Analysis: American Democracy Is On Trial And The Outcome Looks Bleak
As President Donald Trump’s impeachment barrels along in the Senate, most Americans are focused on what, if anything, will come of the president’s attempt to solicit a foreign government's assistance in his reelection efforts.
But perhaps the more significant threat to U.S. democracy is the Senate itself, David Litt wrote in The Washington Post this week.
Often lauded as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the upper chamber is far off its mark, Litt said, and the impeachment trial is “confirming that the Senate has become a place where short-term political concerns beat out careful deliberation, and where partisanship has done away with open debate.”
The result? “One of America’s most hallowed institutions has become a threat to our democracy itself,” he wrote.
At its inception, the Senate was viewed as necessary to protect the country from “the impulse of sudden and violent passions,” Litt quoted from James Madison’s Federalist No. 62. And in order to avoid being “seduced by factious leaders into hasty and intemperate resolutions,” senators should possess “greater extent of information and stability of character” than their colleagues in the House.
Putting it more bluntly, Litt said senators are supposed to be “smarter, wiser and cooler under pressure” than the rest of us.
To ensure this result, both the Constitution and “a host of additional rules, traditions and precedents combined to cement the Senate’s reputation as the repository of the nation’s wisdom, a haven for patient deliberation, independent thinking and minority-party rights.”
These notoriously peculiar rules have not always spared the Senate from failing to live up to the Founders’ expectations, Litt noted, but the upper chamber’s current iteration is by far the most dysfunctional America has seen in the past two hundred years.
The example of Trump’s impeachment trial offers a near-perfect example of the depths to which the Senate has fallen: “With the security of our elections and the future of our democracy at stake, the great debate taking place in the Senate is not over how best to protect our republic. It’s over whether — in the face of unprecedented White House obstruction — Senators should call a tiny number of witnesses or no witnesses at all.”
Further, Litt noted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is “doing everything he can to ensure that as little deliberation as possible takes place,” and many individual senators are happily pushing Russian-backed conspiracy theories about Ukrainian election interference — “rather than grapple with the implications of our own intelligence communities’ assessments.”
The Senate has become an entirely partisan institution, Litt said. Votes on Trump’s removal from office will be determined by a senator’s political label of “D” or “R”, rather than born of “senators’ individual temperaments, political philosophies or even the states they represent.”
In the coming weeks, senators will consider a grave question: What do we do about President Trump’s behavior? Yet if we’re really serious about protecting our democracy, senators — and the Americans they represent — must start to consider another question as well, one that may prove in the long run even more important than the president’s fate:
What do we do about the Senate?