Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. . . . It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.¹
Federalist Paper 51 by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton
As the presidential election of 2020 hurtles into its final month, the chaotic press of events overwhelms us. We struggle to process and understand the centrifugal forces ripping our nation apart. Last week’s presidential debate had the dignity and intellectual fervor of a professional wrestling match. Do we even remember that the Senate is racing to confirm a new justice despite the President and Republican senators’ diagnosis with Covid-19? The sorry state of the Boston Red Sox provides no refuge for beleaguered New Englanders. Even Cam Newton has Covid-19.
Turning off the television and our news feeds is now an essential component of self-care. Keeping current on all fast-breaking stories prevents us from developing a larger perspective. History reminds us that the election of 2020 will eventually fade into the distant past. Likewise, the American empire, like all empires, will eventually collapse.
We must revisit our partial narratives of American History to understand the roots our current predicament. The lessons of the past two hundred and fifty years of American history reveal the deep resilience of American democracy. They also expose the structural flaws of the Constitution that have privileged the voices of elites and prevented us from confronting our deeper national challenges.
The Constitution was written in 1787 after years of intractable political crises. The Articles of Confederation had provided the necessary structure to win the Revolutionary War and make peace with England. Without the bond of war, they proved too weak to settle internal squabbling among the states and resolve the…