It all started in Philadelphia. In the hot summer of 1787, a small group of men did something never tried before.
They drafted a plan for a new political system, a popular government to replace the British system of royal rule. The 39 state delegates planned that the people would rule their large country through their elected representatives – a chief executive and a legislature.
To prevent any president or Congress from assuming royal powers, the Framers of the Constitution set up a system of checks and balances and required frequent elections. The result is the American republic.
Protection of the people’s sovereign power relied on respecting the values ensuring that government power would be exercised within constitutional limits and that individual rights would have to be respected by government. This became the concept called “liberal democracy.”
The American idea was so new and untested that the system was labeled an “experiment.” Its purpose was to find out if one-man rule could be replaced by representative democracy with power exercised by federal and state governments, but with the people having the final say.
The Framers intentionally designed an inefficient system, making hasty decisions and one-man rule more difficult. That inefficiency gave people the chance to exercise more careful control. This American system would replace the efficiency of a king who made all the decisions.
Liberal democracy worked in the U.S., though not perfectly. Still, its example led to its adoption in countries as diverse as Poland and Australia. It took hold throughout Europe after the failure of Hitler’s dictatorial rule in Nazi Germany and the fall of Communism. Any surviving kings or queens became mere figureheads.
But the American idea has recently come under serious challenge. Its intentional inefficiency, meant to protect the people, has failed to produce results that some, perhaps only a minority of the people, want. They are willing to accept some one-man rule to get what they want.
Tired of the cumbersome operation of representative democracy, some people demand change. And change can mean accepting more authoritarian rule.
Take Hungary. After the fall of Communism there, the country installed a democratic system. But when Victor Orban was elected to be head of the government, he openly declared his country an “illiberal state.” The people would vote, but would give up many of their rights to him.
Much the same has happened in Turkey, Poland, Venezuela and the Philippines. Italy and Austria have begun to lean in that direction. The tide of history seems to be running against the American experiment. Popular control is giving way to elected leaders who impose their personal rule.
Is this turn toward the “illiberal state” taking place in America itself? There’s little doubt that some Americans want change to restore a drastically limited government. Or they may simply be fed up with the intentional inefficiency of democracy. Government accomplishes little in their view. A strong president can act.
President Trump, like the leaders of illiberal countries, appears to believe that his personal views should rule. His belief may be based less on a well-developed political agenda and more on his confidence in his own ability to make the best deals and decisions through his claimed superior skills and based on his surprising electoral mandate.
While he is a Republican and members of the loyal GOP support him, he is not advancing traditional policies of his party, like free trade or opposition to Russia. Instead, his personal policy views, often changing, dominate.
Experienced career officials are written off as being part of the “deep state.” Major federal government posts are left unfilled. Agency heads are unimportant when the White House, under direct presidential control, is meant to be all the government the country needs.
Even in a small like Maine, the same move away from a democratic republic has been taking place. The Maine system of government is similar to the federal system, but the people themselves may also pass laws by their direct vote. This direct democracy is a hallmark of popular control.
But Gov. LePage forces his personal views on public issues to prevail over the vote of the people, who are supposed have the final word. Mainers voted for Medicaid expansion, but he gained embarrassing national attention for the state when he said he’d go to jail rather than allow it to happen.
Is the American experiment losing out to one-man rule? The answer may be far more important to the future of the U.S. and other democracies than the resolution of today’s policy battles.