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Opinion: Are perceived ‘threats to democracy’ real or imagined?

Concerns about the Constitution have existed since its birth. Now is not the time to throw it out

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The United States Constitution was made the law of the land on June 21, 1788.

The United States Constitution was made the law of the land on June 21, 1788.

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A growing number of national politicians, academics and journalists are complaining more frequently that the U.S. Constitution is “undemocratic” and even a “threat to democracy” because it includes such provisions as giving each state, no matter its population, two U.S. senators. They lament the fact that presidents are not elected by popular vote, but instead by the Electoral College, which doesn’t always reflect the majority vote. And because the “undemocratic” Senate confirms federal judges, small states even have disproportionate influence in the judicial system. Thus, they say, all three branches of the federal government are undemocratic and constitutional change is needed. We consider these weighty matters.

It is true that our nation’s founders did not create a pure democracy with perfectly equal representation, proportionate to population. Sparsely populated states have outsized clout in the U.S. Senate and in presidential elections through the Electoral College. One New York Times columnist recently wrote that the greatest long-term threat to democracy in our nation “is, in fact, the Constitution.” He quoted a noted legal scholar who said, “... the Constitution may be the enemy of the democracy it supposedly sustains.” Should the Constitution be amended to enable a true mass democracy?

Pignanelli: “Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.” — Thomas Jefferson    

Serious concerns with the Constitution have existed since inception. Even many of our brave ancestors who jeopardized their lives and fortunes for independence argued against adopting the document. Yet, as the charter lost many of the initial warts (i.e. slavery, women’s suffrage, etc.) it endured tremendous crises including invasion, a Civil War, Depression and politicians’ nefarious actions.

The founders wanted democracy but with protections to prevent too much power in the hands of an overbearing majority or an unrepresentative minority. This explains the checks and balances that often frustrate the hopes for a more efficient, but possibly dangerous, process.

For 235 years, the Constitution has been an embodiment of our natural rights and liberties. Academics and activists may ponder radical changes or wholesale rejection, but do not offer a superior substitute for one of the world’s oldest democracies. Affection for the union outweighs any desire for amendments.

Thankfully, Jefferson was wrong, and our Constitution continues to thrive.

Webb: The greatest threat to our democratic republic isn’t the Constitution. It’s the left-wing politicians, pundits and academics who would throw out foundational constitutional provisions and create a pure democracy — another name for mob rule. It drives some elitists crazy that the population centers on both coasts and in the big cities don’t completely control politics in this country.

Remember, it was the states that created the federal government, not the other way around. The founders very intentionally created a governance structure that recognized the importance of states and gave each state special status. Today we have 50 very different states. Presidential candidates must recognize them as unique entities. They can’t just campaign to masses of people. The Senate makeup ensures that the small states are not marginalized in the congressional process.

Without these constitutional provisions that the elites call “undemocratic,” politicians wouldn’t care about state interests or state boundaries. They would simply appeal to large population centers. Large states would have multiple senators and small states would be crushed.

Another writer recently noted that the power to set government policy is increasingly disconnected from majority public opinion. He referred to the fact that Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote, appointed three Supreme Court justices, who were then confirmed by the “undemocratic” U.S. Senate, producing a conservative-majority court. Why did the nation’s founders create a governance structure where political power and voice is not distributed evenly on a per-capita basis?

Pignanelli: Americans’ complaints towards the Supreme Court never cease. Recent examples include conservative hatred of the Warren Court and left-wing frustration with the current panel. Liberal presidents and senators also deliver left wing justices. The pendulum swings back and forth.

Thus, Americans understand the need for this deliberative body and will not change the structure.

Webb: Most of the time, public policy should align fairly closely with public opinion. Most of the time, the popular vote should determine presidential election winners. But not always. The founders talked extensively about how passions of the moment can overwhelm good long-term public policy. Majority public opinion can sometimes be impetuous, even reckless. It needs to be tempered by underlying laws, constitutional provisions and processes that prevent thoughtless action.   

Donald Trump recently called for the “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” related to elections. Is he also a threat to democracy?

Pignanelli: Americans understand Trump won and lost in accordance with constitutional provisions. Thus, citizens will reject his irresponsible demands to “terminate” our republic.

Webb: It was an exceptionally dumb thing to say even by Trump’s standards. He quickly tried to walk it back. He was rightly lashed by both Republicans and Democrats. But there is a fair amount of hypocrisy among those who blast Trump but want to change the Constitution themselves to benefit politically.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email:lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.