Getting your terms right is always a good idea.
From the beginning of the republic, we have called our democratic system an experiment. Back in 1789, the form of government that was created had never been attempted, certainly not at that scale. Many people, including quite a few who helped develop the Constitution and Bill of Rights, didn’t believe it would work. But through an early war with our former colonial master and then a horrific civil war only seventy-some years into the project, the union was maintained and the experiment continued.
Here’s the thing about experiments: they cannot fail. The only way for an experiment to not work is for something to go wrong with how it was constructed or with the equipment being used. If the testing device proves inadequate for the task, that’s a failure. If nothing breaks and the experiment is run to completion, that’s a success – regardless of the outcome.
An experiment never fails because of the results. Getting results is the entire point of an experiment – and you live with them regardless. Whatever the results are, getting them means the experiment succeeded.
What can fail is the hypothesis upon which the experiment is based. So Icarus hypothesized he could fly to the heavens with wings he made, the experiment worked, and the results proved his hypothesis wrong. In terms of science, perfection. In terms of Icarus, not so much.
The Founders’ hypothesis was thus: A people could join together in self-government, with leaders elected by the people, within a system of checks-and-balances and with the entire structure ruled by laws. In other words, constitutional representative democracy. And over two centuries later, the hypothesis still seems to be sound. The experiment has produced wildly divergent results, but our democracy remains, more or less intact.
The main problem, of course, is the same one a lot of experiments face: The hypothesis is flawed. Icarus did not take into account the sun’s heat and its impact on wax. The Founders decided to limit the vote to white men, to maintain slavery, to have a Senate that was not representative, and to write a 2nd Amendment with awful grammar.
Unlike with poor Icarus, the flaws in the Founders’ hypothesis were not fatal, just flowed in a number of serious ways. The parts they got right, however, have proven to be robust and progressive. Elections and laws have allowed for the flaws to be addressed and the experiment to continue. In other words, the hypothesis has been modified based on the derived results, and the experiment, much improved, continues.
We have gotten rid of slavery, made the vote universal (for adults), created laws to protect the lives and rights of all citizens because the original parameters of the experiment allowed for such changes. We have learned from what has gone before how to do the American democratic experiment better. Not perfectly; better. As humans, that’s the most we can hope for.
And yet: Some of these changes came at the expense of human lives and human suffering. Thats unconscionable. I use the word “experiment” but I do not forget that what we are dealing with is real life – real human experience.
Further, we have not gone nearly far enough in redressing those original failings. The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were passed over half-a-century ago, and yet black people are still legally executed for no cause by police. Slavery is gone, but that’s not good enough. Institutional change comes slowly, and that’s hard to change, but we have a moral responsibility to one another to move that change as quickly as possible.
Unless injustice, suffering, and inequality are what you think the American experiment ought to be leading towards.
American democracy is going through a difficult patch right now, to put it lightly. We have a president – for a few more days – who gives not one good goddamn about democracy; his only allegiance is to himself. We have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of elected Republicans whose devotion to democracy is trumped either by their allegiance to the president, to libertarian ideology, or to the movement towards oligarchy.
We also have too many on the left who put their own political and social goals in front of democratic practice. That’s the same slippery slope, so not a good place to be.
But the experiment in representative democracy continues. It has not failed. Donald Trump’s best efforts have only shown how robust the original hypothesis is. Of course, Trump is a putz; a more competent politician might have had more success in undermining democracy. But one of the reasons the Founders were confident in their hypothesis was the size of the nation: Being that it was geographically large, bringing together sufficient forces to destroy the democracy didn’t seem likely.
This is even more true today. Yes, we’ve not seen as many seditious members of Congress as we have today since before the Civil War, but they are out-numbered by members who believe in democracy. Yes, thousands of people showed up in the Capital to attack democracy, but the response nationally has shown that the majority supports democracy. We are not used to attempted coups of this kind, so most of us are a bit stunned. But as the days go by and we adjust to this new reality, I think we’ll see more people standing up for democracy.
The experiment has not failed. The hypothesis has not been disproven. We have data that shows what we need to do if we’re going to move from an hypothesis about democracy to an actual theory, proven and upheld by multiple, replicated experiments. We may need a new hypothesis in time. We may discover that there’s a way to do democracy better than what we are doing now. We may arrive at the conclusion that too many humans suck.
But the experiment has not failed. The cumulative results give reason for both optimism – we’ve gotten through a lot of really bad times and maintained, even improved the democracy – and pessimism. All we can do is press on. In the end, this isn’t science. This is the reality of human life, and that means it will always be messy, frustrating, and more.
The only way for our experiment in constitutional democracy to fail is for us to quit on it.