Greatness, Empiricism, Withstanding Anything

CBS News:

Asked if she agreed with those who “feel the nation’s institutions are in a perilous state,” Pelosi said she didn’t share that concern, but emphasized the importance of the coming presidential election.

“Our country is great. It’s a great country. Our founders gave us the strongest foundation,” she said. “All the challenges we have faced, we can withstand anything. But maybe not two [Trump] terms. So we have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As twelve and thirteen-year-olds in my junior high school Social Studies class forty-six years ago I remember we discussed the continuing revelations around a burglary of the DNC headquarters the previous summer. Social Studies fascinated me. It fascinated a few of us, and discussions were lively, though I imagine the majority of the class was bored. I wasn’t bored. Who were Madison, Hamilton, Jay? You say they were influenced by the Enlightenment, by people like John Locke: what was that? Who was he?

In our suburbs of Philadelphia we grew up in the birthplace of American independence. Independence Hall, where the US Declaration of Independence was signed and the US Constitution was drafted, was only a few miles away. At that time the Liberty Bell was displayed on the floor of Independence Hall, and school kids could touch it. We toured Betsy Ross’s house, and on weekends played in the grass at Valley Forge. Icons of the nation’s founding were physically familar to us, and we were versed in what was present and what absent: here is the brick building where George Washington wintered. These log cabins are reproductions — the actual huts where soldiers froze have long been demolished.

Discussions of Watergate and threats to the American Constitution took place for us in the context of familarity with the remnants of the revolutionary struggle for independence, and a constant exposure to red brick buildings in Philadelphia being destroyed to make way for newer establishments. During my childhood it was easy to see William Penn’s statue atop Philadelphia City Hall from miles away, as the city legally forbade constructing buildings taller than Penn’s hat. This changed in the years ahead, of course. Penn is now dwarfed by the glass, chrome, and steel of insurance and cable television monoliths.

Constitutional questions were quite real those junior high school years. The War Powers Act was passed in 1973, not long after the “secret bombing” (secret from the American people) of Cambodia, the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, the invasion of Laos. Roe v. Wade was issued in 1973. The ERA was passed by Congress in 1971, by the Senate in 1972. Ratification of the ERA and thus modification of the Constitution was a very real possibility, and something we kids, especially some of the brighter girls, discussed. The separation of powers we saw contested before us, with no guarantee of who would triumph.

Something I don’t remember ever being discussed was what loss would look like, nor is this subject any part of American public discourse today, nearly five decades later. What would a perilous state for the nation’s institutions look like? How might a condition where the US Congress no longer retains the power to declare war be recognized? How does one recognize a country’s greatness, or its lack of greatness? How might this be tested? The country’s institutions can withstand “anything” yet not two terms of a particular individual as head of the executive. Does this not indicate that the institutions are then not capable of with­standing “anything”? What are the other exceptions? How does one test for this: if the country’s institutions might potentially be destroyed by a man’s re-election, and the man is then re-elected, how does one determine whether the institutions are intact? How does one decide if the institutions are fundamentally intact to begin with, at this moment? When they are not, what might that look like?

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