Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does.

Fresno Bee, December 13, 2020

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does. Many Americans would like to say, “Yes Virginia, there was a legitimate election.” But the Scrooges are saying, “Bah, humbug.”

A number of Americans believe that the election was stolen. One poll reports that half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election. Another poll found that 62% of Republicans say it’s “very likely” that the election was stolen by Democrats.

This means that when Joe Biden is inaugurated, many will view him as a shopping mall Santa, sitting on a throne of lies.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. If what the president says is true, the Democrats have stolen our republic. If what the president says if false, then he is the Grinch hijacking our democracy.

It is difficult to tell how serious this is. It is one thing to say you don’t believe in Santa. It is another thing to stop celebrating Christmas.

We’ll see how this cookie crumbles after the Electoral College votes and someone is inaugurated. Will the nonbelievers choose to act on their disbelief? If so, let’s hope that their actions are nonviolent. To protest non-violently is the nonbelievers right, grounded in the First Amendment. But violence is extra-constitutional and revolutionary.

Nonbelievers might stop paying taxes, for example. Of course, tax resisters will be prosecuted. But that is the point. Nonviolent protesters go to jail to protest a corrupt system.

I am not advocating this. I happen to believe the state election officials, the courts, and other experts who concluded that the election was legitimate. But this whole system is based upon faith.

Like Christmas, democracy is a ritual and a pageant. At some point we make a leap of faith and choose to play along. People have a right to stop playing along. But there are consequences.

One famous defense of playing along begins by saying, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Francis P. Church said that Virginia and her 8-year-old friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” He defended the importance of “childlike faith” in magic, poetry, fantasy and romance.

Government also involves fantasy and faith. A flag is a piece of cloth. A law is merely words on a page. These things come alive when we believe in them.

Francis Church wrote that the best things are those we cannot see. He spoke of Santa Claus as a metaphor for the hidden wonders of the world — for love and beauty, meaning and transcendence.

He could as well have been talking about democracy. Like Christmas, democracy exists in the minds of men and women. It only exists when we play along. When people stop playing along, the fantasy ends. If enough people stop playing along, the whole thing collapses.

Perhaps skepticism is warranted in this skeptical age. We know that there really is no Santa Claus. And as the partisans squabble, it is increasingly difficult to believe in the idea of America. Maybe it is time to wake up from the dream of e pluribus unum.

But it’s worth asking what we would wake up to, if we stopped playing along. If we give up on the dream of democracy, what would replace it? If we stop believing in America, then what?

Christmas is a good time to think about what we believe.

Do we believe in country more than party?

Do we have faith in democracy or not?

Christmas is also a time of transformation.

After the Grinch stole Christmas, he was surprised. The Grinch thought that if he stole the tree and the presents, the Whos of Whoville would have nothing to celebrate. But they came together and sang anyway. And the Grinch’s heart grew.

The Grinch learned that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. He learned that Christmas “means a little bit more.”

When we wake up from this nightmare winter, will we learn something similar?

The future looks bleak. But this is also a season of hope.

So let’s hope that if there are protests, they remain nonviolent.

Let’s hope that we can sing in harmony again.

And let’s hope that the Scrooges and Grinches will decide to play along.

Shutdown raises questions

Fresno Bee

October 4, 2013

We don’t really think about our tools until they break. The proper functioning of a car, for example, is simply taken for granted. But when your car breaks down, you may stop to wonder whether it is time to get a new one — or even to switch to a bicycle.

In recent days, it is the government that has had a breakdown. Is it time to replace the 225-year-old vehicle of the Constitution with a different one?

Thomas Jefferson once suggested, in a letter to James Madison, that no society can make a perpetual constitution. As Jefferson put it in 1789, the earth belongs to the living, not the dead. Each generation is entitled to reassess the rules and institutions under which it lives. Jefferson suggested that every 19 years or so, the previous constitution naturally expires.

But we venerate our good old Constitution, often forgetting that it was the result of compromise and war, produced by men who were not perfect. The “three-fifths compromise” is one notorious bargain, intended to get slave-holders to accept the document by counting slaves as partial persons. A brutal Civil War resolved the constitutional crisis caused by slave-holding states who challenged the power of the federal government.

But structural problems remain. Consider the system of representation. A compromise gives all states equal representation in the Senate, while state populations are more evenly represented in the House. This gives small states inordinate power in the Senate.

And some citizens have no representation in the Senate. Residents of the District of Columbia outnumber the residents of small states such as Wyoming or Vermont. But Vermont and Wyoming each get two Senators, while D.C. gets none. Similar lack of representation holds for citizens of Puerto Rico, whose population outnumbers that of dozens of states.

A further problem is that presidential elections occur through Electoral College votes. In combination with the winner-takes-all voting procedure, this gives inordinate power to swing states. And as a result, the popular vote for president does not matter.

There are other problems. Consider how odd it is to provide lifetime terms for nonelected judges, some of whom serve into their 80s. Or consider the fact that simple majorities among justices can overturn laws. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Supreme Court justices to serve limited terms — or to increase the number of justices, or to appoint justices by geographical region or to require more than a one-vote majority to overturn a law?

The Constitution does allow amendments. But the requirements of the amendment process are onerous. A two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress is needed to propose an amendment, which must be ratified by three-fourths of the states. In the era of two-party partisanship, amendments are rare. The last amendment lowered the voting age to 18 — in 1971. How many new cars have your purchased since 1971?

Other problems include the two-party system and the power of lobbyists and special-interest money. The outcomes and results have not been great in recent years: unjust wars, governmental spying, the use of torture, lobbying scandals, massive debt, biased enforcement at the IRS, economic inequality and now a government shutdown. The glitches and flaws in the system should incense both Republicans and Democrats.

Every school child learns that the three branches of government and the bicameral legislature create a system of checks and balances. This system does not facilitate seamless and speedy decision-making. Instead, this vehicle is built for safety and stability — by protecting the rights of individuals and minorities.

The current shutdown occurred is an example of this. A few representatives in one house of Congress manipulated the system. It depends on your perspective as to whether this is a good or bad thing. But the shutdown is legal and permitted by the Constitution.

Some may think that this indicates the need for a trade-in. The 19-year lease on constitutions imagined by Jefferson expired long ago. But perhaps we prefer our rusty, inefficient old clunker. Given our disagreements, we’d never be able to agree to a new make and model. In the meantime, let’s hope the congressional grease monkeys get our jalopy back on the road again soon.

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