During the years between the end of the American Revolution and the drafting and adoption of the constitution, there were lots of ideas of how the new country should govern itself. Some even suggested a monarchy and, while that idea didn’t gain much traction, it must have made the drafters a little nervous because they made sure that no President could ever assume the powers imbued in a King.
The constitution was deliberately designed to limit the power of the president by checking and balancing his powers and responsibilities with those of Congress and the Supreme Court. The President of the USA is not called the most powerful person in the world because of his unlimited authority but rather for the size of the American economy and the power of its armed forces and nuclear arsenal. In terms of getting his own way, a Prime Minister with a majority in Parliament can exercise more raw authority.
The drafters must have gotten it right since the American Republic (a better description than democracy) has survived presidents who were drunks, thieves, liars, and buffoons. Although the union (more perfect but not actually perfect) teetered at times – especially during the years leading up to and following the Civil War, it never collapsed.
There are those who worry that things have changed in America and that the current President might – by intent or by accident – break the system once and for all. There are reasons to fear. Congress has become increasingly partisan and, due to gerrymandering, the advantage of incumbency and the role of big money, less sensitive to bad polls or even bad election results. The Republicans have gained a tremendous edge in winning more seats that their popular votes warrant and seem unlikely to turn against the president, even as his approval ratings fall.
The recent sacking of the head of the FBI, while certainly neither unconstitutional nor unprecedented, is a worrying sign. The absolute insouciance of the Republican leadership regarding the matter is even more worrying. Worst of all are the rumours that Trump is demanding oaths of loyalty – not to the Constitution but to him personally. That begins to sound more kinglike all the time – or at least, more like a tin pot dictator of a banana republic, since kings are largely passé.
But there is hope on the horizon. Some Republicans have rediscovered their principals while others have begun to grow worried about their jobs. The courts have been consistently rolling back the efforts of state governments to gerrymander congressional districts in favour of their own party, which, if it continues, will severely limit the ability of the Republicans – who have natural advantages in the Senate and Oval Office – to dominate the House of Representatives, which was always meant to be a close reflection of the popular vote.
The renewed activism of American citizens is also a good sign but whether it can be maintained for two or four years is always open to doubt. Democracy is hard and fighting for your rights is a tiring business. The Democratic Party needs to change, too – finding ways to make allies in the Republican Party rather than vilifying them at every turn. I remain, as ever, optimistic.
And that’s ten minutes.