Don't Throw Out the Rascals, Throw Out the System

This last week the U.S. Constitution reached its 217th birthday. When the Founding Fathers, 55 men, all prominent, completed their task in mid-September 1787 and emerged from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the great sage of the delegates, Benjamin Franklin, was asked what exactly they had produced behind closed doors. He replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." 

In almost every meaningful respect, we have lost it.

Lately I have been reading about the last days of the Roman republic (146-44 BCE). Rome's long career of military conquest beyond its rational and defensible borders had put unbearable strains on the ancient senate. Roman armies had ceased to be manned by sturdy citizen soldiers from the small farms of Italy. They were increasingly replaced by foreign mercenaries who fought for money rather than liberty. Meanwhile, a motley potpourri of refugees had poured into the city of Rome from all the provinces and occupied territories. Many of them did not speak Latin. Most of them did not give a fig about the Roman constitution. They were less interested in becoming true Roman citizens than having access to the increasingly large and expensive grain doles that Rome established to buy off crime and urban unrest. Power-hungry men like Julius Caesar and Pompey bribed and hustled their way to the top, amassed large personal armies with which to overawe each other and all virtuous opposition, and provided the masses with mindless but showy entertainments to take their minds off of all that they were losing. (Today, we call that Keeping Up with the Kardashians).

Rome had gotten too large and unwieldy to be held together any longer by its ancient republican constitution. Earnest patriots like Cicero and Cato did their best extend the life of the old system with strenuous orations about virtue, simplicity, the rule of law, and why the republic still mattered. But when the inhabitants of a nation cease to share a common spirit, a common sense of mutual affinity and mutual sacrifice, a common sense of national identity, it's only a matter of time before the whole enterprise collapses.

Eventually, Caesar's grand-nephew Octavius (Augustus), gathered the shattered Roman state together under his personal dictatorship, solemnly staged a few faux-republican rituals now and then to allow people to pretend they still governed themselves, and got unapologetically with the real business of Rome: world empire. I believe we are approaching that moment.

Benjamin Franklin's republic was designed for a different time (when a musket was a high-tech weapon and the Atlantic Ocean was a moat of almost infinite width), and—frankly—for a different people (a largely English-derived population of highly educated farmers and small tradesmen). Our Constitution was designed to move public affairs forward at a glacial pace—which made sense in a three mile-per-hour world where nothing much was at stake. The Founders could not possibly have imagined the zip and frenzy and lethality of the modern world—cruise missiles, Internet commerce, the internal combustion engine, nuclear warheads, skyscrapers, or the capacity of a government agency (the NSA) to listen to every utterance of every single citizen whenever it wishes, for good reason or bad, instantly and secretly.

Like it or not, the United States is not a quiet and isolationist backwater any more. We somehow became the world's sole superpower and cultural hegemon, wealthy beyond dreams, with more than 750 foreign military bases scattered all over the planet, and a breathtaking, boundless appetite for resources, especially carbon. And yet we continue to try to govern ourselves with a constitution written by agrarians and isolationists dressed in wigs and waistcoats, who just wanted to be left alone by their national government.

Look at our national paralysis. We cannot pass immigration reform. While we dither 10,000 illegal immigrants cross our borders every single day. We cannot find consensus on a national health care delivery system. We cannot establish a sane national energy policy. We cannot agree on national educational standards, but by all measures we are slipping behind other nations in literacy, math, science aptitude, and engineering. We cannot decide who takes us into war, the House of Representatives (as the Founding Fathers insisted), or the president, who increasingly rules by executive order, mostly because nature abhors a vacuum and a great nation must do something.

Meanwhile, the people are fed a steady diet of what the Romans called "bread and circuses." We spend more time debating the felonies of football players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson than we do the "high crimes and misdemeanors" of our public officers. I've watched some of the ESPN discourse about these crises in the NFL, and on the whole the discussions have been more thoughtful, civil, and nuanced than the political debates on Fox and MSNBC.

We need to take our lesson from the Romans, so that we do not suffer their fate. Here's what that would mean. Wisdom consists of calling things by their right names. We are no longer a republic, and we aren't in any meaningful sense a democracy. The evidence suggests that we are now a global consumerist empire, a worldwide military-petroleum resource complex, ruled behind the curtain by corporate interests whose principal loyalty is not to America, but to profit. Even before Citizens United (2012), moneyed "interests" had virtually unlimited access to members of Congress, and now their ability to choke the system with money is essentially infinite. Many members of Congress really do set out to be good public servants and to represent the will of their constituents, but they are so completely suffocated by privilege and surrounded by individuals of vast wealth and power and presumption, that they soon cease to have a meaningful link to average Americans. The Constitution we like to celebrate (every September 17) is a lovely relic, a sweet chapter in civics textbooks, but it now bears very little resemblance to the way we are actually governed.

Second, we need to step back and rewrite the Constitution to address the pace, and the technological and demographic conditions of our time. In other words, we need to jettison the mythology of America so that we can get back on track with the modern mission of America. Given our global reach and our colossal international power, given our insatiable material desires, and given how dangerous the 21st century is proving to be, we are going to need a more efficient national government with fewer of the checks and balances that hold up legislation. We are going to have to grant the president more power, because otherwise he is just going to have to take it. It's this simple: we can either rewrite the constitution to get on top of the actual dynamics of the way things are done, and thereby stay in control, or we can cling to the fiction of our "republic" and seek to restore it, while the actual work of our government is done in secret conclaves by people who have never been elected.  

I know I sound pessimistic, but I'm not. We are a very great nation, filled with of people of integrity and creativity and good will. We just need to take back our government from those who have hijacked it. We deserve better. If it ain't broke don't fix it, of course, but since it is clearly broken right to the core, we the people have to step up and renew America.

We need to become Jefferson's people again—with some updates.