The rest fall in between with 13 percent knowing two branches and 27 percent knowing one branch. For those versed in math – and I’m guessing that’s not many Americans given that math is more difficult than simply memorizing “executive, legislative, and judicial” – 60 percent of the country cannot name more than one branch of government.
I imagine the most-well known branch is the executive as Americans have increasingly been infatuated with the singular head of state and government, lusting for ceaseless news coverage about him (someday her!) and spending hours commenting on even the most trivial of presidential activities (eg, President Obama propping his feet on the Resolute Desk or when Obama happened to order Dijon mustard).
Ever since Franklin Roosevelt asserted executive primacy and Congress more or less acquiesced – the Senate put up a strong fight, but only because Roosevelt and his successor, Harry Truman, sought to (gasp) promote racial equality – the (imperial) presidency has become the image of American government.
So people equate the executive with government and forget the other branches exist, especially when a divided Congress or a split between partisan control of the legislative and executive branches leads to governing through executive order. That trend’s been evident since 2011.
As many people cannot name a single branch as in 2011, but 12 percent fewer can name all three branches (and 11 percent more can only name one). I’d guess people slide down knowledge levels, devolving from knowing three to knowing two to knowing one – and then remembering that one…maybe.
Such apathy and ignorance, of course, does not bode well. We can’t expect voters to make informed decisions about complex issues if they don’t understand how the government works. Associating the government with one office, and so one individual, makes Americans susceptible to authoritarian appeals because any and all autocrats would pledge to do get things done (you know, the “I alone can fix it” attitude). They rebel against inaction and complication and turn towards simplicity and impossible promises. And then those inevitable fail because for all the promises of immediate, unilateral action, voter ignorance doesn’t erase the other two branches. But it does threaten their continued legitimacy and, at worst, independence.
So, Americans, do the country a favor. Learn the branches of our government. It’s really not that hard.
Our History Demands Better than Kid Rock for Senate
Believing that the Kid Rock for Senate shadow campaign should be successful – believing that Kid Rock has a place in the Senate – shows nothing but contempt for the Founding Fathers. Those who created the Senate envisioned a prestigious chamber dominated by political and social elites – those versed in policy, eloquent in speech, and able to create a deliberative chamber removed from the tempests of public will. The Senate would inspire awe; the country’s finest would fill its ranks and act as true patricians debating on behalf of the states and the country, controlling foreign policy, checking the easily-swayed House of Representatives, and preventing the president from acquiring undue power.
The Senate has since fallen from its glory. Corrupt actors have mangled the Senate’s image through demagoguery, process destruction, and using the Senate as a post-Reconstruction and Civil Rights Era tool to maintain systemic white supremacy, especially in the South. These disgraces, though largely a thing of the past, tarnished the chamber’s image, and rightfully so.
Today’s senators have done little to restore the body to its former glory. Senators act as puppets of their president. Voters, too, bear a lion’s share of the blame: They fail to treat the Senate with the seriousness it deserves, which leads to the election of eggheads and process destruction (Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has abused the Senate’s long-standing process during his tenure and has faced no backlash from those charged with holding him accountable).
Voters fail to understand the purpose of the Senate (and, for that matter, the presidency). Political incursions by know-nothing hobbyists have devalued elected offices and encouraged voters to treat elections as sports and games, not serious matters with long-lasting repercussions (see: Donald Trump’s election). Such hobbyism among those seeking prestige, power, and profit should be restrained by voters, but instead voters, not taking the Senate seriously, flirt with ludicrous candidates.
Michigan voters exemplify just that. Kid Rock, profane and ungifted musician who knows nothing about politics, let alone public policy – a hobbyist looking for money whose political ramblings should never be taken seriously – has teased a possible Senate run and already voters have rallied behind the blowhard. A Trafalgar Group poll found him leading a hypothetical matchup with incumbent Debbie Stabeow by 3 points (49-46). Kid Rock has no campaign, no discernible policies, and no reason to run for office. He’s the antithesis of our Founders’ vision for the Senate.
