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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Constitutional conundrum

by John Brummett | January 6, 2022 at 2:58 a.m.


On this first anniversary of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol executed by primitive know-nothings dispatched by the horridly ego-mad Donald Trump, let us consider nothing less than the dysfunction of America's non-democracy.

An important if flawed guest essay was published Tuesday in The New York Times by Jedediah Britton-Purdy, a Columbia University constitutional law professor working on a book proposing a way to save our democracy.

Its essence is that our constitutional form of government no longer works but embeds and elevates obstructive minority rule in a way the Republicans have come to master and exploit, thus destroying America's sweetly vague but never-real principle of government of, by and for the people.

I agree with the essence, but differ with the proposed solution. The essay wants to amend the Constitution to implement more direct democracy in our presidential and U.S. Senate elections. I see that as impractical and doomed considering the insulation of non-democratic minority power provided in a Constitution with a high threshold for amending even in sane times and out of the question in these times.

You say you want two-thirds of the Congress to ask 38 states to agree on a constitutional amendment? Have you gotten a load of this Congress? Have you taken a look at these states--23 red, 17 blue, 10 varying shades of purple and the red-or-blue 40 contemptuous of each other?

That's why I spend so much time calling instead on national Democrats to be more politically practical--incremental, consensus-seeking and not progressively bold--so that they might compete smarter even as the deck is stacked against them.

The essay summarized the dysfunction of our Republican minority rule as effectively as I've seen, prompting me to quote the key paragraph in full:

"At a more basic level, today's Republican Party succeeds only because the Electoral College, the Senate and the Supreme Court all tilt in its favor. That system has handed conservatives a 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that only one Republican has won the presidential popular vote after 1988. A party doesn't have to persuade majorities that it has the best vision for the country. It only has to persuade a selective minority that the other side is a mortal threat. Its grasp on power may be too tenuous for the party to govern effectively, but it has offered conservatives a fine perch to weaken economic and environmental regulation, appoint conservative judges and launch attacks on the democratic system itself."

The best phrase in that paragraph: Republicans need only "to persuade a selective minority that the other side is a mortal threat."

That's the clear GOP formula: Keep 50 percent plus one in 23 red states and a few purple ones in mortal fear that, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders warns in Arkansas, the woke socialist baby-killers are coming to destroy us.

For the record: "Woke" in that context means racially sensitive. "Socialist" means believing in government programs to help people. "Baby- killers" means persons supporting a woman's decision-making for her own body.

Polls consistently show most Americans favoring racial sensitivity, government programs and women's rights.

The essay goes on to say that the simple popular-vote election of the president would require no arcane process like the congressional certification exercise that screwballs disrupted a year ago today.

As the essay explains, Trump and his bizarre band of lawyers were able to threaten the overthrow of an American presidential election--and convince pliable yahoos of their nonsense--only because the national presidential election didn't value that 7 million more Americans voted for Joe Biden. It valued instead 50 different state decisions, some of which were vulnerable to right-wing demagoguery and manipulation.

With the national disease properly diagnosed, the issue becomes treatment. Constitutional reform is prohibitive in today's climate under the processes laid out by the Constitution itself.

Masterful Republican minority manipulation is a constant; it's the only way the GOP can hold power looking forward amid demographic and generational change. Republicans rely solely on rural conservative white people watching Fox News or even crazier TV.

That leaves only the ability of Democrats to achieve power, even if by only 50-50 in the U.S. Senate, and, more vitally, hold it once they achieve it.

It's not a question of whether climate change ought to be addressed more boldly, or child care subsidized more widely, or Medicare expanded to attend to the elderly's costs in medical attention to dental and hearing problems. All should be.

But the majority can never hope to Build Back Better if the minority keeps gaming the system while Democrats play into the minority's hands.

Progressives tell me I'm putting political tactics over important policy addressing human needs. Indeed I am. I'm citing the time-honored concept of crawling before walking and walking before running.

You have to save America before you build it back better.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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