By Jonathan C. Rothermel
It is official. Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. The Democrats now control both the White House and both chambers of Congress after a Democratic sweep of the senatorial run-off elections in Georgia.
Some conservatives are bracing themselves for the onslaught of the so-called radical left agenda led by “The Squad” to massively re-distribute wealth and strip Americans of civil liberties, including gun rights. Gun sales in 2020 surged to record highs leading up to the election.
The hyperbole on the right that the United States is on the brink of socialism is good for fundraising, but it overlooks a basic understanding of the United States political system. An uninformed electorate is more susceptible to political conspiracies and will view politics simplistically as one extreme versus another. Before preparing for the socialist apocalypse, consider the following points.
First, the United States system of government relies on separation of powers and checks and balances to limit the ability of any one political faction from achieving all its goals While the Democrats control the two major branches of government, Republican-appointed justices retain a solid majority (6-3) on the US Supreme Court.
In just one term, ex-President Donald Trump appointed as many appellate judges (a step below the Supreme Court) than the total Obama appointed in two terms. Overall, Trump appointed a total of 226 federal judges, and all federal judges serve life tenure. Trump’s judicial appointments will serve as an institutional Republican check on the Democrats for decades to come.
Furthermore, President Biden cannot take a united Democratic Congress for granted. The Democratic majority in the House actually shrunk after the 2020 elections, and the Senate is in a tenuous situation, dependent on Vice President Kamala Harris to break a 50-50 tie (assuming all 48 Democrats and 2 Independents vote together).
Biden will need to be a shrewd negotiator to get what he wants. If that were not challenging enough, super-majorities are needed to ratify treaties, end filibusters, and approve constitutional amendments.
Second, elections in the United States are candidate-centered rather than party-centered. This means that candidates are not necessarily beholden to follow their party. While political polarization is high, party discipline is not absolute. Members of Congress can – and do – deviate from the party line, as we saw most recently when 10 Republicans voted to impeach Trump. Ultimately, federal office holders are accountable to their constituents rather than their party leaders.
Four years ago, Trump was sworn in as president with a Republican-controlled Congress. While he was able to pass historic tax cuts, his “united” Republican Congress was unable to repeal and replace Obamacare, despite Trump’s repeated pledges to do so during the 2016 campaign.
Third, federalism ensures that the power of the federal government is limited because it shares powers with state governments.
The 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights reserves powers not explicitly given to the federal government to states. On a wide range of issues, state governments primarily shape the rights that matter most to conservatives. For example, gun rights and abortion laws are primarily enshrined in state law rather than federal law.
While Democrats might control two of the three branches of the federal government, overall, there are 27 Republican state governors compared to 23 Democratic state governors. Furthermore, there are 30 Republican-controlled state legislatures compared to 18 Democratic-controlled state legislatures (1 is split; 1 is not yet determined). Republicans maintain a distinct advantage at the state-level.
A shift toward left-center policies and reversals of Trump’s executive orders should be expected under a Biden administration.
After all, Democrats construe Biden’s historic 81 million popular votes as a mandate for change. However, the likelihood that “socialism” (as defined by the right) will permeate our country belies a basic understanding of our US Constitution.
A deeper understanding of the functioning of government is critical now more than ever because extremists benefit from a misinformed and/or uneducated electorate.
A widely circulated Daily Show clip showed correspondent Jordan Klepper, asking a January 6th protester if he has read the U.S. Constitution, and the protester admits he has not. Klepper suggests that he read it because it is relatively short, and he may soon be committing a seditious act. The protester is skeptical that anyone would actually read the entire Constitution.
The irony of a political activist having not read a document he professes to be protecting is indicative of a more general disinterest in civic education. The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey reported in 2020 only half of American adults could correctly name the three branches of government (and this was a significant improvement from 2019), and 1 in 5 could not name a single branch of government.
In Biden’s inaugural speech, he put out a call for unity. He said, “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
He is right, but to accomplish unity, our citizenry must be equipped to understand that those who foment political division are probably not interested in unity.
Democracy is not a neat process where one side always prevails and gets exactly what it wants. To navigate our system of government, democracy requires nuance, negotiation, compromise, and an informed citizenry.
So go ahead and read the U.S. Constitution (it is one of the shortest in the world) and reflect upon the basic principles and institutions of the US political system. Don’t be duped by those who resort to fear-mongering to keep you from engaging constructively and civilly in our system of participatory democracy.
Opinion contributor Jonathan C. Rothermel is a political science professor at Mansfield University. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ProfJCR.