“A Republic, if You Can Keep It”

In September 1787, just as the U.S. Constitution was being finished, a Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got?  A republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic, if you can keep it,” was the sage’s reply.

Thanks to the unholy combination of Republican-named U.S. Supreme Court justices and the Republicans on Capitol Hill and in various state capitols, we are, it seems, close to finding out whether Franklin was right.

The aim or ideal of the U.S. has been to have a government with the consent of the governed.  In practice, that hasn’t always occurred.  There have been too many cases where oligarchs and plutocrats ran roughshod over the rest of us.  The slave-ridden antebellum South comes to mind.  So does the Gilded Age.

Now we seem to be in a third such era, as the justices have opened wide, in both 2010 and this week, the floodgates of corporate cash to overwhelm our political system – and shut everyone else out.

And those plutocrats have in turn wielded their power to deprive the rest of us of, to quote another constitutional phrase, “the benefits of republican government.”  That’s republican with a small “r,” not a capital “R.”

An angry associate justice Stephen Breyer got the point, in his dissent to the latest High Court ruling – the one that took the reins off individual donors.

The 5-man GOP-named court majority “misconstrues the nature of the competing

constitutional interests at stake,” Breyer wrote in his McCutcheon vs FEC dissent.  “It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions.

It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.  Taken together with Citi­zens United” – the original, horrifying 2010 case – “today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

The key way of preserving that legitimacy is free speech, Breyer writes.

“The Framers had good reason to emphasize this connection between political speech and governmental action. An influential 18th-century philosopher argued that in a representative democracy, the people lose control of their representatives between elections, during which interim periods they were in chains.

“The Framers responded to this criticism both by requiring frequent elections to federal office, and by enacting a 1st Amendment that would facilitate a ‘chain of communication between the people, and those, to whom they have committed the exercise of the powers of government.’

“Accordingly, the 1st Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters  (his emphasis).

“What has this to do with corruption?  It has everything to do with corruption.

Corruption breaks the constitutionally necessary ‘chain of communication’ between the people and their representatives. It derails the essential speech-to-government-action tie. Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard.

“Insofar as corruption cuts the link between political thought and political action, a free marketplace of political ideas loses its point.  That is one reason why the (Supreme) Court has stressed the constitutional importance of Congress’ concern that a few large donations not drown out the voices of the many.”

Yet the combination of the two High Court rulings, both by 5-4 votes (with all five coming from the GOP-named majority) do precisely that, Breyer declares.

“The ‘appearance of corruption’ can make matters worse,” he adds.  “It can lead the public to believe that its efforts to communicate with its representatives or to help sway public opinion have little purpose. And a cynical public can lose interest in political participation altogether.”

Justice Breyer was being polite in saying the cynical public can lose interest in politics.  Try the phrases “bitter,” “angry” and “ready for revolution” instead.

“Where enough money calls the tune, the general public will not be heard,” Justice Breyer says.  And the republic Franklin discussed is gone.

Then the public, having been shut out of politics, and having seen their republic go down the drain, may turn to more drastic methods than the ballot box.  Or as another founder, Thomas Jefferson, wrote, just two months after Franklin’s quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

That time may be closer than we think.