Former President Trump taught us more about American government than all of the college professors have in a century. That is not because the scholars were uninformed; it is because they lacked the stage setting that made Trump’s instruction a showstopper. I think we should be grateful for the lesson in American democracy. Now it is up to us to decide how to apply what we have learned.
Perhaps the most critical problem is the influence of money in the political system. Money can be channeled through a series of organizations, thus hiding the original source, and can be used to influence the outcome of elections and legislation. The process was given sanctity as “free speech” by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The notion that money is free speech is an absurdity. The belief that money corrupts the democratic process is a certainty.
Steven Israel was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress in 2001. He served 15 years before voluntarily leaving for other activities. He said that he quit because raising the amount of money required to stand for election had become a fund-raising nightmare. He reported that, during his tenure, he attended 1600 fund raising events, and invested 4200 hours making phone calls asking for money. He raised 20 million dollars.
Author Mike Lofgren reports that Members of Congress typically devote two days out of five to fund raising. Research by Princeton Professor Martin Gilens indicates that when a few wealthy individuals want one thing and millions of ordinary citizens want something else, the game goes to the wealthy few. In Professor Gilens’ words, “The American government does respond to the public’s preferences, but that responsiveness is strongly tilted toward the most affluent citizens. Indeed, under most circumstances, the preferences of the vast majority of Americans appear to have essentially no impact on which policies the government does or doesn’t adopt.”
Money is not legitimate free speech, and a government controlled by money is not a democracy. Selling our government to the highest bidder needs to be changed.
The “electoral college” is an anti-democratic process that can seat a president of the United States who was not elected by American voters. It is a continuing threat to democracy and the stability of our country. Historian Alexander Keyssar writes in a recent book that Members of Congress have offered more than 800 amendments that, if passed, would have instituted election of a U.S. president by majority vote — to no avail. In another recent book Adam Jentleson reviews the most recent effort to abolish the electoral college. In 1969, polls indicated that 80 percent of Americans favored elimination of the electoral college process. A bill to amend the Constitution passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 339 to 70. The President of the United States supported the bill. It died in the U.S. Senate.
The U.S. Senate became a part of the U.S. Constitution to appease the slave states. Those states had fewer citizens than northern states. Electing two senators from each state regardless of population gave the slave states a blocking mechanism. After slavery ended, the Senate remained a legislative blocking mechanism. During recent years, a single senator has been able to place a “hold” on proposed legislation. That kills the legislation unless 60 percent of the senators vote to overcome the hold. Legislation dies in the U.S. Senate. California has a population of 39 million, Texas 28 million, and Florida 21 million. Each state has two senators. Seven states have a population of fewer than one million, but each sends two senators to Congress. The U.S. Senate is not a democratic institution. It needs to be reformed or abolished.
U.S. elections laws are an ever-changing mess. One of the most important elements of American success as a nation is our concept of being united. If we are going to maintain the united concept that gives us national power and prestige, we need a single set of election laws that apply to all of our elections and guarantee a right to vote. This is another process that will require constitutional revision.
There is a concept that has been floated in federal government called the “unitary executive.” It hasn’t generated much publicity. A unitary executive is a propaganda term for a dictator. John Yoo, who wrote a legal opinion for George W. Bush claiming that torturing prisoners was legal, also advocated the unitary executive concept which would make the President of the United States a dictator who could ignore the U.S. Congress and the laws they write. More recently, Attorney General William Barr was an advocate for the unitary executive. We need to outlaw this snake before it bites.
The U.S. Supreme Court determines whether laws are constitutional. The decisions of the Supreme Court are controversial, and the number of members of the court has been changed seven times because of controversy. It could happen again. The Supreme Court function of determining constitutionality of laws is not established by the U.S. Constitution, and it was not granted by Congress. The constitutional review function was assumed by the court in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. That self-license could be reversed by Congress if the Supreme Court makes unacceptable decisions as in determining that money is legitimate speech.
Thousands of military personnel and many civil government employees are subjected to intense background investigations and may be required to take a polygraph test before they are appointed or promoted to their jobs. Why should we give elected officials a free pass? All candidates for public office should receive rigorous vetting, including financial disclosure, to give voters an opportunity to decide whether the candidate is worthy of election to public office.
Our current educational curricula emphasize STEM programs: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, because those skills are necessary for many jobs. However, if we are going to maintain functional democracy, we also need to ensure that students receive basic civic education.
Jack Stevenson, who served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee and in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, the retiree reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.