Constitutional Democracy: Why Our Faith Is Misplaced

Do you have faith in the American system of government? This article of faith is often invoked, left or right, and last night on Real Time with Bill Maher, Ralph Reed, a Trump supporter, invoked his faith in our constitutional democracy in response to an assertion by Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker.

After hearing Gopnik speak of Trump in fatalistic terms, Reed asked Gopnik if he really believed American democracy would not survive a Donald Trump presidency. Gopnik responded by saying, “American democracy will be in greater danger than its been since 1860 if Donald Trump were elected president.”

During this conversation, Reed audaciously said, “For somebody who lived through Watergate, and saw an abuse of power, and destruction of evidence, and supporting of perjury, and a true constitutional crisis — we survived that. And if we survived that, we can survive Hillary Clinton.” His cheeky point was Gopnik’s Trump assessment was over-the-top, especially because he [Reed] is able to admit a Clinton presidency will not mean the end of America. Reed later added, “I just don’t think you have enough faith in our constitutional democracy.”

The problem is invoking faith at all. No, I don’t have faith in our constitutional democracy because faith is defined as the complete trust in something. And when it comes to a collection of ideas inked centuries ago, it requires a collective understanding of what those ideas really mean along with civility, from electors to the elected, to honor those ideas. Without that understanding, and without that propriety, you are left only with a faded legal document.

I’m supposed to put my complete trust in a document penned by long-dead people as safeguard against a modern-day tyrant? Sorry if my confidence in the Founding Fathers does not include the belief that they have boundless ability to control contemporary outcomes. Faith is folly, especially when it comes to a centuries old document, written by noble but flawed people.

But even if we stick with the idea of faith, how do you know you’ve placed your faith in the right thing? Because if we should have any faith at all in the survival of American democracy, that faith is in the people’s ability to understand and honor those well-worn ideas. But when citizens call themselves constitutional patriots while flagrantly showing contempt for those indelible words, we have misplaced our faith in those words.

Because for the constitution to work, a level of decorum must prevail among political rivals. So when elected Senators use the threat of filibuster on every vote, or when they fail to hold hearings to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, they set aflame the threads of civility holding together this novel idea of American democracy, and they do so for the most absurd and superficial of political improprieties.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about a potential Donald Trump presidency.

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