For More Than A Century, Americans Fine-Tuned The Rules Of Democracy. Why Have We Stopped?Roundup
tags: Supreme Court, elections, voting rights
Gregory P. Downs is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War and The Second American Revolution: The Civil War-Era Struggle over Cuba and the Rebirth of the American Republic.
The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump and the subsequent rightward turn of the Supreme Court are both a disaster and an opportunity for Democrats. The disaster is visible everywhere around us; the opportunity, understandably, is harder to discern. But the political system’s failure to prevent the election of a minority-backed, outrageously unqualified candidate, or to restrain him sufficiently once elected, demands that Democrats ask not just how to defeat Trump but how to fix the political system that seems prepared to ratify many of his party’s actions.
But asking questions about changing the way political power is allocated seems risky. The response is predictable: that isn’t the way the United States does things. In the popular imagination — especially among the political press — the United States’ past is a story of political stability, of battles fought sharply but within defined and persistent boundaries. The nation’s people and its policies have changed; its procedures — the argument goes — have not and therefore should not.
While this preference for stability may be justified as strategy, it is vacuous as history. The United States has survived not by keeping the same system but by transforming its rules at crucial moments.
Our historical amnesia about the reworking of our political system has significant consequences for the way we think about politics today. More so than in the past, U.S. politicians — even purportedly radical ones — have deeply constrained views about changing the rules of the political game: how the president is selected, how seats are allocated in Congress, how many states exist, how voting rights are defined, how much power the Supreme Court wields. Many of these contemporary constraints developed after World War II, in a broad liberal faith that a well-functioning Supreme Court can help fix the country without dirtying politicians’ hands.
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