Could it happen here? Could a democratically elected leader come to rule us as an autocrat? Citizens of a free society can never lose sight of this question, and-however complacent many of us have become--the election of Donald Trump has shoved it back out to center stage.
"A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government," James Madison observed in The Federalist Papers, "but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." These precautions are the separation of powers and checks and balances, enshrined in the Constitution. Citizens concerned about tyranny from the leaders they have elected must depend on the other branches of government to defend the republic.
In particular, the public must rely on Congress, the branch of government that Madison felt "necessarily predominates," given its proximity to the people. Moreover, Article I of the Constitution vests in Congress "all legislative Powers herein granted," as well as ample implied powers of oversight, and the power of impeachment should that become necessary. If a strongman government ever takes root in America, it will not be simply because we elected a president determined to establish it, but because Congress acquiesced in his designs.
But if you ask Americans whether they think Congress will perform its duties responsibly, expect incredulity or laughter in response. Quite simply, the public has lost faith in the institution. A recent Gallup survey found that just 9 percent of Americans said they had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in Congress, compared to 73 percent who said the same about the military and 36 percent who felt that way about the presidency and the Supreme Court.
We can't blame the American people for their disdain. Recent years have seen unprecedented levels of polarization, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock on Capitol Hill. Three years ago, Republicans in Congress went so far as to shut down the federal government for two weeks in a vain effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which prompted President Obama's exasperated response: "[T]his is the United States of America, we're not some banana republic!"
Alas, this is no longer so obvious, which makes the contemporary nadir of Congress all the more problematic. The next four years will be an extreme test of our constitutional system. Will it survive? Let's use Madison's framework to assess its prospects: "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department," he wrote in The Federalist Papers, "consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others."
We know that congressional Democrats will have these personal motives. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her caucus, as well as incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and his colleagues, will be quick to oppose the policies they find objectionable and any constitutional perversions Trump might foment.
But will GOP lawmakers also have the motivation and-more importantly--the guts to stand up to a president of their own party? And, if so, will they have the "constitutional means" to do it effectively? Or is Congress itself currently too weak and dysfunctional to check an out-of-control executive? (Spoiler alert: it is.) Hence we must also ask whether Republicans are willing to reform and bolster the institution they lead to enable Congress to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.
This is a daunting set of questions to contemplate, especially for liberals skeptical of anything constructive happening on Capitol Hill. But there are signs that the Republican-controlled Congress could have the inclination and wherewithal to play its part in Madison's system--look no further...