By John Farmer
Force. Brutal force. The force that through their weapons drives their power: obliterating neighborhoods and hospitals, bombing unarmed civilians, murdering children in order to slake a 30-year lust for power. Suffocating democracy as the world watches helplessly day by day. Strangling a people’s fierce indigenous spirit. Force.
That’s what is on display for the world to see in Ukraine, and if we are honest for most of world history that — brute force — has been the human story. People have been subjects, not citizens. Ruled, often enslaved, not empowered as people to make reasoned choices but, as my grandfather who survived World War I as a wounded prisoner of war put it, “cannon fodder” for the powerful. Might has made right.
Democracy, seen through this lens of history and power, is not only not normal, not only fragile and to be coveted; it is a near miracle.
We have taken our miraculous anomaly — and the hard work it takes to sustain it — for granted for too long in this country. We have acted as though the wisdom of our constitutional structure, which seeks to frustrate precisely the untrammeled exercise of power unfolding in Ukraine, is self-executing. It isn’t.
Our Founders were as flawed as the current fashion has portrayed them: petty toward each other, white supremacists in orientation, chauvinists to the core, people with really bad breath. People of their time. But they understood the raw exercise of power as the greatest affront to human nature and human progress, and they created a government designed to frustrate that raw exercise of power in the name of human progress. They designed a government that could improve. Correct itself, even.
In short, they “got” power as history has disclosed it, as Putin has been exercising it and as Trump has both praised it and aspired to it, and they separated governmental powers to frustrate its untrammeled exercise. So far — and barely — their scheme has survived. It saved us on Jan. 6. It has saved us so far from the seductive simplicities of demagogues.
But here is what the Founders left to us, the succeeding generations: the hard work of seeking and finding common ground. The exasperation of compromise. Our structure of separated and counterpoised powers is a prescription for paralysis unless there is a commitment to the process of negotiation.
Compromise is essentially agnostic; it acknowledges that as strongly as I believe in something, I believe more strongly that I could be wrong and that I must listen to and respect your point of view. Such a view cannot work in a polarized environment in which the art of the possible is scorned as unprincipled and the common ground is ridiculed as illusory.
Yet that is precisely what our political culture has yielded. Thanks to our Supreme Court, political spending is now protected speech. What a brilliant move, my Ivy League debating society friends. Treating spending as speech has had two lasting sociopolitical effects. It has transformed politics into an incessant fundraising scam, in which opponents are likened to Satan in order to separate people from their money. But at what cost? How do you explain to your contributors that Satan may be a guy with a perspective worth entertaining?
Furthermore, political speech is not subject to “truth in advertising laws,” like commercial speech. Anything goes, with any amount of spending to support it. Welcome to the mainstream, QAnon! With these rulings — unlimited spending on whatever crazy ideas raise money — our Supreme Court has transformed political debate into a barrage of utter bullshit. Political claims that would never pass muster as commercial ads are now routinely circulated. Disinformation is now the coin of the political realm; it is the reason people on the right cannot talk to people on the left.
Let’s be real. The extravagance of our self-absorption — left and right — knows no limits. Putin has been right about one thing: our triumph with the fall of the Soviet Union blinded us to our own democracies’ fragility, to the point that our authoritarian and kleptocratic adversaries – Xi and Putin – have understood our weaknesses better than we have ourselves.
Intoxicated with our apparent victory, we ascribed it to a radical pursuit of individual freedom that is unsustainable if we are to define ourselves as a people. For our very constitutional structure — with power divided among the states, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, and we the people — requires that we engage with each other, and with the world, in a manner that respects both the injustices of the past and our hopes for the future. When we demonize our differences, we serve, ultimately, the interests of authoritarians and aspiring dictators.
What is an American? The question haunts our history, through 400 years of subjugating African Americans and Native Americans and women through the hostile greeting and grudging acceptance of waves of immigrants from Europe and, more recently, from across the globe. But at its heart, the American story is a story of grudging and committed progress that is unique in world history, and it stands as a refutation of the raw employment of power now so in evidence as Vladimir Putin murders civilians who should be his brothers and sisters in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians, in short, are fighting for what we have taken so long for granted. Shame on us if we don’t learn from this. We should support their cause abroad, and renew our commitment to democracy at home. Flawed, contingent, and fragile, it is nonetheless the last best hope of humankind.
John Farmer, Jr. was New Jersey’s Attorney General from 1999 – 2006. He has also served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission and as Dean of Rutgers School of Law–Newark. He is currently the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Here’s how to submit an op-ed or Letter to the Editor. Bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow us on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and on Facebook at NJ.com Opinion. Get the latest news updates right in your inbox. Subscribe to NJ.com’s newsletters.
Note to readers: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links we may earn a commission.