Institutions in Crisis

Our democratic institutions are failing crucial tests.

Nelson's Rum

The history of American democracy is a history of imperfection. From the moment the Declaration of Independence declared universal equality to be a self-evident truth, American ideals have existed in tension with the realities of power. American victory in the Revolution meant disaster for slaves who had responded to British promises of freedom. The North’s failure to pursue Reconstruction after 1877 allowed Jim Crow to entrench itself for generations. Woodrow Wilson advocated for self-determination while segregating the federal government. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1901 and former Crimson President, interned Japanese-Americans even as they fought with their fellow citizens for the Four Freedoms in Europe and Asia. And Lyndon B. Johnson expanded access to voting rights, healthcare, and education while condemning tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese to violent deaths.

Nevertheless, the American system—domestically and globally—has, for all its manifest flaws, been a great engine of progress. At home, a federal court system that once declared white supremacy to be a cornerstone of American nationhood this month extended the Civil Rights Act to forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Abroad, a world order of empires that fell apart twice in the space of twenty-five years has transformed itself into a collection of independent nations bound by international norms. These characterizations by no means imply that the world is without problems; rather, they suggest that the world of today is one that would arouse the envy of past generations.

Two events of the past week, however, should remind us just how fragile the institutional foundations of this progress are. First, Senate Republicans’ decision to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations in order to confirm Neil M. Gorsuch’s appointment represents not only an escalation of growing partisanship, but also an abdication of moral authority. Judge Gorsuch’s ideology is offensive enough to the institutions that have made America strong over the past century. But what is more grating is that his confirmation will mean the success of a rank fraud perpetrated against every voter that cast a ballot for Barack Obama.

Fraud may seem like a strong term, but it accurately conveys the sophistry behind the Republicans’ sudden discovery of the so-called “Biden Rule” as they searched for reasons not to confirm Obama’s nominee, Merrick B. Garland ’74, to Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat. Even if Joe Biden had suggested in one 1992 speech that Presidents should lose all Constitutional legitimacy in the final calendar year of their terms, the idea would have been absurd—and far from the first incomplete thought uttered by the former Vice President. As it happens, he did not say that, and only argued—stupidly, but far less criminally so—that Presidents should wait until after Election Day to nominate candidates for Supreme Court vacancies.

In declaring President Obama—winner of 65 million votes in 2012—illegitimate before the expiration of his term, Senate Republicans began to debase the presidency far before they supported Donald J. Trump’s elevation to that office. Such institutional malfeasance is how republics fail.

Beyond this domestic failure, the United States Congress once again looked morally bankrupt last week as Syria’s blood-soaked regime launched another chemical weapons attack against its own citizens. This moral abdication is a bipartisan one; President Obama’s inaction against Bashar al-Assad will rank with Bill Clinton’s inability to end the Rwandan Genocide as one of the great blunders in the history of American foreign relations.

And yet, for all of Obama’s culpability, once again Congress must bear a large part of the blame for the ongoing breakdown of international institutional order that has paralleled the shortcomings of the United States’ domestic political life. Despite the principled stands of Senators like Tim Kaine, Congress has failed even to vote on military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, let alone on the more controversial issue of attacking Assad’s regime.

This failure to act on a major issue of foreign affairs parallels the myopia of the misbegotten Garland-Gorsuch saga. In this case, Congressional inaction has thrown the public’s role in approving military action into doubt and allowed American strategy to dither as a state collapses and American allies like Jordan confront the resulting humanitarian crisis. The only firm statements of American policy have been ever more indefensible attempts to abandon and ignore the victims of U.S. inaction.

At the time of writing, the Trump administration’s missile strikes against a Syrian Air Force base may represent a more decisive turn in American policy. Without a clear strategy and explicit Congressional approval, however, these attacks will only represent another isolated and constitutionally suspect action by an incompetent administration. Moreover, this response comes only after the President gave carte blanche to dictators everywhere by explicitly reneging on American commitments to human rights.

Taken together, the Gorsuch and Syrian affairs represent institutional stagnation that ought to cause profound discomfiture. American ideals are only as strong as the moral fortitude of the institutions that uphold them. When Congress fails its own citizens and the hopes of people around the world—as it has this past week—it echoes the worst moments of the American experience. Justice and war are the two most fundamental concerns of government. When our representatives do not concern themselves with either, we ought to worry.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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