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The American republic desperately needs another check-and-balance tool.
Just as it needs a constitutional amendment explicitly and fully banning religion from the tax-funded public square (which I posted about yesterday, here).
But today I’m focusing on the compelling need for the former.
The United States’ oft-vaunted system of so-called “checks and balances” — of effective public oversight and policing of government overreach and malfeasance — has endured a rather rough four-year patch (to put it mildly) under the now-blessedly-outgoing Donald Trump administration.
These essential, constitutionally structured controls corral the major branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — with independent watchdogs and special committees overseeing each branch in various ways, none having overarching power over another but all theoretically at least having some corrective influence over curbing each’s worst impulses.
That’s what impeachment is all about — the House and Senate have the power to unseat a president for constitutional and temporal misdeeds. For example, Trump was impeached during his term by the House for allegedly blackmailing the president of Ukraine, by threatening to withhold federal funds if he didn’t investigate Biden, the president’s political rival in the 2020 vote (an act that still seems profoundly improper, even unconstitutional or illegal). But the GOP-controlled Senate refused to hear full evidence and declined to convict.
But at least that tool is nominally functional, if sabotaged by unethical political self-interest in the recent impeachment “trial.”
We need another such official oversight tool in our checks-and-balances kit to avoid similar future frontal assaults on our democracy that might recycle Trump’s cynical and pseudo-populist campaign of bald-faced lying — actually a continuous firehose volume of mistruth — to purposely misinform, confuse and falsely frighten the electorate purely for political advantage.
This unconscionable assault of predatory mendacity on the nation worked like a charm for Trump in his 2016 election campaign, and also to a large degree during his subsequent one-term presidency (the singularity of which is now irrefutably confirmed, despite the president’s continued and baseless insistence that he actually won). But in the 2020 campaign, in which Democratic challenger Joe Biden whipped Trump by 84 electoral votes (out of 538) and by more than 6 million popular ballots (80 million to 73.9 million), the center of the centrist American electorate held, but — and this is really important to note — just barely.
And it had to hold during and after the Nov. 3 vote, when individual state election officials, often pro-Trump Republican voters themselves, had to resist a withering onslaught of criticism and pressure from the president and his administration, along with his supporters, including, insistence on disqualifying some voting procedures, pressure to not certify valid votes, filing of embarrassingly specious legal claims questioning final vote tallies (that judges generally laughed out of court) and even death threats from their pro-Trump constituents when they just honorably followed their states’ election laws.
If just a few fewer election officials or judges had temporarily suspended their integrity to bolster their party and please the president, who is massively popular with the voters who elected them, the election results — no matter how objectively obvious a decisive Biden victory is — could have been thrown into enough confusion to end up ultimately decided in the House of Representatives. There, experts in these kinds of political shenanigans say, Donald Trump could very likely have ended up re-elected to a second term.
This, despite President Trump having actually lost the election — by a lot (worse than Hillary Clinton lost to him in 2016) — and despite his loss being the actual result. (This embedded video gives a broad view of the president’s continuing post-election deluge of complete fabrications, in a Fox New “news interview” on Sunday.)
That’s the devil in the details of Trump’s seemingly mindless refusal to accept his defeat at all — forget about gracefully — as American presidential norms have demanded for centuries. He’s simply trying to cheat, to do what he’s baselessly accusing Democrats of doing: stealing the election. And he’s doing it with despicable tactics perfected for propaganda by Nazi and Communist strongmen in the early to mid-20th century. We saw how that turned out.
So, how can we stop this kind of pernicious mendacity going forward. What kind of a check and balance can be created to make such wanton, disingenuous official lying to the American people an actionable offense, a federal crime, and provide “teeth” to hold violators accountable?
I’m not a lawyer or politician, so I don’t have the expertise to know.
But considering the dangers to the republic of a shameless purveyor spreading disinformation to broadly deceive Americans for political gain, we need to figure something out. Just as falsely yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not protected free speech, so shouldn’t be a political candidate yelling “Fraud!” and “Hoax!” before and after an election with no objective evidence to back it up. In fact, purposefully deceptive public lies by any kind by politician, in a more perfect union than our own, should be legally actionable.
As official independent watchdogs monitor wrongdoing in the various federal agencies, like the CIA and FBI, why not have them in, say, the Federal Elections Commission? And why couldn’t their job include monitoring serious, verifiable mistruths spread by politicians and their campaigns, similar to what media fact-checkers do — and publicly holding lie-tellers accountable within a legal framework.
Counting on an independent watchdog, as opposed to, say, a self-interested politician, to monitor political campaign speech for major, demonstrable breaches of truth, should provide much superior public trust, right?
If anyone doubts the lethal toxicity of cynically false political speech of Trumpian magnitude, just watch the Sunday TV news shows, including Fox. A majority of their time is spent either debunking the president’s and his cronies’ lies and explaining the inherent dangers of such subterfuge, or talking about them as if they are just differing sets of valid opinions and not “alternate facts” (pure inventions) at all.
This illustrates that free speech, even when patently, disingenuously false, now can only be held accountable with enormous, almost unsurmountable difficulty, especially when news media abrogate their duty to objectively tell truth. Truth telling matters because far too many Americans (74 million of them?), as it turns out, are far more gullible than smart politically, making cynical “fake news” not only hugely corrosive to the body politic and our politics but insideously destructive.
There’s a reason many of the smartest people in America are now increasingly and publicly warning that our democracy may actually be in mortal peril, partly because of normalization of lying. We not only can’t agree on opinion these days, but bonifide facts either.
Here’s a hint at the gravity of the situation: Facts are not negotiable.