The constitution won’t save American democracy, only its people can..

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson write a timely piece. Fair bit of world leaders are justifying their actions saying they are doing things as per Constitution. Any Constitution for all you know is a human creation and has many gaps. It requires the leadership to understand the gaps and not exploit them, but we are hardly seeing this.

A & R write:

The conceit that the United States can be saved by Washington insiders and the Constitution is part of a common narrative about the origins of American institutions. According to this narrative, Americans owe their democracy and freedoms to founders’ brilliant, foresighted design of a system with the right types of checks and balances, separation of powers, and other safeguards.

As we explain in our new book, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, this is not how democratic institutions and freedoms come about. Rather, they emerge and are protected by society’s mobilization, its assertiveness, and its willingness to use the ballot box when it can and the streets when it cannot. The US is no exception.

The US founders, like the economic and intellectual elites in Britain at the time, strove to develop laws and institutions that would support a strong, capable state under the control of like-minded rulers. Several of them viewed a monarchy of sorts as the best arrangement.

The US Constitution, written in 1787, reflected these preconceptions. It did not include a bill of rights and enshrined many non-democratic elements. This was not an oversight. The founders’ main objective was to calm the rising democratic fervor among common Americans and bring to heel state legislatures, which had been empowered by the Constitution’s predecessor, the Articles of Confederation.

Only people can save America:

It should be no surprise, then, that at critical junctures of American history, democratic rights and liberties have been furthered not so much by the system’s safeguards against excessive democracy or by the Constitution’s brilliant design, but by popular mobilization.

For example, in the second half of the nineteenth century, when powerful tycoons, the “robber barons,” came to dominate America’s economy and politics, they weren’t reined in by the courts or Congress (on the contrary, they controlled these government branches). The robber barons and the institutions empowering them were held to account when people mobilized, organized, and managed to elect politicians promising to regulate the tycoons, level the economic playing field, and increase democratic participation by, for example, introducing direct election of senators.

Likewise, in the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t the separation of powers that finally broke the back of legal racism and repression in the US South. It was the work of protesters who organized, disrupted, and built a mass movement that forced federal institutions to act. President John F. Kennedy was finally persuaded to intervene and subsequently introduced the Civil Rights Act in response to the “Children’s Crusade” of May 2, 1963, hundreds of children were arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for taking part in protests. As Kennedy put it, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

Today, too, only society’s mobilization can save the US in its hour of political turmoil and crisis. White knights or checks and balances cannot be relied on to do the job. And even if they could, anything other than a resounding defeat at the ballot box would leave Trump’s supporters feeling wronged and cheated, and polarization would deepen. Worse, a precedent would be set for empowering elites to check elites, relegating society to greater passivity. In that case, what happens next time an unscrupulous leader does even worse than Trump and the elites do not come to the rescue?

From this perspective, Mueller’s greatest gift to US democracy was a report that refrained from triggering the impeachment process, but that laid bare the president’s mendacity, corruption, and crimes so that voters would mobilize to exercise their power and responsibility to replace bad leaders.

The Constitution will not save American democracy. It never has. Only American society can do that.

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