So why do people lust for the idea of Senator Rock? Because in their delusions of populist supremacy – in the grips of the death of expertise – voters think perceived elites should be scorned while ignorant fools (that is, people who sound like the average voter) supported and touted as the American political ideal. But that’s idiotic. We have elites for a reason. Politics is not easy – nor should it be. Our country needs public servants committed to the Constitution, to fighting for their constituents and the country as a whole, and to serving selflessly. We need senators that fit the elitist chamber purposefully created by the Founding Fathers.
Republican officeholders and party leaders must also be ravaged for their role in promoting pathetic political hobbyism and degrading our once-valued and estimable institutions. Worthless Vichy Republicans fell in line behind Donald Trump, a true demagogue, bigot, and obvious threat to liberal democracy and our existing democratic institutions. That didn’t stop them. Rick Perry, who called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” now serves in Trump’s cabinet.
Anyone who’s studied our history and cares about our institutions would be embarrassed to support Kid Rock for Senate. And yet here we are, awaiting the decision of a fool, one that could see a further tragic American political development and a new low point in the Senate’s fall from grace.
Donald Trump has proved time and time again that he’s no fan of the separation of powers. He sees the presidency as an authoritarian figure, one who wields all of the nation’s power and who through unilateral action can shape policy and make decisions with immediate impact. These delusional visions have of course met with reality. Our Constitution divides power among three branches, with the legislative first of the equal. Trump’s found himself and his goals blocked or slowed by Congress. And he’s no fan of that.
At various points in his presidency, Trump has sought to rebalance governing power by exerting his authority over members of Congress. This stems from his campaign rhetoric, a central of theme of which held that he alone could fix the nation’s problems. Those words had no room for Congress to act; in fact, Trump seemed to entirely forget the institution, figuring that, if elected, he would be the one true sovereign. Now, as the executive, he’s tried to subvert a coequal branch by continually threatening lawmakers who dare oppose his agenda or stand up to him.
Most recently, after signing into law sanctions against Russia stemming from the country’s interference in our election – a fact which Trump continues to deny – Trump continued his frightening assault on the separation of powers, writing “I built a truly great company worth many billions of dollars. That is a big part of the reason I was elected. As President, I can make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.”
First of all, Trump greatly overstates his deal making ability. His riches, contrary to what he says, stem from inheritance. In fact, Trump is multiple billions of dollars poorer than he would be had he passively invested his inheritance rather than trying to play businessman. Trump’s declared bankruptcy numerous times and nearly ran a casino into the ground (his father bailed him out by illegally infusing the casino with $3,000,000 in chips to circumvent lending regulations). Not to mention other failed ventures, such as Trump Steak, Trump Airlines, Trump Magazine, Trump Water, and Trump Vodka. Or the times he’s been sued for stiffing contractors. No, Trump is not a great dealmaker.
Trump’s continued fabrication about his deal making prowess, however, is not the worrying part of his statement. The second sentence, in which he touts his unilateral ability to make better deals than all of Congress, fundamentally attacks the separation of powers and seeks to delegitimize Congress, its ability, and its lawmaking authority.
The Founding Fathers gave Congress, especially the Senate, broad authority over legislative affairs, including foreign policy (there’s a reason the president must seek senatorial ratification for treaties). Congress has an explicit prerogative to regulate foreign commerce, a central component of foreign policy. Yet Trump’s words undermine the separation of powers by implying that he alone should be charged with foreign affairs and Congress should either cede to him all authority in that front or simply rubber-stamp all of his decisions. The words reek of contempt for Congress. He yearns for unilateral authority unchecked and unquestioned by another governing branch. In other words, he wants – and feels entitled to – a fundamental overhaul of the separation of powers simply because of his self-assumed greatness.
Trump’s statement also seeks to delegitimize Congress by implying the body is incompetent when it comes to foreign affairs – and its incompetence means America is worse off than had Congress simply sat back and allowed Trump to work his magic. This implication serves only to undermine any actions taken by Congress by leading people to immediately doubt any congressional creation, especially when it comes to foreign relations. Why should I trust Congress when the president himself has said the body is ineffectual when it comes to making deals? Why not just let Trump make deals and pass legislation? Why bother with Congress at all?
