The story goes that in the closing days of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin whether the participants had decided upon a republic or a monarchy. Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Franklin was not the only Founder who, even though committed to the republic, questioned its long-term survival. John Adams, in a letter to John Taylor in 1814, wrote of an inherent vulnerability of democracy.
“Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide,” Adams wrote. And then he explained that the weakness was rooted in the faults of men.
“It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy,” Adams wrote. “Those passions are the same in all men under all forms of government.”
Yet, perhaps miraculously, 236 years later, America remains a republic and to a large degree abiding by the same principles that were agreed upon at Independence Hall so long ago. However, it is a mistake to assume that the past is prologue.
At times — and this is one of them — our democracy feels threadbare. The principles upon which the republican must stand are relegated by the passions of men and women, just as Adams feared. Nowhere is that more obvious than the current race for the presidency in 2024.
Both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have their core supporters, but most voters would prefer an alternative. A recent NBC News poll found that 70% of all Americans, including 51% of Democrats, believe Biden should not run for a second term. Sixty percent of Americans, including one-third of Republicans, believe Trump should not run again.
Voters have myriad reasons for wanting someone else, and who can blame them?
Biden is showing his age and offering himself up as better than the alternative, which is hardly a compelling reason. Also, he may yet be caught up in his son Hunter’s scandal if the Republicans claim that the elder Biden took a $5 million bribe.
As for Trump, where to begin? The charge of hiding the payoff to Stormy Daniels is weak, but the federal charges stemming from Trump’s handling of government documents are serious. And he may face more charges because of his plea to Georgia election officials to find votes in an election he still falsely claims he won.
Meanwhile, political opportunists continue to saddle up to their front-running horse, not because they are principled but because they want to be on the winning side for their own benefit. Their arguments are less about what their party will do and more about what is wrong with the other party or the other candidate. The passions, ambitions and vanity are overriding the principles.
That is neither productive nor inspiring.
Is this the best we can do? I would like to think it isn’t, that this is just a rough patch and before long we will pull through as we always have, but I’m not convinced. The increasingly hostile and tribal atmosphere of our politics and the absence of coherent and incorruptible leadership at the top, are exhausting and dispiriting. These are the characteristics of a worn-out democracy.
We were warned long ago this could happen.