By Jim Malatras | September 22, 2019

On September 17, we celebrated Constitution Day, prompting us to reflect upon the truly remarkable system of government that created our nation’s social contract 232 years ago. In an age of absolute power of monarchs and the theory of divine right of kings, our Founders’ version of self-government — to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” memorialized in a constitution — was a radical and significant departure.

If you have seen or heard of the Broadway musical Hamilton you probably know about “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman,” Marquis de Lafayette. But we may owe more gratitude to another Frenchman: political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu. It was Montesquieu’s work The Spirit of the Laws that formed the blueprint for our form of government — a rare occasion of political philosophy coming to life rather than sitting idle upon a shelf.

Despotism in the form of absolute authority in the hands of one or a few was a central concern of our Founders, and key to our form of government is the separation of powers found in The Spirit of the Laws. Providing separate power and responsibilities — in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches —keeps absolute power from being consolidated by any person. In other words, it was a complex system of institutional checks and balances.

You may be thinking, “this isn’t as entertaining as Alan Chartock’s column” or “I’ve got other important clickbait on the Empire Report to review.” Stick with me.

Bluntly, our system of government is being tested by the current occupant of the White House. Our system only works if those holding power agree to the terms. And there is no indication the president does. There is no indication that he even understands there are terms. Therein lies the clear and present danger to our system.

So, it’s left to the other branches to maintain the integrity of our system. When our nation’s Founders drafted the Constitution it was, in part, based on the notion that individuals would fulfill their institutional responsibilities so checks and balances — and therefore checks on absolute power — could be fully realized.

It was institutional obligation over political party. Our Founders eschewed political parties, finding them dangerous. George Washington didn’t mince words, stating that political parties would “become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government…”

Washington must have had a premonition about Tammany Hall.

But, as we know, our Founders’ ideals often didn’t match their practice — slavery and women’s disenfranchisement, for example — but we continue to try to form a more perfect union in order to meet our Founders’ ambitious ideal.

So, too, the romanticism of the public servant fulfilling institutional obligations quickly gave way to political reality. Political parties were soon formed and organized by the same Founders who warned about their destructive force. Political parties have an important role; it just isn’t in our constitutional system by design — putting a wrinkle in accountability that has become more pronounced in recent history, reaching a crescendo during the Trump administration.

The tension between party politics and institutional responsibilities under separation of powers is exposed in the recent talk over presidential impeachment. All the considerable reasons aside — obstruction, working with hostile foreign powers to influence elections — impeachment is not a realistic outcome because the president’s party, which leads the Senate, will not even consider the matter. The answer was always no, even before there were facts.

This past week there were reports that intelligence officials blew the whistle on the president for pressuring the Ukrainian government for dirt on political rivals in the upcoming election—all while the administration suddenly froze aid to the country. The response: crickets from Congressional Republicans.

When we juxtapose Congress with the recent actions in the United Kingdom by members of the prime minister’s own party to check his consolidation of power, it makes our current state all the more striking.

In many ways, this constitutional crisis is not about the president. It’s about us. Our form of government is a noble experiment that has established a system for people to live free, warts and all. But our form of government is not inevitable and it could give way to autocracy — just look at Hungary. The change can come quickly and then it’s potentially too late to react. As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated in his homily of hope on the sacred ground in Gettysburg:

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us– that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We’re living in a time of crisis for our political institutions. But it is up to us—ordinary Americans—to make sure our government doesn’t perish. We owe a debt of gratitude to our true favorite Frenchman, Montesquieu, for providing our constitutional roadmap. If we don’t demand our leaders play by the rules and sometimes put our institutional values over party, then his work could become yet another political philosophy collecting dust upon the shelf of history.

Jim Malatras is the president of SUNY Empire State College. Prior to joining SUNY Empire, he served as president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, offering policymakers evidence-based policy analysis and recommendations on timely topics. Dr. Malatras has held several high-ranking positions in New York State government. He served as director of state operations and deputy secretary for policy management to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.