day operations of the school, and currently almost all local boards in the United States want to provide as much safety as possible for students, teachers, administrators and other staff.
But Republicans like DeSantis want to maximize the power of their offices and positions, showing little regard for America’s historical relationships branches and levels of government. Our system is now confusing, unpredictable, arbitrary, and capricious.
The answers to the “Who Decides” questions are not easy. The Trump era can show us how far off any beaten path we can go with these questions. It is enough to make your head spin. But that sort of dizziness has been avoided for most of the lifespan of our country because there were sound rules in our Constitution, and behavioral norms kept anyone from pulling DeSantis tricks.
Federalism was a brilliant idea conceived by our founders. It helps us determine publicly beneficial answers to a myriad of questions about “Who Decides.” But it is based on good will among citizens of different political persuasions. We will never recover from the damage of Donald Trump and his legions until they recognize the importance of governing by the rules that have provided us with a large measure of stability for most of the past two and a half centuries. Regrettably, the record of politicians gone wild in acknowledging their mistakes and reinstating the basic principles of governance is not good.
Progressives will need to reach out to others to try to forge relations built on reason and concern for the common good.