(Note: This essay was the first in the series I wrote for Al Jazeera Balkans in the Bosnian language on the 2020 US elections. I felt that the English reading audience might benefit from these essays. I did not have the time to translate them, so I employed Google Translate, which has grown remarkably accurate over time. I did have to fix the text in a number of places. Overall, I think it captures what I originally wrote in Bosnian. As it's a Google (and not human) translation, it retains the sentence structure as it is in the original, which does not always sound great in English. Obviously, had I written this in English or translated it myself, I would've changed the structure. As it were, and due to time constraints, I'm leaving the translation as is. I think it is still readable and understandable. If you, however, notice inaccuracies, hard-to-understand constructions, or errors, please feel free to email me, and I'll fix them. Happy reading! ES)
There is a famous anecdote from the early period of American history. The year is 1787, eleven years after the United States declared independence. One woman asked the famous Benjamin Franklin, as he left the hall where the constitutional congress was held to discuss the future American constitution, "What have you given us, a republic or a monarchy?" Franklin answered, "A republic, if you can keep it."
The American Republic went through several challenges and trials, the biggest of which was the Civil War (1861-1865), which almost destroyed this then relatively young country. Many afterward believed that the biggest challenges would be external, Nazi Germany or the communist Soviet Union, and perhaps China at the moment. But history teaches that unless they are conquered and defeated from the outside - and this is hard to expect in the case of the United States - great powers usually collapse from within. Therefore, Donald J. Trump’s presidential term is perhaps the biggest challenge to the U.S. constitutional order. Politicians and analysts are often prone to exaggeration, calling almost every election fateful. These elections, by all indications, probably are. Their result will largely provide an answer to Franklin's comment on the preservation of the republic.
In the next few weeks, I will try to portray the pre-election atmosphere and the situation in which the sole world superpower currently finds itself, with special reference to the political and economic situation, education, the role of religion, the position of American Muslims, and American foreign policy. The goal is not to repeat what is already available in the news that is otherwise dominated by America and Trump but to offer an analysis based on years of studying and tracking trends within American society. I will accompany the texts with experiences and anecdotes that will bring American everyday life closer to the readers. This first essay will offer context, that is, lay the groundwork for understanding American political philosophy and culture.
America is often spoken of as a paradigmatic democracy. It should be recalled, however, that democracy was an almost non-existent category at the time of the creation of the United States. American thinkers and statesmen have been debating what the best form of government was for at least a couple of decades before the U.S. Constitution was passed. James Madison, who is also the main author of the American Constitution, studied the various constitutional arrangements that existed throughout history and came to the conclusion that democracy on the Athenian principle would not be possible in a large state like America. Even then, America was territorially much smaller than now. In the end, he proposed that America be organized as a republic, that is, a representative democracy, and as a federation. Ralph Ketchum, the author of Madison's most important biography (with whom I studied the Foundations of American Political Thought during my doctoral studies at Syracuse University), argued that when it comes to "the intentions of the founders of the American state," we primarily mean Madison. The other, opposing, side advocated a confederate arrangement with a very weak central government and high authority of the constituent states. These disagreements continued even after the establishment of the United States as a state, only to culminate in the 1861 Civil War.
Although the forces that supported the Union, that is, the existing constitution, won, the echoes of the American Civil War have remained to this day. The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be aware of these echoes. The question of the flag is one such stumbling block. Are the flags used during the Civil War separatist? Is the Confederate flag a racist symbol, given that the Confederacy fought for the survival of slavery? Was the nature of the Civil War a struggle for greater rights of states / federal units or was it a struggle to abolish the slaveholding system? The Pew Research Center conducted a 2011 survey in which 48 percent of Americans said the Civil War was fought for the rights of states, while 38 percent believed the main reason was the fight against slavery. Although the name American Civil War is widely accepted, in some states of the American South there is still talk of the War of Northern Aggression.
The education system is controlled by the federal states, although there are certain regulations by the central government in Washington. So, for example, textbooks in Texas are different from textbooks in New York. Students from different American states often learn different versions of American history. Education is mainly funded from local sources, which creates huge inequalities. In richer areas, where income from taxpayers is higher, education also gets more money. Thus the differences between the richer and poorer parts of America are only deepening. The police are also under the control of the federal states. This division of competences between the central government and the governments of the federal states enables greater efficiency in a territorially large state such as the United States, but often creates a conflict between different levels of government. An obvious example happened during a recent demonstration in Washington. President Trump mobilized five thousand members of the National Guard even though the Washington District Police had the situation under control. Washington, as the capital of the United States, does not have the status of a federal state and therefore does not have a governor. Although the police are under the command of the mayor's office, there are several levels of security forces due to the presence of federal institutions.
As early as the 1970s, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noticed the phenomenon of "imperial presidency", about which he wrote a book with the same title. His main argument is that the function of the President of the United States has gone beyond the framework provided by the Constitution. In other words, presidents have increased the scope of the presidency over time, thereby upsetting the delicate balance between the three branches of government established by the U.S. Constitution. This can be seen especially in foreign policy where presidents often made unilateral decisions, especially in military operations. Although the U.S. Constitution specifies that only Congress has the right to declare war, presidents have often given authority to the military to intervene in conflicts around the world without prior Congressional approval. They justified that by the fact that the constitution appoints the president as the commander-in-chief.
This tension between Congress and the President continues to this day. Another source of presidential power is executive orders by which the president can create policy without the influence of Congress. These orders often end up in courts that sometimes declare such orders invalid. Just as with the imperial function, the number of these orders has increased throughout history. In the first nearly eighty years, concluding with Abraham Lincoln, presidents issued less than two hundred such orders, or on average less than three a year. Franklin Roosevelt issued over 3,700 orders during his 12-year presidential term or an average of over 300 a year! Of course, he presided during the recovery from the Great Depression, as well as during World War II. George W. Bush has issued 291, Barack Obama 276, and Donald Trump has issued 181 such orders so far. Trump was elected to such a strengthened presidency. The system of checks and balances was well disrupted even before he came to power. The question is whether the system can withstand another Trump mandate.
In September 2017, in one of the pavilions of the National Arboretum near Washington, I was at the oath ceremony at which I received American citizenship. A special ceremony was held to mark the Week of the American Constitution, which was signed as far back as 1787, that is, 230 years before I became a U.S. citizen. Next to me sat an Afghan with whom was a friend, an American. I approached to meet him, and after I told him my name, he introduced himself as, "David Rohde." "That David Rohde?" "Yes," he replied. My interlocutor was the famous David Rohde, who wrote the book "Endgame" about the genocide in Srebrenica, the first foreign journalist to expose the horrific crimes of the genocide in Srebrenica and even more horrific ways of covering them up, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize.
A few years later, he was in Afghanistan where he was arrested by the Taliban, along with his guide and driver - it was this Afghan who was receiving US citizenship that day. After spending seven months in captivity, David and his friend managed to escape from prison and finally return to America. (When he was arrested, David told the Taliban that he was reporting from Bosnia and that he was writing positive things about Muslims. One of the Taliban turned to the other and said, "This one is worth a lot of money!")
Our conversation soon turned to the political situation in America and Trump's mandate. David asked me what I thought of all this. I replied, somewhat naively to a political scientist, "I think our institutions are stronger than one man." Three years later, after Trump's systematic undermining of many constitutional institutions and democratic norms, I am no longer sure. The American republic is in crisis.
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Political scientist. Islam scholar. Southeast Asia and the Balkans analyst.