Homer, that famous Greek poet, is still revered these thousands of years later because, among other reasons, he was a great story teller. In his epic poem, Iliad, he tells of the great warrior, Achilles, who won absolutely every battle he fought, no matter how great the odds were against him, no matter the power of his opposition. He had, however, one secret weakness. If you could hit him in the back of his leg, just below the calf, you could bring him down. Sure enough, after Achilles fights and kills the great Trojan warrior, Hector, he is laid low by an arrow in the leg shot from the bow of the cowardly Paris. His death is now immortalized in the common phrase “Achilles heel”, which means a secret weakness in an otherwise powerful person or organization.
The United States was formed as a government commonly referred to as a representative democracy. The term “democracy” means literally rule by the people, and it contrasts with such forms of rule as monarchy (rule by one), oligarchy (rule by a few), plutocracy (rule by the rich), aristocracy (rule by the presumably best), and others, among which my personal favorite is kleptocracy, which means rule by thieves, people who rule for their own personal gain while disregarding the interests of the people they are supposed to govern.
Democracy has not always been admired. Plato called it the worst form of government. Churchill called democracy “the worst form of government except for all the others.” George Bernard Shaw said democracy was “a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” Mencken called democracy “the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” And someone once said that democracy is a terrible form of government and should be replaced as soon as someone finds a better one.
Our founders were acutely aware of the criticisms, and their genius lay in the fact that they created what has been described as “the great experiment”. Those great men attempted to build, and in many ways succeeded in building, a government based on the will of the people but so structured that it would avoid or even eliminate the natural tendency of such governments to devolve into tyranny. The main devices proposed by those great men to defeat that ugly prospect were a bevy of checks and balances, each meant to prevent the acquisition of unquestioned power by an influential few. The greatest of these checks and balances is the division of the government into three separate units: the legislative to create laws, the executive to enforce those laws, and the judicial to impartially determine the validity of those laws and the propriety of their execution.
The great American experiment has, however, an Achilles heel. We are, today, in the midst of the single greatest attack on the American experiment this country has ever seen, and that attack is precisely upon those checks and balances meant to make the experiment work. The president has shown ignorant and sociopathic disdain for not only the legislative and judicial branches of government but even for the checks and balances built into his own executive branch. His very presence in the position of president is a threat to democracy. But he is not alone in this attack. Legislators are now bent on destroying the impartiality of the judicial branch by appointing people whose main qualification for the judiciary is their willingness to adopt the views of those in power in the legislature. The recent appointment of Justice Gorsuch is only one example of this perversion. Perhaps more importantly, legislatures are more and more limiting public access to their deliberations. What the Republicans did in creating their horrendous health care proposal is only one example of this, and Democrats are not immune to the same failing.
If we are to save the American experiment, we have to face a few things. First of all, we voted in a person completely unfit for the office of president. That office requires a person who understands and honors the distribution of power among the three branches of government. Trump is not just ignorant of that fact; he detests it. Given even a fraction of a chance, he will destroy that distribution, and that will effectively end the experiment.
Second, and absolutely most important, we, the people, have to give up our hostility to those with views opposed to our own. The tone of MSNBC is just as inimical to democracy as the tone of FOX news. We can not afford political discourse based on ridicule and scorn. We cannot afford to respond to the serious efforts of those with divergent views by laughter and satire. We need, we desperately need, we will not continue as a democracy unless we are willing, to listen, to appreciate, to honor and to compromise. The know-it-all superciliousness of the Clinton Democrats is just as annoying, and every bit as dangerous, as the secretive power mongering of the Trumpian Republicans.
It may be true that socialized medicine is the only way to provide to our citizens their right to basic medical care. If the American experiment is to continue, however, we cannot get there by edict. To preserve the great gains that experiment has achieved, and to fulfill the great promises it suggests, we must develop our solutions in mutual accord. In the American vision, all true and valuable change must be incremental. If we do not do that, if we continue to try to rule by power, the inevitable result is tyranny. There are those who feel we have already crossed that line, that we are now essentially ruled by a wealthy few. That is not true. Lincoln was right. You can’t fool all the people all the time. The American experiment is still alive, and it is those people who will decide its fate. You are one of those people. Your failure to honor opposing views is America’s Achilles heel. It is in your hands.