Lastly, Congress worked in a bipartisan and nearly unanimous fashion to craft these Russian sanctions, yet Trump nonetheless attacked the reason, ability, and effect of Congress’s work. Rarely do all members of Congress come together for something as important as the Russia sanctions – if the president claims that 99 percent of Congress can’t work together to do something as well as he could alone, how bad must be the laws passed by a bare majority? It implies that the bipartisan work of Congress cannot ever match the abilities of the president himself, a rather dictatorial sentiment. Trump’s saying that Congress, working in near unanimity to fulfill its explicit constitution duties, should not be making laws because the deals struck are subpar, especially when compared to what he could do. And that’s dangerous because it no longer assumes Congress should proactively perform its fundamental duties; rather, Congress should wait for the president to act and only follow the whims of the enlightened, dear leader.
This rhetoric should not be tolerated by any lawmaker who loves the Constitution. Attacks on Congress’s legitimacy and authority to carry out its constitution prerogatives should never be made by the president and never accepted by members of Congress. Representatives and senators should band together to unanimously pass a joint resolution stating the legislative branch’s authority to pass laws pertaining to foreign relations and issue a stern warning to the president: Undermine Congress at your own peril; your support is fleeting, the Constitution is forever.
America. Conceived under tyranny and borne by patriots fighting for freedom and liberty.
Its ideals – our ideals – ring through our founding documents. Our Declaration of Independence boldly states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Constitution recognizes fundamental and natural liberties destined to remain ever untouched by the corruption of mischievous faction. These rights, to be heralded above all, constrained government and set forth the vision of our nation: A state dedicated to the equal liberty of all its residents.
To be sure, our nation has not always lived up to its ideals. The tree of liberty has been occasionally watered with the blood of citizens fighting for righteousness and always with an eye towards expanding liberty, both within and outside our country.
But now our country finds itself in unchartered territory. For once, the denigrating forces of demagoguery have consumed enough voters to find itself in the Oval Office. This presents dual problems for the country.
First, Donald Trump’s gross incompetence and actions motivated solely by animus, whether at racial or religious minorities or those who dare criticize him, threaten the global order and the continued democratic traditions here at home. His political career started by alleging incorrectly that the country’s first black president was born in Kenya, not the United States.
While campaigning for president, he called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country; claimed that challenger Ted Cruz’s further had been involved in the JFK assassination plot (another lie); called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed; and continuously railed (incorrectly, again) that outside forces would collude to steal the election from him.
Now, as president, he’s wrongly furthered the notion that 3 to 5 million ballots had been cast illegally. He called Russian interference into the 2016 election a “witch-hunt” and “hoax.” His tweets and virulent diatribes against the media as well as other foundations of our democracy threaten long-standing democratic mores and encourage millions of voters to live in willing ignorance.
Secondly, and intimately related to the dangers Donald Trump himself poses, his core supporters fervently embrace and believe all that Trump says – and only what Trump says. That endangers democracy as the only person who can reach and influence millions of Americans is Donald Trump, a man whose lies as president already near 1,000.
These supporters have, by and large, foregone the values that make America great. They care little about the Constitution or the democratic norms that have long brought success to our grand experiment. Fundamental freedoms and liberties mean little so long as their abrogation benefits Donald Trump. Charlie Sykes best described the phenomena when he decried conservatism’s morphing into an ideology that abandoned principles to instead annoy liberals.
Trump supporters lust for, or seeming desire, authoritarianism led by Trump (who many proclaim to be the “God Emperor”). Demagoguery’s potent appeal leave many inebriated from the violent, ignorant, and condescending rhetoric from a man whose cult of personality attracts the constitutionally and ideologically ignorant. And to them, Trump can do no wrong and his actions need not be motivated by the pursuit of constitutionalism or constitutional rights.
Now, their fervent belief that press critical of Trump is at best “fake news” and at worst, as adviser Kellyanne Conway put it, “unpatriotic.” That precludes them from learning about policy, truly judging Donald Trump’s character, and challenging their fanaticism. Instead, they turn to the likes of Fox News, which has portrayed itself as a de facto state media outlet, often ignoring information or revelations that would hurt Trump while attacking liberals or Democrats in a (succeeding) effort to further tribalize political divisions.
