At the end of a recent vacation trip to the Virginia and Maryland shore, my wife, Karla, and I made a brief detour to Washington, D.C. I felt an urge to make a pilgrimage to the National Archives to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These blueprints for self-rule, liberty, and human flourishing created a flawed but resilient democracy that has endured through 246 years of sharp, often bloody disagreement, evolution, and struggle. The fragile parchments are now encased in inert argon gas under protective glass in a darkened room, where people file by in the hushed silence of a secular cathedral. It is with some awe that you inspect the familiar words in handwritten script and the signatures of George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and the rest. And you cannot help but wonder if the founding documents' design for "a more perfect union" might soon fade into irrelevance.
As David Leonhardt of The New York Times documented in disturbing detail this week, we have entered an unprecedented era in which the losers of elections no longer feel obligated to accept defeat. (See The last word, p.40.) Democracy itself has fallen into ill repute among Trumpist Republicans, who insist that the country should be governed by "real Americans" with the right religious and political beliefs, not by those who get the most votes. In this coming term, an activist Supreme Court will rule on a claim that state legislatures should have unfettered control of elections, including the right to overturn them. It is possible that in 2024 one or more states' choice for president might be reversed, so that the loser of the election can be installed as president. America has survived many other grave crises, and "we, the people" may eventually survive this one. But the protective glass is cracked, and democracy's survival is uncertain.