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Belief in the Constitution seems to be holding us together at a critical time

Myths can have power, including, in the current moment, power to motivate just enough key players to put country over party and flawed democracy over no democracy.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

In 1986, the year before the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Cornell-based historian Michael Kammen wrote a wonderful cultural history of the Constitution titled “A Machine that Would Go of Itself.” I relied on it often in my own project in constitutional history, published in the Star Tribune during the bicentennial year itself. My project was titled “Our Constitution: The Myth That Binds Us.” 

Kammen’s title was borrowed from something the poet James Russell Lowell wrote when the Constitution turned 100 in the 1880s. Lowell may have meant to seriously suggest that the Constitution was so perfect it would simply maintain the United States in a state of near-perfect democracy. Kammen wasn’t endorsing that notion, rather using it to illustrate the longstanding confidence, bordering on worship, by Americans for the system of government and politics under the Constitution. The constitutional “machine” will not, really, go of itself.

My “myth” title reflects my argument that the Constitution isn’t really all that well designed, but holds our country together because it is the Bible of our national civic religion, and because our belief in the perfection or near-perfection of the system it created to keep our nation together helps when we get close to falling apart. But the enduring belief in the Constitution’s perfection among Americans (and, notably, hardly anyone else) binds us together as a multi-ethnic nation that views itself as the shining example to the world. Myths may not be factually accurate or perfectly engineered, but they can be powerful.

We, or at least most of us, may be heading into a new orgy of self-congratulation and national self-worship around the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden. From my viewpoint, there will be much to celebrate, but not as evidence that our system of national self-governance is either perfect, or brilliant or is even directly responsible for ending the threat that Trump poses – and, assuming Trump leaves the Oval Office on Inauguration Day 2021, will pose much less — to the continuation of our experiment in democratic-republican self-government.

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I would say that the “machine” of American democratic-republicanism did not “go of itself” in 2020, and no machine ever has done so, indefinitely, nor will.

If Trump indeed exits the building and the American brand of democratic republicanism limps into the future it will be less because our machine automatically “goes of itself,” but because the myth that binds us still binds us, at least sufficiently to get us through this particular crisis. 

If our system itself was all that great, we would never have had such a terrible president in the first place. And we can blame that on one of the famous features of our system – namely the Electoral College – for producing a presidency that was itself an existential threat to democratic republicanism in America, but which also depended on the little constitutional feature called the Electoral College.

To cut to the chase: If we get to the happy ending of the Trump chapter of our national story, heading into an uncertain next chapter seriously endangered by the existence of a huge minority of Americans (and majority of Republicans) who believe (without anything that could be called “evidence”) or at least tell pollsters they believe that the election was stolen from Trump, it will not because the Constitution/machine “goes of itself.”

If we truly and finally dodge the bullet that is Trumpism, it will be because enough key players in key positions — including a small number of heroic members of Trump’s own party, and including justices Trump himself put on the Supreme Court — believed in the “myth that binds us,” namely the adorable notion that the voters get to choose the president and that, at least within the state-by-state limits of the Electoral College, the one who gets the most votes wins.

The Democratic Party did its job, too, so to speak. It nominated perhaps the most electable of the choices on offer, namely Joe Biden. And Democrats united behind him in a way that Democrats don’t always do, which was impressive because there are many, many Democrats for whom he wasn’t the first, second or third choice. (That includes me.) We gave him the popular votes to translate into the electoral votes, which are the ones that matter in our bizarre system. 

But, even after Democrats did that, they needed many Republican election officials, and even Republican-appointed and Trump-appointed judges and justices, to hold the line against Trump’s attempts to steal the election.

They didn’t all come through, but, at the moment, it’s starting to look like enough did to get our creaky ol’ myth that binds us past and through, if not a near-death experience, a trip to the emergency room. 

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To summarize: A machine that goes of itself, goes of itself. Ours isn’t one, isn’t infallible, isn’t self-sustaining. The myth that binds us is still just a myth. But myths can have power, including, in the current moment, power to motivate just enough key players to put country over party and flawed democracy over no democracy.

The threat, according to me, isn’t over. This thing where a majority of the minority party doesn’t accept the result of an election is a breeding ground for trouble ahead. But I’m starting to believe we dodged the bullet, for the moment.