Joseph J. Ellis is an American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Founding Brothers.” He is the author of “American Dialogue: The Founding Fathers and Us.” The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.
(CNN)A group of husky prisoners from the Philadelphia jail were carrying Benjamin Franklin on a stretcher back to his quarters after attending the last session of the Constitutional Convention in early September of 1787. The grandfather among the founding fathers was afflicted with a serious case of gout, but he had attended every session during that steamy hot summer. A well-dressed Philadelphia matron spied America’s elder statesman and asked, “Mr. Franklin, what have you done?” “Given you a republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”
Joseph J. EllisThus far, 233 years later, we have kept it. In fact, the United States is the oldest nation-sized republic in modern history. Between then and now, our republican framework has replaced the monarchical dynasties of Europe in the 19th century, then defeated the totalitarian despotisms of Germany, Japan, Italy and the Soviet Union in the 20th. What began as a bold experiment has become the global formula for national success in the western world. There have been two occasions in American history when the fate of the republic was placed at risk. The first was the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln famously described the sectional conflict over slavery as “testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure?” The second was the Great Depression, which we survived under the leadership of FDR and his revised contract between democracy and capitalism called The New Deal. In four years, Trump went from showman to strongmanWe are currently on the cusp of a third serious challenge to our republican roots, which has emerged in the person of the first full-scale demagogue who was elected president. In truth, the founders would actually be surprised that it has taken this long to produce such a political creature. For they knew from their study of the Greek and Roman classics that republics were uniquely vulnerable to demagogues, because they were dependent on popular opinion, which was easily manipulated by fear-mongers brandishing conspiracy theories with potent appeal to the uneducated. During the founding era, Alexander Hamilton regarded Aaron Burr as just such a threat, and was challenged to a duel by Burr for making that accusation. More recently, over the past four years, we have witnessed a demagogue challenge the republican principles in five areas of governance: Congress, led by the Republican Senate, has abdicated its constitutional obligation to check executive power; the Justice Department has shirked its responsibility to enforce the law fairly; misinformation and lies have become an acceptable norm for all members of the executive branch; a full generation of unqualified sycophants have been appointed to the federal judiciary; and the occupant of the White House has consistently maintained that he is above the law.Read MoreThe constitutional amendment America really needsWe can safely assume that Franklin is trembling in his grave, for these are all major deviations from republican principles. But they only become fatal changes if and when all these dictatorial improvisations seem institutionalized. And that can only occur if the current president is reelected in November, an election the results of which he refuses to say he will accept if it goes the other way. Then the American republic begins to die.If, on the other hand, he departs as a one-term president, the damage he has inflicted, while considerable, is also repairable. In fact, we will be able to go forward with a clearer grasp of the reforms necessary to avert the election of future demagogues. Get our free weekly newsletter
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This is the chief reason why the looming election is the most important political event of our lifetime. This is not an election about personalities, the pandemic, the economy, or Black Lives Matter, though they are all on the ballot. This is an election to decide whether we wish to remain the American republic. Though the founders are busy being dead, their voices still linger in the atmosphere with a resoundingly clear answer to that question.