Our institutions matter. Our Constitution matters.
No, our system of Government isn’t perfect. But point me to a better one. Okay, maybe we could vote differently, or set up representation in a way that made more sense. Nevertheless, the Constitution is there to protect everyone, in recognition of a democracy peopled by the feisty, the iconoclasts, the oddballs, the convicted.
So its understanding of who constitutes everyone has rightly expanded, the truth remains: America was colonized by rabble-rousers, risk-takers, greedy mofo’s who didn’t like rules, and petty empire-builders. To paraphrase: England didn’t send us its best. England sent criminals and dissidents, those who refused to bend to the status quo, hardliners, greedy bastards, outcasts, and the occasional rapist. And for that motley crew to peacefully co-exist, we all had to agree to some baseline propositions. Namely, you do you, and I’ll do me, and instead of killing each other over a dispute, we’re going to build this system of laws and courts that ultimately allows society to function in a way that enables capitalism.
And so it went with three branches of government, equal in power, checking and balancing itself out. Disagreeing parties grappling over power in proscribed ways to ensure that, when the tables turned, the disadvantaged could trust the advantaged to respect the institutions. All of it based in a common understanding of reality: we are always going to disagree. There will always be tension between chaos and order. A pluralistic society is a nightmare to maintain peacefully, and yet we do it because we like the outcome of all of this more-or-less peaceful coexistence. We aren’t tolerant because we are good, we are tolerant because we need others to give us the same courtesy we are extending by minding our own damn business.
We don’t have to like how others use their freedom. Football players can protest any way they see fit. Barbie pundits can complain about how said protest is carried out. The pundit is allowed to look stupid defending her right to criticize how someone else is executing their right to free speech by claiming her right to free speech. The protest goes on indifferent to opinion, because the opinion is breath and vibration and is gone, while the law remains.
We can wish to convert the whole country to a single belief system and to justify laws based on those beliefs. But we can’t, and we should be grateful. Because my inability to force everyone to be strictly rational about everything means that the local Christian Scientists couldn’t deny my mother medical care in the face of cancer. And I’ll happily bow to the Constitution limiting my right to enforce my belief system on others because it equally denies the Christian Scientists the ability to dictate my life according to their beliefs.
We can want a Supreme Court that rules according to our religious beliefs. (How is a Christian wanting a Supreme Court to uphold religiously-motivated laws any different than a Muslim wanting a legal system that enforces Sharia law?) But the risk to the system as a whole to throw a temper tantrum about the rules not breaking your way this time ignores the fact that the system means the rules will break to your preference in another way, at some other time… It is shortsighted and jeopardizes the one thing that makes a pluralistic society work: the agreement to play one game according to one set of rules. We aren’t going to get a monolithic society, so chucking the ground rules is beyond dangerous. You might as well replace the foundation of your house with wonder-bread.
There will be consequences. This backlash ultimately won’t be partisan, it won’t skip the Fox News crowd… What we are dealing with here isn’t the second coming of the Third Reich, it is the redux of the French Revolution. The peasants are rising, some initially called by seductive falsehoods (it is all someone else’s fault), but eventually the entire political spectrum will feel this truth: there are more of us than there are of them.
We can disagree about substance. That’s what we do in America. But we used to play by impartial ground rules set up in the Constitution, fleshed out in the Bill of Rights, and strengthened by decorum, norms, and 200 years of legislation. Not out of the goodness of our hearts, but in the recognition that anything I can do to you, you can do to me when the balance of power shifts.
The power will shift. If the GOP is smart, it will start reigning itself in, re-asserting the rules for itself that it wishes the Dems to abide by, and valuing the rules of the game to the same degree they seem determined to win the game.
American Democracy is the game. If one side wins, the game ends. Don’t forget: Game over isn’t a good outcome. For anyone.