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Will the Violation of "Checks and Balances" doom American Democracy? Will the Violation of "Checks and Balances" doom American Democracy?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-07-19 10:46:31
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A key concept of ancient Greek philosophy is that of “harmony.” Like the organs of the human body, a system ought to work in synchrony and harmony within all its parts. Another is that of the avoidance of extremes: moderation is usually the best policy, at least in normal times. Another is that of the idea that virtue resides in the middle of extremes. As Aristotle put it: “in the middle there is virtue.” In other words, it’s a question of harmonizing the extremes.

These concepts are all interrelated and work best when harmonized with each other. I tell my beginner philosophy student that these principles belie the myth that philosophy is a hard subject to grasp in theory and to practice in one’s daily life. To be able to return to those principles means in effect to respect reason and truth. Without respect for reason and truth one cannot hope to live a good human life. That is to say, one cannot even hope to come close to the Good, the True and the Beautiful.

In some way the concept of harmony was transferred to that of democracy. Democracy is based on the idea that governing should not be left to a few privileged men who wield power; that power should issue from the will of the people. The people are sovereign. Also, that the democratic system of governing should be characterized by harmony. The system should be a harmonized and integrated one.


The signing of the American Constitution

The original genius of American democracy consists in the fact that the above theoretical scheme was elucidated in the famous Federalist Papers whose chief author was James Madison, and which then become the inspiration for the drafting of the American Constitution. The Constitution is the roadmap, so to speak, which makes it possible for the people to manage and practice democracy.

The very core of American democracy, from its outset and despite its faults and initial inconsistencies (such as the retention of slavery), was the system of checks and balances. It can safely be predicted that the destruction of the that system would automatically lead to the destruction of democracy as we know it in America.


Few would deny that there is afoot, as we speak, a national-level trauma having to do with the floundering and the very survival of the system of checks and balances and therefore of democracy itself. The fear seems to be that even if only one of democracy’s segments is impaired and badly functioning, the whole system may then be in jeopardy. Let’s briefly examine the observable facts in order to draw some reasonable conclusions.

Without resuming what is already well known let’s state the obvious: we now have in office as president a man who has revealed himself during the campaign for the inept that he is and as nevertheless been elected. The conventional wisdom dictates that people deserve the leaders they elect. But it is not so simple, when a foreign power has interfered in the election.

How the election was interfered with and delegitimized remains to be determined by a special prosecutor looking into the matter. But one thing is certain, the man has shown precious few signs that he intends to learn on the job and become a competent president with characteristics befitting the office such as level of knowledge, sophistication of policy, honesty and integrity, temperamental balance, scrupulosity about truth, courtesy and allegiance to allies, allegiance to advisors and aids. On the contrary, he seems to have remained the same as what we saw during the campaign, as is to be expected from someone who is 71 years old.

The initial surprise for most thoughtful people is that such a man with such character and personality would wind up as president. Most people, by a margin of at least 3 million, thought that no one so inexperienced and reprehensible could ever be elected. They were proven wrong at some level, but they are not at all surprised at what Trump has done, and not done, as president: the tweets, the public feuds, the violent swinging in policy back and forth, the information and norm gaffs. When these deficiencies are pointed out to him, the man simply doubles down, as any good bully or narcissist would, and continues doing it “his way.” What was eminently predictable from his campaign has in fact come to pass. Trump has not shown himself to be a man of ideas; if anything he is an empty suit, a man of no ideas, a mere demagogue, xenophobe, sexist, ignoramus, an inveterate liar; in short, a man unfit for office.

Nevertheless, as of now, he remains what his supporters like to believe is the duly elected legitimate president of this country. After all, they, for whatever reason, did elect him, albeit not by popular vote. That may change once Mueller’s investigation is brought to completion, but for the moment such remains the case.

What is a bit surprising, however, is how little his entourage, especially his family, is aware that there is a difference between running a family business and representing the president of the United States. Within a family business it is fine to take one’s father’s place at an international conference on the product that is being advertised, negotiated and transacted. At an international political meeting such as the G20 it is not ok. It smells of nepotism or worse, of sheer corruption.

Within a family business it’s fine for a son in law to run half a dozen major portfolios. At the level of White House it is not. There one needs to be a political master, not to speak of taking security-clearances forms seriously or risk ending up in jail. Moreover, contrary to what son Eric goes around proclaiming, at an international political level is definitely not ok to mix business and government interests; there are stringent laws prohibiting the mixing.

