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Monday, July 3, 2017

Up for Grabs: The Survival of the Nation

By Harry T. Cook

During the Q&A period of a recent lecture, I was asked by a member of the audience if I thought the United States and its Constitution would be able to survive the upheaval of the first months of 2017. The substance of the lecture was an analysis of the Trump administration and its governance.
I began my answer with a complicated subordinate clause, only later getting to the verb, because I had to think as I went. The answer was that I did not know because we were on somewhat new ground with strange, unprecedented developments occurring on a daily basis. Therefore perhaps no one really knew.
Almost immediately I realized there was more to the question than my answer suggested. So I spoke of episodes in American history that might have caused people to ask the same question.
Surely, I said, our founding parents had to have been somewhat uncertain during the years between the end of the War of Independence and 1787, when the seven articles of the Constitution -- which did not fall to the ground from on high in their final form -- were finally ratified by 12 states.
Insufficient, as it turned out, the U.S. Constitution needed amendments and, after no smooth process, Congress produced 10 of them called "The Bill of Rights," ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. A number of representatives and senators came to see that, without the promulgation of such rights, it would be possible for the new nation to become a kind of monarchy of which they had only recently rid themselves.
Later in the American experiment came the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s, which turned out to be a nativist political party -- anti-immigrant and dedicated to what they called "pure elections," i.e. keeping "impure" foreigners (many of them Catholic) from voting. It is said that an argument with a Know-Nothing was like trying to converse with a full brass section playing a Beethoven finale at triple forte. Along with the pride of knowing nothing, does any of this sound familiar? The country survived that with its Constitution intact.
Its greatest challenge came next: the ruinous War Between the States that left well more than 600,000 dead on Union and Confederate battlefields. A bitter war it was, not only over slavery but economic jealousy and the legitimate role of the federal government. Thanks to the steady hand of Abraham Lincoln, America emerged from those terrible years tattered but in one piece.
Jim Crow was soon to follow and remains today among the dark places in our national life, despite the 14th and 15th constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal justice under the law and forbidding denial of the vote based on race. Both of these amendments have been sorely tried. The racial uprisings of the mid-1960s were a reaction to those times of trial. By 2008, American voters had elected an African-American president, though the noose reappeared here and there in otherwise polite company and the sale of guns went gangbusters. Yet there was nothing approaching a secession crisis over a president with black skin even with the Ku Klux Klan lurking.
In less stable countries, the Great Depression of the 1930s might well have rent asunder its political fabric. That did not happen in America, and there is little doubt that the labors of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his team made the difference there. Revolution of the kind history has documented elsewhere was far from materializing. Just the same, the Communist Party gained membership among Americans who had ceased to believe that economic democracy worked except for the wealthy who had been smart enough to get out of the market before the crash or simply had more wherewithal that the bottom did not fall out of their lives.
A generation later came the anti-Vietnam War resistance. One could feel the red-hot anger against its waging, against the appalling loss of more than 50,000 American military personnel. The war was Lyndon Johnson's downfall, leading to the election of Richard Nixon, the first president ever to resign the office under pressure not only from political higher-ups but a disgusted populous. Collapse came closer than we might think at this remove, but the Constitution survived and served as the lubrication for a peaceful transition to a post-Watergate administration.
So now recurs the original question as to whether the United States and its Constitution can survive the strain put upon both by Donald Trump and his team of grotesques. The answer I should have given at first was this: "America has suffered worse. The Constitution has seen the nation through hell and back a number of times in the 230 years since its formative articles were ratified. That's no guarantee for the next 230, but, in the meantime, it is an enviable record."
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On behalf of my editor, the good folks at Constant Contact who send out these essays at 6 a.m. ET each Friday and myself, I wish you a thoughtful Fourth of July holiday.

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