Friday, July 31, 2020

A Fifth American Republic

President Obama gave the eulogy at Congressman John Lewis's funeral in Atlanta yesterday, and (as the saying goes) hit it out of the park. (I don't like sports analogies and seldom use them, but they have the advantage that they are so widely understood.) Of course, Obama rose to prominence in 2004 on the power of his oratory, and it was his oratory that helped him attain political power. So we expect good words for him, and we got them.

Early in his speech, he reminded us that "this country is a constant work in progress. We were born with instructions: to forma  more perfect union." 

It is a commonplace to note that this country was founded with an imperfect 18th-century constitution and then refounded, so to speak, through civil war and the three reconstruction amendments. That refounding gave us a second chance to attempt that more perfect union. Our second republic got off to a good start, but then regressed when northern lack of interest allied with southern racism to undo most of what had been accomplished. The formal constitutional structures of the second American republic - the reconstruction amendments - remained in place but were not enforced, and so the second republic, so promisingly born, became the regime of Jim Crow and the capitalist Guilded Age. The Progeressive Movement did little about Jim Crow but did set in motion a movement to address that other cause of systemic inequality. When finally the capitalist system came crashing down in the Great Depression, another refounding moment occurred - the New Deal - defined not in constitutional amendments but in activist legislation and a  "constitutional revolution" in jurisprudence that radically reframed the role of the federal government in the interest of democracy and the majority of Americans. That third American republic won the Second World War and went on to provide the greatest period of widespread prosperity and relative equality in American history. In time, that led to the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to correct the great remaining failure of American society. Through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a fourth American republic was founded, which further perfected the union. Like the second republic, however, it faltered and foundered, especially in the wake of the disastrous election of 1980. The attempt to nail the fourth republic's coffin shut came with the disastrous 2013 Shelby County v, Holder decision of the US Supreme Court, which enabled the political agenda of voter suppression. 

The obvious answer to America's present predicament is another refounding of democracy - a fifth American republic. and President Obama in his masterful eulogy laid out the essential elements of its agenda:

1. Adopting a renewed Voting Rights Act to restore what has been taken away;
2. Making sure every American is automatically registered to vote;
3. Adding polling places, expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday;
4. Statehood for DC and Puerto Rico; 

and - essential to achieving all of the above - "eliminating the filibuster," which Obama reminded us is just "another Jim Crow relic."

What an agenda that would be for the first 100 days of an American fifth republic!

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