Will this generation meet Ben Franklin’s challenge — will we ‘keep’ our constitutional republic?
“A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” Ben Franklin’s response to a Philadelphian who asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced indicated that those who wrote the Constitution knew the vessel of American self-governance they had launched was fragile.
Successive generations of Americans have met Franklin’s challenge and “kept” America’s constitutional republic for 233 years — by acting in ways consistent with sustaining a common enterprise: America’s representative democracy. Unfortunately, that sense of Americans sharing a common democratic enterprise has waned in recent years.
The founding generation, led by George Washington, established constructive precedents and examples for how to make the American republic work, such as the peaceful transfer of power following contested elections and governance based on the rule of law, not the dictates of popular leaders, such as Washington.
Subsequent generations maintained America’s representative democracy, despite a bloody Civil War, domestic political and economic shocks, and threats from abroad. They did so by generally adhering to the founding generation’s governance model and also by expanding Constitutional rights and protections to a growing number of citizens, for example by ending slavery and instituting universal adult suffrage. As a result, the American constitutional republic has, since 1789, made progress towards becoming a “more perfect union.”
But past progress is no guarantee of continued success.
Today, too many Americans pay lip service to their democratic inheritance, but act in ways that are corrosive to a representative democracy. There are several trends in American politics today that — if not reversed — could lead to failing Franklin’s challenge of “keeping” our republic.
First, while free and fair elections are the beating heart and the hallmark of America’s representative democracy, their legitimacy is being undermined in two ways: false claims of voting fraud that lead to voting restrictions, and gerrymandering of election districts, which privileges some voters over others.
Claims of voting fraud to question the legitimacy of elections have moved from the fringe of American politics to the mainstream. A sitting President made demonstrably false claims that he lost re-election in 2020 because of fraud and then — without evidence — tried to convince state and federal officials to change the results. Based on lies about the election, 147 Republican members of the House and Senate voted against certifying the Electoral College results for the 2020 election — after a mob attacked the Capitol to prevent the certification. The now former-president and his followers have continued using lies about the 2020 election as a fundraising tool and to encourage other election fabulists to run for state offices that oversee elections, which, if they are elected to those offices, could provide real reasons to question subsequent election results.
Studies of voting fraud have consistently found it to be extremely rare. For example, a review of 1 billion votes cast in all American elections during the period 2000 – 2016 found only 44 ballots to have been fraudulent. Nonetheless, in response to unsupported claims of the threat of election fraud, a number of states have either passed or are seeking to pass laws that have the effect of making it harder for citizens to vote. In their 2022 legislative sessions, for example, 39 states have considered some 393 restrictive voting laws that would disproportionally affect minority voters.
While voting restrictions make it more difficult for citizens to vote, gerrymandering privileges one party’s voters over others. For example, majorities of voters in the 2018 elections in Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina voted for Democrats, but — because of gerrymandering of election districts — Republicans won the majority of those states’ legislative seats. While both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, Republicans lead nine of the top ten gerrymandered states. Worse may lie ahead, since the Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that Federal Courts cannot determine whether states’ electoral maps are made for partisan advantage.
Undermining the legitimacy of elections helps undermine confidence in America’s institutions of governance. A Gallup survey in June 2022 found that Americans have low confidence in all three branches of the federal government, with only 25 percent having confidence in the Supreme Court (a record low), 23 percent in the presidency, and 7 percent in the Congress.
A more recent New York Times/Sienna College survey found a majority of Americans believe America’s system of government does not work and needs major reforms. The Times reported further that Republican discontent was “driven” by distrust of elections, while Democratic views were shaped by their unhappiness that Republicans could use gerrymandered states and a new Supreme Court majority they see as produced by dubious means to achieve their policy goals, despite Democrats holding the White House and the Congress.
More significantly, Americans are also losing trust in one another. A Pew survey in 2019 found that 64 percent of Americans believe trust in other Americans has been shrinking and 70 percent believe that this lack of trust impedes addressing the country’s problems. Growing distrust among Americans fuels — and is fueled by — the increasing factionalism in American politics and the declining sense that all are involved in the shared enterprise of democratic self-governance.
Perhaps the most important final negative trend in American politics is a general failure of the nation’s political leadership — at national and state levels — to recognize America’s representative democracy is in trouble and needs unifying, constructive leadership, not more partisan grandstanding.
The standout American leaders of the past sought to unify the nation in the service of the common good. When unified, America and Americans have achieved great things. But leaders with a unifying vision and message are all too rare today. Instead, too many American political “leaders” — nationally and in the states — promote a divisive “us versus them” approach to politics. Too many stoke election lies or sow division among groups to advance their own standing and parochial agendas. Not enough rise above the partisan divide with a unifying message for all Americans. Some have even extolled foreign autocratic leaders for their policies and success.
As the polls cited above illustrate, divisive political leadership is undermining the sense of shared enterprise among the American people. In an earlier challenging age for America, Lincoln noted a house divided against itself cannot long stand.
Each generation of Americans earns its democratic inheritance by sustaining America’s democratic traditions and institutions for the next generation. The current generation of Americans is in danger of squandering its inheritance by supporting or tolerating leaders who tear at the fabric of the country’s representative democracy. A national course correction is badly needed; elections between now and 2024 offer a chance to make it. But that will require stepped-up civic engagement and massive voter turnouts to elect leaders — regardless of party — at the state and national levels who seek to unify, not divide, the electorate, and who will keep faith with the traditions of our democratic past in order to sustain the future of — or in Ben Franklin’s words — “keep” our constitutional republic.
Kenneth C. Brill was a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Bush and Obama administrations. He was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.