Considering this disastrous ineptitude and corruption the question arises. Is the system of checks and balances still functioning in American democracy? The answer is a mixed one. To a certain extent the judiciary is still applying normal standards and the administration (the executive), while complaining, are complying. They have no choice within a system of checks and balances.

As mentioned, there is now in place a special counsel pursuing a disciplined investigation. Were he to be fired, like Comey, even Republicans have indicated that they would resist and protest such action. Most government departments, while not functioning properly and devoid of personnel to make day-by-day operating decisions, are somehow carrying on, at least bureaucratically speaking. Democracy seems to be more robust than most people have surmised all along.

It should be mentioned here that there is a fourth essential element of a vibrant democratic system: a free unfettered, uncensored press. This element is sometimes called “the fourth estate.” The founding fathers considered it very important, almost sacred at a civic level. This estate has never been perfect, even at the level of fact finding and objectivity, but by and large they serve as the necessary lubricating oil to the proper functioning of the machinery of government with its checks and balances. They shed light on what often goes on in the dark behind the curtain. They usually stay focused on the proper questions to be asked and investigated, to the chagrin of those who prefer to lurk in the shadows of deception and corruption.

It goes without saying that the engagement of the people themselves is essential for democracy. There are, as we speak, demonstrations and protests being carried out to resist the awful health-care law proposed by the party currently in power, out to gut Obama care and replace it with Trump care, that is to say, care for the one percent of the rich and powerful at the expense of the needy and the poor. The great majority of governors, be they Democrats or Republicans, have vowed to pursue climate-policy goals despite the national government reluctance to do so. Moreover, they are resisting cooperation with repression of votes parading as voting fraud reform. Such is the wonder of a federalist system. Those are surely encouraging signs. But there are also dark clouds gathering on the horizon.

The most ominous of those dark clouds is the refusal so far by any significant Republican figure in Congress to apply to Trump the necessary standards for the long-term survival of the government. The refusal is motivated by purely partisan considerations having little to do with the common good of the whole country. No wonder the Russians have sensed a great vulnerability to be exploited to the hilt. The most necessary standard is, of course, the integrity of a system of checks and balances wherein each component branch resists overreach by the others. The role of oversight has been carried on quite competently by the judiciary. The same cannot be said about Ryan’s House and McConnell’s Senate.

Since this president has no ideas and few ethical standards, he has, for all practical purposes, no legislative proposals. So far, as a consummate bully that he is, he has merely dictated standards, one of them being a nefarious toleration for his own disregard of norms; standards have been reduced to an all essential one: personal loyalty to himself best exemplifies by an “ass-kissing” cabinet meeting session at the White House recently. The joke of him shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and getting away with it because of the adoration of the crowds and the great popular support he allegedly enjoys (which is down to 37% presently), may not be meant as a joke after all. Definite echoes here of Caligula’s three years and 10 months’ reign.


While they express “concern” or “discomfort” with Trump’s outrages, those less than courageous Republicans have stood with him when he truly mattered, be it in votes on the floor or in committees, or to avoid investigations, subpoenas, or hearings into those concerning matters. They enthusiastically approved of hearing into Hillary Clinton’s email practices, while approving precious few hearings into Trump’s information practices. They impeached Bill Clinton for lying about an affair but have averted their eyes from Trump’s violations of norms. They pay lip service to national security and declare themselves passionate patriots while tolerating Trump’s embrace of Putin and Russian meddling. Take the case of senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. He is the number one senator in expressing concerns on the breaking of norms by Trump; yet, when it comes to voting on the floor, he votes with the Frankenstein monster created by his party 95% of the time. It’s hypocrisy at its worst.


Let me conclude with this modest thought: the US’s founding fathers well understood the dangers of unbridled and unchecked power. They understood that unbounded power could easily become a great criminal enterprise; so they attempted to mitigate such a danger with a system of checks and balances which has well served the American Republic for more than 200 years. They were concerned not only with balance and harmony in policy but also about limits on the grandiose and the power-mad.

They knew in their bones, having just fought a long bitter war of independence, that when checks and balances are neglected and not applied, democracy flounders. That was all expressed in The Federalist Papers. All that our present, less than inspiring crop of politicians in power, need to do now, is to provide themselves with a copy of those papers by Hamilton, Jay and Madison, read them reflectively, and then act on that knowledge. They owe at least that much to their duty as senators and congressmen. The Federalist papers are like the canary in the mine. When they die, democracy will soon follow.

Will this Cassandrian warning be ignored once again? Likely, but let’s hope not. In any case the alarm has gone out. Now, let those who have ears, let them hear or suffer the consequences of deafness. 


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!


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