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The politics of whether democracy’s guardrails will hold in the USA


Practical Politics 

Like it or not, the fate of African Americans is closely tied to the fate of the USA per se. While many of us have for years sought to tangibly reconnect to all or some part of Africa, that task is still incomplete. Tangible Pan Africanism for us remains an unfilled dream. (Remember the prideful chests many of us felt relating to the two Black Panther movies?)

Too many crazy and ill-informed white people converging simultaneously can deep-six us all in pretty short order. That is a reality we have to keep only slightly hidden somewhere in our collective minds.

American democracy has no one fail-safe button and it can slip overboard more quickly than many of us realize--with or without our blessings.

The five major fail-safe buttons we've been taught to depend on have not really been put to the ultimate tests yet---in spite of the U.S. Civil War, two world wars and the daily threats of WWIII being started either accidentally or deliberately.

Those major fail-safes for American democracy--listed below---need to be taught about in American public schools a lot more broadly than is currently the case in American public education. And when we don't spend the necessary time teaching and training our youth to know, protect and appreciate the innards of American democracy as a regular part of public education in a consistent manner, we really risk the downfall of the American system sooner rather than later.

The Trump times that we are going through now are a real reminder of how well our educational system has not well prepared the American public for threats to the American democratic system. Typical, but consistent, carnival barking, pervasive lying and challenging the American legal system in both stark and subtle ways has driven American democracy to an unexpected brink. Mr. Trump will not be re-elected POTUS in November of this year, but he is going to make a real bloody mess of trying to win that prize.

Where are the guardrails that should have already prevented where we are now? 

To begin with, it can be said (as many others already have), that  "the United States government was built to withstand attempts to concentrate power in the hands of a single leader by vesting authority in Congress and the courts to check the president. "  The great expectation is that any attempted presidential dictatorship will not survive the expected pushback from the courts, Congress and the myriad of other governmental institutions that should neutralize such an attempt.  There also exist several national agencies that operate independently of the POTUS plus decades of governmental precedent that are supposed to create additional guardrails for democracy. Yet, here we are.

The American judicial system is supposed to always be a major arbiter of whether policies spearheaded by Congress or the president are legal. However, when private money and special interests-driven factions of society hatch a long-term plan to hijack the courts (e.g., the Federalist Society), American democracy's dirty underwear is very easily shown and lately, has been.

 And where else is the institutional  push back?  Certainly, the Constitution requires every member of Congress and every member of the court to take an oath to support the Constitution.  Thus, the prevailing premise goes, if we have a president who steps out of his or her lane, and tries to exceed his or her constitutional power (thinking himself/herself to be the reincarnation of Julius Caesar or such),  these other institutions will effectively push back. 

But what happens when a POTUS has an outsized influence on the court system?  In the short time he was in office, Trump appointed more than 200 federal judges in four years in office. This is only about 30% fewer than Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did in two full terms of office. In 4 years, Trump appointed 54 judges to the nation’s 13 powerful federal appeals courts (compared with 55 appointed by Obama and 62 by Bush). He also appointed three U.S. Supreme Court justices, reportedly more than any other president since Ronald Reagan. Thus, the U.S. now has a conservative supermajority now serving on the nation’s highest court and driving America's judicial ship. Some of those Trump appointees have made radically conservative rulings in  Trump's wake, and may help Trump return to the presidency through such tactics. Thus that particular "guardrail" may be neutralized, although thus far the Supreme Court has ruled against Trump in more cases than any president in modern history. We await to see whether the Supreme Court rules that Trump is immune from federal prosecution by dent of his former presidency. That would be a very significant sign that the legal guardrail against POTUS extremism would be seriously weakened and vulnerable.

Congress, as the legislative branch of government, theoretically has the power to rein in any president. It is the only branch with the constitutional power to tax and spend, it can pass laws limiting the executive branch's regulatory powers (especially with a president set on slashing regulation), and it is able to impeach, convict and remove a president from office – but only with great difficulty (no POTUS has ever been removed through the impeachment process, though two have been officially impeached by Congress). But Congress's authority as a major guardrail against presidential extremism means little when Congress is controlled by the major political party headed by the POTUS. 

And that folks is where we are presently. We seem to be primed for a major breakdown of American democracy. Hopefully such a chill wind will simply blow past and we will render it a cautionary tale to be better avoided in the future.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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