The Soul of the Nation is the Constitution

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Harlan Ullman

3/4 of Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction; and about half fear the onset of a civil war

President Joe Biden faces what he calls two possibly existential conflicts. The first is the struggle between autocracy and democracy. The second was declared last week in Philadelphia: the fight for the soul of the nation against Trump “MAGA Republicans.”
This column disagrees that the great struggle is between democracy and autocracy. The crucial question is whether democracies can function effectively, not whether they will succumb to autocracies. In the second fight, nations have no souls. Democratic nations have publics, constitutions, written or otherwise, and political systems.
As the president correctly pointed out, the political basis for America’s democracy is the Constitution. And the Constitution is under assault. However, the assailants are not only “MAGA Republicans.” This is a bipartisan attack with both parties responsible.
The Constitution is predicated on checks and balances. These have become badly unbalanced. Nowhere are political parties cited in that document. Indeed, the Founding Fathers eschewed “factions” as surrogates for political parties. Political parties continue to dominate politics. Yet, along the way, both political parties have proven incapable of properly governing.
What makes this situation even more desperate is that the forces creating this threat to the Constitution have also ironically conspired to turn China and Russia from competitors into enemies. The White House, Congress and the public have failed to recognize and understand these grotesque transformations and the grave dangers posed by each that threaten the nation and beyond. How did this happen?
The unravelling of the Constitution probably began with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 and America’s descent into the Vietnam disaster. At that point, about 3/4 of Americans expressed full trust and confidence in government. Nearly sixty years later, no former and current president and current Congress and Supreme Court have ever been held in such low public standing.
Today, few American institutions are trusted. The public is irreversibly divided along partisan lines on virtually every issue. Even the Covid-19 crisis in which over one million Americans have died failed to unite and indeed further divided the nation over vaccines, masks and shutdowns.
Civility and open discourse have vanished. Each party now views the other as the enemy. Worse, compromise on which the Constitution rests means capitulation or appeasement. And when there is rare bipartisan agreement such as on Gun Control, that law will have little impact on reducing gun violence.
As a result, America is a mess: the southern border and illegal immigration are in disarray; there is no viable energy or climate change policy; inflation and debt swell; 3/4 of Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction; and about half fear the onset of a civil war.
This vindictiveness and anger were manifested in the president’s Philadelphia speech. The president acknowledged all Republicans were not Trump MAGA Republicans. But the latter, Biden claimed, were destroying the soul of the nation. Many of the seventy-million Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 must have taken offence. This is not necessarily the best approach to unify a nation if that were possible. The same characterization applies to foreign policy.
How Democrats view Republicans and vice versa is how Congress and the president regard China and Russia. For example, the trips of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional delegations to Taiwan could not have been better timed to provoke China. Why?
Yes, Russia illegally invaded Ukraine. But that does mean foreclosing all engagement to seek an end to the fighting in Ukraine. The US negotiated with Red China as UN soldiers were dying on Korea’s 38th parallel and with the North Vietnamese as US servicemen were being killed in South Vietnam.
Internationally, the US has stumbled into a two-front conflict with China and Russia. The National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for containing, deterring and if war comes, defeating both. That strategy is unachievable, unexecutable and unaffordable.
No one has explained why China and Russia are enemies or what are the actual, as opposed to hypothetical, threats emanating from them. Nor has anyone asked whether the US bears any responsibility for this precipitous decline in relations. In the current septic political environment, those questions would be considered, as with any domestic compromise, appeasement or capitulation.
Never before in its history has the United States been confronted with such dangerous and simultaneous threats from home and abroad. Some are of our own making. But will America ever reverse this perilous state of affairs?