Once again last week, we saw the clumsy, grinding machinery of American democracy at work. After months of debate, Congress passed a healthcare reform bill. The President of the United States signed it.
Then, after states filed lawsuits, and a length public trial before the Supreme Court, justices declared that the reform measure was, with a few semantic tweaks, constitutional.
Many conservatives reacted with venom.
Glenn Beck declared that Chief Justice John Roberts was a “coward”. Another right-of-center pundit suggested that it was time for right-thinking people to move to Texas, which should then secede from the union.
The law may be constitutional, they argued, but it is still an unfettered assault on the liberty of Americans, a despotic expansion of government authority.
Donald Trump described Roberts as “extremely disloyal.”
To which any thinking person replies: piffle.
As common sense opponents of “Obamacare” rightly point out, the healthcare measure was approved and vetted using a democratic system, which itself has been vetted and refined over the last couple of centuries.
This was not an illegitimate imposition of state power upon free citizens by an occupying force. Kings, despots and socialist cabals played no role in the process.
This was a decision made by elected representatives in the US House and Senate, signed into law by a sitting and duly elected president, one who who campaigned for election and won promising to focus on this issue.
It was then vetted by a free and independent judiciary.
There is, furthermore, an obvious and fair method for reversing the policy, one that does not require anyone to resort to the barricades.
All you have to do is find candidates willing to stand for election, and citizens willing to vote for them and this policy can be overturned. As they say, elections matter.
It’s important to note that fears that America’s democratic system has deteriorated into despotism is hardly the sole purview of the right.
The flooding of elections with cash donated by millionaires and billionaires has sparked widespread alarm on the left, and among many moderates and independents. There are concerns about voter suppression and ballot stuffing.
I think it’s reasonable for people to be wary about all these things, from the constitutionalism of our laws to the freedom and fairness of our voting system and the glut of campaign cash.
But it’s important to keep some perspective. Our system is more fair, transparent and accessible to everyday citizens than it has been at any time in our past.
Since the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, campaign fundraising laws and ethics rules have cleaned up a great deal of the slime in Washington.
For all its flaws, the age of digital media means that politicians and their lives are open to far more scrutiny by far more people. We also see a much more rapid turnover of lawmakers.
The system isn’t perfect. The Citizens United decision, in particular, has raised some big questions about the role of cash in elections.
If dollars are a form of speech, doesn’t that mean zillionaires will get a lot more time at the podium than the rest of us? Is that a good thing?
But we’ve gone through waves of concern about these things before, and we’ve gone through periods of reform.
The truth is, American democracy isn’t pretty to watch. But at the end of the day, it still grinds forward, struggling to address the big questions, the big concerns, the big opportunities of our society.
The next stage in the conversation comes in November 2012.
There again, the most important thing isn’t who wins or loses, but that the system works, deciding peacefully and fairly who will lead the world’s most powerful, diverse and complex society for the next four years.
I suspect that it will work just fine.
As always, your comments welcome.