At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman approached Benjamin Franklin and asked if we had a republic or a monarchy.
“A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin said.
These days it’s a democracy…again…if we can keep it.
Simply being a democracy does not make us anything special. There are over 120 democracies, hybrid governments, or autocracies that hide behind that term, among them Switzerland, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, and Togo.
Togo has been in the news of late for human rights abuse and torture by its ruling family, to wit, this headline in the L.A. Times
‘It’s just barbarity’: Togo’s political prisoners describe torture in police custody
Togo: democracy. Low on the index (3.05 out of 10) but higher than some.
On the same index the U.S. sits at 7.98, behind Malta, Canada, and New Zealand. Norway leads with 9.87.
I don’t mean to single out poor Togo for its human rights violations, but Togo has a ruling family, a situation with which we can identify.
The fact is not so much that we aren’t the bastion of democracy that we claim to be, but that we’re willing to give up the designation without a fight.
When a president posits the right to pardon himself for as yet unlisted and unproven crimes, and his supporters unanimously defend him, we have taken a major step toward abandoning our democracy.
When a president sidles up to the autocrats of the world and publicly touts their accomplishments while ostracizing our closest neighbors and allies, he has traded democratic principles for authoritarian mandates.
When a president utilizes his official powers to suppress bona fide opposition, then he might as well be ruling Togo, or any other country where legal opposition is met with gunfire and torture.
In the end, all that separates us from the third-world nations is not some talismanic word like democracy, but a very simple principle: the rule of law. When we lose that, the name we give ourselves will no longer matter. Trump’s attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI are the first salvos in his war against the nation’s laws—just a step on the way to his declaration that he is the law.
When Nixon attempted the same thing nearly fifty years ago, we balked. But Trump is not Nixon, and our respect for institutions has wavered during the interim. And what if Trump does fire Rod Rosenstein, and Jeff Sessions, and Robert Mueller, and what if—as many politicians claim—this causes a Constitutional crisis? Who is there to rectify it?
With a craven Congress and an ossified Supreme Court, the system of checks and balances has dissolved into a president who never engages with us commoners, Congressional sheep who fear only being shorn in their re-election bids, and a Supreme Court packed and ready to defend the indefensible for the foreseeable future.
Luckily, we’re a democracy.