This leaves the country with increased polarization driven not so much by ideology but by different sets of facts and different truths, as irrational and impossible as that may be. It’s possible these voters cannot be reached by any outlet with integrity. Would that extend to Democratic politicians or activists? Probably. Divisions, then, may be insurmountable.
Such a phenomenon, of course, is neither new nor confined to Trump supporters. Factions motivated by demagoguery have arisen throughout American history. Democracy has long been known to suffer from a demagoguery problem, but America has largely remained safe from such forces due to a fervent belief in natural rights and our Constitution – democratic mores, in the worlds of Alexis de Tocqueville. But as mentioned above, those democratic mores seem to be disappearing, perhaps as collective memories of the horrors perpetuated by illiberal and autocratic regimes fades.
The far-left also suffers from such a problem. Democratic socialists and their even more radicalized comrades similarly distort history and facts to abandon constitutional rights and advocate instead for a revolution – democratic or otherwise – to change the regime. They, however, number far fewer than those on the Trumpian right and so, for now, pose less a threat to our democracy’s success.
And so we see ourselves in the midst of our nation’s decline. Liberties, rights, and democratic behavior becomes increasingly unimportant to large swaths of the population interested only in promoting their tribe (in this case, Donald Trump). We’ve been here before and we’ve already emerged a stronger nation. But it’s always taken a national emergency or collective, bipartisan action, the likes of which seems unlikely in this highly polarized time.
The best remedy may be a return to fundamental American values. We must promote natural rights and use our history as a common building block to unify the nation and return political discourse to how we can best collectively protect and further these liberties to all Americans.
Democracy exists as a paradox: Only through unfettered democracy do the demos, or people, have absolute sovereignty, yet it is precisely through total political control that democracy invades and destroys the sovereignty of the demos, for democracy’s death is endemic unto itself. Only the birth of a Republic prevents the demos’ destruction.
The demos bring about their own subordination by falling prey to the hunting demagogue. Demagogues are ruthless predators – constantly prowling unwitting individuals through whom ambition can manifest itself in power, the demagogue can easily seize support in parties and countries with institutions ill-designed and ill-prepared to stand resolute against the fiery passions of a demos ignited by the thrill of rhetoric or the promises of a time deemed lost whose return the demagogue, and only the demagogue, can promise, either in or outside the rule of law and long-accepted norms.
This demagogue feasts on the susceptible (truly on the demos, for the word, as understood in its Greek origin, applied to the low- and middle-class rabble) and uses them simply as tools. Promises of grandeur, of a nation again made great or an empire rekindled, are made insofar as they align with power’s seizure and will be followed only to the extent that their enactment furthers the power and/or riches of the enterprising demagogue. But the demos, whose connection with a constitution – written or unwritten – and liberal political values is weak, at best, either overlook, accept, or otherwise don’t realize the dangerous ends to which the demagogue aspires. Human fallibility destroys democracy. We treat democratic politics as special, as a beloved ideal that brings responsibility to the empowered demos and requires logic, research, and commitment to age-old values. But while we herald the idea, we fail to follow through with the actions necessary for pure democracy to thrive. So a cult of personality, an aura of strength, redemption, and populist power, enthralls the demos. Emotional appeals rise above their logical counterparts. Add to emotional susceptibility the vilification of the undesired – of minorities whose threat (often imagined) the demos assume prevents national glory – and the demagogue rides a swell of devoted popular uproar to electoral strength and political victory.
Without institutions to curtail the passions of the demos, either by hindering the demagogue’s ascent or removing the demos from direct power, demagogues can easily rise to power – in fact, in poorly designed systems, the demagogue need not even acquire majority support to sweep into power. Once at the government’s helm, the demagogue can enact campaign promises that almost by nature hurt opponents, for demagogues may enjoy the love of many, but by that very virtue, encourages the hate of others. Those who hate the demagogue – the demagogue’s political enemies – are often cast as an amorphous other by the demagogue, which builds popular support for the “other’s” oppression. The demagogue, with eyes towards consolidated power backed by the passions of a large faction, then moves to silence his critics and dissidents. Such actions usually require deviance from accepted norms, but whenever a majority exists in a democracy, the rules can change to favor those currently in power. And so opponents are sidelined and the rights of some infringed. Without fear of oversight or challenges to power, the demagogue can reward supporters, enjoy centralized power, and work on self-enrichment.
