This is a holiday week and Nancy’s first week as FORMER acting-president of the university. And so I am feeling lazy and rather unmotivated. I can think of lots of stuff to write about, but those thoughts have been slow to coalesce into a coherent post.
I find myself drawn to the idea of commenting on the July 4th holiday. Our nation is two hundred and forty-seven years old and while I’m sure the founders would be heartened, and probably somewhat amazed, that their experiment in representative government has lasted so long, I am also certain they would be troubled by the strength and prevalence of anti-democratic forces in today’s society. Rarely in our history has our republic appeared so frail.
I could go on for pages and pages about the damage the Supreme Court has done to racial progress in this country with its rulings in the Harvard and UNC cases. Affirmative Action, though demonized on the right for decades, was the single most valuable tool institutions of higher education had at their disposal to rectify racial underrepresentation at elite schools caused by historical and systemic socio-economic inequality. Without it, lingering inequities in our society will only get worse. In the name of “leveling the playing field” the conservative majority on the Court has actually allowed existing structural inequalities — better funded schools in White communities; standardized tests that have been shown again and again to favor White students of means; access to tutors, college admission consultants, and other resources that only the wealthy can afford — to be determinative factors in college enrollment.
But I could also go on and on about the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Moore v. Harper case, in which it rejected a fringe conservative interpretation — the so called “independent state legislature” theory — of the Constitution’s mandates regarding the administration of federal elections. Basically, the decision rejects the notion that state legislatures can do anything they wish, without being subject to state judicial overview, with regard to the creation of Congressional maps and the implementation of election lawse. This decision was a victory for democracy and it offered some hope that this Supreme Court conservative majority, while willing to ignore precedent in cases addressing abortion, Affirmative Action, and other long-established principles, is not simply a jurisprudential arm of the Republican National Committee.
I could lament the fact that for four years we allowed our nation to be hijacked by a venal, narcissistic, kleptocratic, authoritarian thug, who very nearly destroyed our system of government.
But he didn’t destroy it. Instead, he was defeated, soundly and legitimately, and his defeat was affirmed by Congress and the courts. Moreover, we can take satisfaction in seeing his legal chickens come home to roost, and I am hopeful that he will spend the bulk of his remaining years fighting off one well-deserved indictment after another.
And so it goes; so it has always been in this country. Dreams of progress are tempered by signs of retrenchment. Frightening assaults on the norms of a democratic society are countered by reassertions of our shared values. Our imperfect union stumbles forward and teeters back, lurching toward an uncertain future. There is an elegant simplicity to the system set up in our Constitution, one for which I gained enormous appreciation as a student of U.S. history. That simplicity, however, masks an unfortunate truth: ours is an inherently conservative system. I don’t mean this in a “progressive-versus-conservative” context, though often the mechanisms of our government do seem to favor political conservatism.
Rather, I mean that our Revolution was essentially a rebellion of the upper middle class. Learned elites threw off a monarchical system that had outgrown its usefulness and replaced it with a system designed to preserve the social order as it was understood and valued at the time, and to slow-walk any possible radical change that might be contemplated in the future. In essence, the founders sought to alter completely America’s governing realities with as little disruption as possible.
And so, in a sense, the system they created is intended to be frustrating to those of us who wish for systemic reform. That stasis, the founders believed, was a reasonable price to pay for stability. One could argue that a more flexible, change-friendly system might NOT have survived the last Administration. On the other hand, such a system might have allowed us to address decades ago problems of racial and economic inequality that have proved historically intractable.
What’s my point?
I’m flattered that you think I have one.
I suppose I am reminded of the Winston Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” It is easy on this Fourth of July to lament all that is wrong with our country. And no doubt there is a lot to lament. But it’s not all terrible, and the alternatives — some of which we glimpsed as possibilities just a few years ago, much to our horror — range from “not ideal either” to utterly unthinkable. All of which leaves me thankful for the republic we have, even as I chafe at the stubborn pace of progress that it allows.
I hope you have a great week. Enjoy your holiday.