2020 America is still vulnerable to the dangers George Washington warned of in 1797
Some are subverting the institutions Washington helped create to undermine confidence in the vote and invalidate Joe Biden's win. They won't succeed.
We Americans traditionally celebrate the birth of our democracy on July 4, commemorating the day in 1776 when the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence. This document was a remarkable assertion of the primacy of the people over their government for the first time in recorded history.
Arguably, though, the United States’ future as a democratic republic was only cemented much later, on March 4, 1797, when John Adams was sworn in as George Washington’s successor. Some Founders, including Alexander Hamilton, did not want to limit presidential tenure, and Washington could have stayed on. Instead, he made a decision to decline a third term and return home to Mount Vernon.
If you have not read Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he declared his intention to step away, you should, particularly at this fraught moment. It’s as if he could see through the centuries to November 2020.
Using power to destroy democracy
He railed against regionalism and partisanship, against “ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens,” against those who open the door to foreign influence and “mislead public opinion.” He warned against the rise of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” who “subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards” the very democratic systems that first put them into office.
Above all, he elevated the rule of law and vigilant protection of our constitutional processes, cautioning that “all obstructions to the execution of the laws … with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive” of the people’s prerogative, and indeed are “of fatal tendency.”
He knew where the dangers lurked and was remarkably prescient about their eternal lure. It would be a grave mistake to assume that American democracy has become immune to the dangers of which Washington warned.
It has not. And never will.
My grandparents emigrated from Germany between the world wars. Their generation of old-country family visited regularly when I was a kid. I remember them reminiscing about the gradual collapse of the German republic in the 1920s and 1930s, when a properly-installed chancellor began to urge his torch-bearing partisans into the streets, demonize political opponents, question and then cancel elections, subject science to politics, corrupt courts and attack the press.
They never thought all that would lead where it led. No one ever does.
I have lived a good bit of my career overseas, first as a lawyer in China and elsewhere and then as the American ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. I have seen my country through the eyes of a dozen other societies. Yes, our innovative economy and popular culture are seductive, but our position in the world and our prosperity at home are rooted in our political norms and government institutions — as George Washington clearly recognized.
Anxiety and faith in unsettled America
It should give us pause when some of our closest friends in the global community publicly call our current political situation “perhaps a bit scary,” as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas did — or feel compelled to announce that “we have faith in the institutions in the United States,” as recently re-elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand has.
Both anxiety and faith are natural reactions to where we are today.
More Americans turned out to vote this month than in any election in American history. With the overwhelming majority of those ballots counted, President-elect Joe Biden has an insurmountable lead of over 5 million votes and a decisive margin in the Electoral College.
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Yet some who profit from subverting the institutions Washington helped create are working overtime to undermine confidence in the vote and invalidate Biden's win. They will not succeed. Over the last four years, they have done much damage to our institutions at home and our reputation abroad, but they have not brought us, the American people, to our knees.
All the votes will be counted. “Inconvenient” votes will not be redefined as “illegal.” A new Congress will be seated. And a new president will soon enter the Oval Office. Messy as it can be, our democracy will function as intended.
In the coming days, we Americans must stay strong and vigilant. We must defend our institutions, whatever our politics. And we must abide by the words of George Washington, perhaps our most selfless and principled president, not those of our least.
David Huebner was U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand from 2009 to 2014. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuebner