America’s Original Sins
We live in a corrupt state. It’s not just bad actors — we’ll always have those — it’s the system itself. It’s corrupt in its construction. The compromises necessary to its founding — America’s original sins — have rotted it from within.
We don’t want to believe this. We’re good people! And hey, some 60 percent of us, depending on the day’s polling, really are. We want to do good, be good. Collectively, we have that spirit.
And our corrupt structure of government crushes it.
It’s actually a good structure, on the whole, a sound structure. Read the Federalist Papers. Read what the founders saw themselves doing, their understanding of human nature, of power, how to channel that power collectively without that power turning against the people from whom it derives. Really good stuff. Practical stuff. A belief in our inherent goodness, implemented with an understanding of our inherent evil.
We’ll always have bad actors among us. That was the genius of the contraption. The founders built that in. They didn’t rely on angels to run the joint. They knew who would be seeking that power. They knew human nature. They knew themselves.
In short: Split the power three ways. No branch can dominate without the cooperation or acquiescence of another. Diffuse the power, both within the government and among the people electing it. Let the competition for power, the lust for power, provide its own protection. The lustier it gets, the safer it gets. The American government, as conceived, is a thing of beauty.
There were three original sins in making it happen.
The first we all know: What to do about the slaves. The sin wasn’t counting them as three-fifths human, it was counting them at all. They had no representation in the government, no rights as citizens. To count them at all, whatever the infernal formula, was to corrupt the foundation of the government, a government conceived as a government of citizens, not subjects. The slaves were subjects. Counting them provided disproportionate power to the citizens who owned them. That’s the sin of the founding of our government, the necessary compromise to found it at all.
That slaves even existed was the sin of the founding of our nation. The two are fundamentally the same — obviously — but distinct in application.
That sin, the national sin, survives to this day. It thrives among us. It feeds the corruption of our government, and of our society. But it is not the corruption of our government itself.
That’s the other two sins.
We know these sins — we talk about them all the time — but we do not know them as sins. We know them as our System of Government, the very structure of it. They are not. They are a perversion of what our government was meant to express, what it was meant to apply. They are a sin against the idea of our government.
You can find that idea, clearly stated, beautifully expressed, in the poetry of our founding document, just past the part we all know, the part about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (That last item was originally “property”, but the founders were also good editors.)
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
And just past that:
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”
And here we are.
Two features of our instituted government continue to undermine the principle that established it, to be destructive of the ends of just power, to deny the consent of the governed.
The first we’ve all been talking about a lot lately. An institution that awards supreme leadership to a candidate who fell 2,868,686 votes of victory is fundamentally corrupt, definitionally illegitimate. That “those were the rules” only makes the point that the Electoral College does not express the consent of the governed, and is by its very nature a sin against our founding principle.
The President represents the citizens of America, not the states. Or should. Ours does not. He is, definitionally, to borrow another word from the Declaration, a Despot.
But we’re at least arguing about the Electoral College, whatever the terms of discussion. And, to the practical degree possible in the moment, legislatures are attempting to route around it by agreeing to a scheme that awards all their electoral votes to the popular-vote winner.
The third sin against the Declaration, against the principle of the consent of the governed, is the greatest: The Senate. That sin continues to go unrecognized, although awareness is dawning. The majority of senators represents 18 percent of the population.
Wait, let’s shout that:
THE MAJORITY OF SENATORS REPRESENTS 18 PERCENT OF THE POPULATION.
This is not the breakdown by party — bad, but not nearly as bad — but the breakdown by citizens, upon whose consent the government’s legitimacy rests. This is not despotism by a few million votes, a statistically occasional exception to our history, this is flagrant, structural, fundamental despotism. The reasons for it, the theories justifying it — after the fact — are bullshit, as James Madison said, though with more propriety. It is a sin against the very reason our nation fought for its independence in the first place: To rule for ourselves.
And we’re stuck with it, because the very states that enjoy their despotic rule over the nation’s citizens can block any attempt to rework it.
We’re stuck with it, but we don’t have to be quiet about. We can see the Senate for what it is, a corrupt institution thwarting the consent of the governed, a despotic cancer upon the body politic.
We can do that. We can live in truth about it. We can live in truth about the Senate, the Electoral College, the Republicans who consent to foreign involvement in our politics for their own gain, and the 40 percent of American citizens who see nothing wrong with all that.
We can do that. Or we can be Joe Biden.