As the demagogue consolidates power and steals from the state, democracy is lost. Any wise demagogue brought to power by democracy would immediately curtail democracy so it exists only in name. The people may vote in plebiscites, but the demagogue would not accept any result that doesn’t empower him. He profits from the state, skimming taxpayer dollars or simply dipping into the treasury for funds – why shouldn’t he? With no challenges to power and charisma to win the demos, the democratic demagogue has no reason not to become an authoritarian. The demagogue, “ending a tyrant,” destroys the very democracy that enabled his rise.
The birth of a Republic prevent democracy’s inevitable path to suicide. Republics remove the direct link between the demos and the leaders; it is that link – the direct connection between the demagogue and the demos – that enables democracies to self-destruct. The demagogue relies on the demos as his extralegal motivations, rhetoric, and eventual actions cannot happen in a Republic. In pure form, Republics water-down the demos’ influence by having indirect elections (or a mixture of direct and indirect elections); Republics protect minority rights and are often resistant to majoritarian whims by virtue of separating power between multiple branches of government. Well-created Republics remove from popular influence the judiciary, ensuring that those charged with interpreting and upholding the laws cannot be removed or swayed by public fervor.
Republics check the demos as well as the leaders installed by the demos or otherwise appointed. Power rests squarely with no one and all political actors are constrained by a constitution that delimits power and coordinates expected policy outcomes. A Republic fights the demagogue and protects democracy from its worst temptations.
But even a Republic can be corrupted. When the democratic elements of a Republican government – ie, parties – open themselves up to unfettered democracy with few or no institutional hurdles or power separations than define Republican institutions, the demagogue can still weasel his way into power. The likes of parties should emulate the government to which we send their standard bearers. A party that places complete faith in the demos quickly succumbs to the demagogue – whenever parties adopt simple majoritarian rules (or rules in which a candidate can emerge victorious with a simple plurality), the path reopens for a demagogue. He need only appeal to half of a party to win the nomination. Once the nominee, the demagogue can ride party ties to power. Tribal allegiance – a fundamental human behavior in all fields, including politics – ensures the demagogue a base of support; from there, he need only wield his rhetorical and emotive prowess on swing voters.
It becomes quite easy to attain power once the demagogue skates through primary funneling. However, a Republic’s beauty also rests in its ability to curtail empowered demagogues. Unlike a democracy, in which rights can be subverted and rules changed with the ease of a majority, Republican rules exist in a Constitution and other actors, put in power by appointment or the people at various points in time, can stand in a demagogue’s way. Courts especially act to preserve a Republic from the demos’ worst temptations.
Of course, the same mechanism through which the demagogue began his Republican ascent – a democratic nominating process – diminish the will of same-party lawmakers to curtail the demagogue. Primary challenges, or the potential thereof, with the winner decided by the same demos that elected the demagogue give many lawmakers pause, eroding a systemic check on demagogues and potentially eroding the separation of powers. Thus democratizing the entities that supply our Republic with elected officials empowers demagogues and weakens the Republican experiment, though its core functions and design remain.
Demagogues thrive and are inevitable creations of purely democratic processes. Democracy’s death comes in darkness – the darkness created by a demagogues arousing primal passions rather than logical behavior. And so occurs the birth of a Republic, with democratic designs at heart with institutions and rules immune from the demos, in whom ultimate power does not solely and unchecked lie. The parties and institutions that compromise a Republic should also be republican in nature; overly democratizing aspects of a Republic endangers the whole by welcoming demagogues. We must recognize that for any element of democracy to persist, the demos must be checked. Democracy destroys itself. Republics and republican institutions stave off death from the demos. The birth of a Republic saves the people from themselves.