For transatlantic admirers of Jonathan Freedland’s Bring Home the Revolution (1999), the shaking of Freedland’s regard for the American constitutional system is disappointing but understandable (The year of Trump has laid bare the US constitution’s serious flaws, 30 December). The first year in “Trumplandia” has been a disheartening, infuriating slog for most Americans; nevertheless, there is reason to hope that the constitutional mechanism will right itself and vindicate Freedland’s original estimate of it.
Freedland correctly diagnoses Donald Trump’s disregard for constitutional norms and the feckless lack of principle of today’s Grand Old Party, yet these very patterns of behaviour have engendered a renaissance in the assertion of first amendment rights by the American public, especially the exercise of free speech and free assembly, and the operation of a free press. Activism by individuals and by myriad groups has flowered; the “resistance” to Trump is real. The American media also have shaken off their torpor. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian, among others, are exposing the epic malfeasance and cynicism of Republican rule. The investigation by the special counsel Robert S Mueller promises, moreover, to reveal the irregularities of the 2016 election and to cast in sharper relief the sordid impulses that animate Trump’s “clown fascism”.
Removal of Trump through the impeachment process, as Freedland notes, seems improbable; however, the electoral eclipse of the GOP in 2018 and of Trump in 2020, and a return to normative political practice, remain real possibilities. Trump’s conduct is singularly atrocious but the American constitutional system has weathered graver challenges – a bloody civil war, McCarthyism – and emerged strengthened. While legislative and constitutional reinforcement of heretofore unwritten norms may be necessary in the longer term, the ballot box can still be a potent corrective in the shorter term.
Richmond, Virginia, USA
• Jonathan Freedland claims that it was a fatal oversight of the framers of the US constitution, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton in particular, not to “reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country”. Yet in Federalist paper 10, The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection, written before the constitution was ratified, and laying out some of the thinking behind its creation, Madison writes of factions, defined as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”.
Putting party ahead of country, as Freedland frames it, fits this definition fairly well. Further, it becomes increasingly clear, on any plausible and full reading of Madison’s paper, that the framers were well aware of the ways in which a powerful and united faction could corrupt both the republican ideal and its political practice.
James Garfield Doyle
• Having long been held up as one of the great blueprints of democracy, the US constitution appears to be seriously – and centrally – flawed in allowing, indeed requiring, the president to nominate candidates for the supreme court. This, and the ensuing process of approval by the Senate, renders the appointment process inherently political.
Montesquieu’s theory of the separation of powers between legislature, executive and judiciary – recognised as the essential tenet of democracy, the merging of any two of such powers paving the way to totalitarianism – appears to have been overlooked by the wise and enlightened members of Congress who drafted the constitution.
The comparison with the process for appointments to the UK supreme court is stark, the selection here being an object lesson not only in choosing the best candidates but in depoliticised objectivity, those responsible for drafting the appointment rules being truly worthy of Montesquieu’s plaudits.
Trump’s appointment of the arch-conservative Neil Gorsuch to the supreme court brought into sharp focus the role of the president and the extension of his powers into all three facets of government, the electing of a president with scant regard for the value of civil society or the rule of law thus being a cause of great alarm.
Shoreham, West Sussex
• One thing that would make a great difference in the US system of government would be a fair electoral system. Not one that excludes anyone without big money, not one where large parts of the country appear as totally dominated by one of the big parties, and where minorities are unrepresented or, in the case of gerrymandering, where majorities are underrepresented.
If the single transferable vote were adopted, those who support gun control and other sane measures would be much freer to say so and the power of malignant bodies such as the NRA diminished.
Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh
• Jonathan Freedland says that “the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players”. In the UK we have at least one very striking parallel. Before Margaret Thatcher’s time, certainly from the end of the second world war onwards, that self-restraint was generally practised and we experienced a relatively pluralist approach to governance. Thatcher and her people recognised that constitutionally the centre was in charge and that the self-restraint previously practised would only prevent them from reaching their objectives. In this sense Thatcher was a populist too, not entirely dissimilar from Trump, and we are still suffering from her legacy four decades later.
Professor Ron Glatter
Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire
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