The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s up to voters to prevent four more years of institutional vandalism

Fog surrounds the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 17.
Fog surrounds the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 17. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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Two thousand and twenty will be a year in which U.S. institutions begin to recover from a nasty infection, or to reveal lasting disabilities.

The immediate, televised test will come to a disturbingly weakened U.S. Senate.

This is the one institution that Americans decided the founders had gotten all wrong. Senators were initially selected by state legislatures as a counterbalance to the direct democracy of the House of Representatives. That changed with the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913. But the Senate’s immunity from public passions was partially maintained by six-year terms and by Senate rules allowing filibusters and requiring supermajorities to move forward at key moments. This gave individual senators extraordinary power to shape corporate outcomes and encouraged a healthy institutional arrogance.

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The old Senate is nearly dead — mortally wounded by majority leaders of both parties who have prioritized efficiency over tradition. The current leader, Mitch McConnell, seems intent on delivering the coup de grace by publicly admitting to coordination with the White House in the impeachment process. This is the effective subordination of the Senate to the president, leaving a large hole where the framers intended an immovable object.

We are witnessing the triumph of partisanship over deliberation and senatorial self-respect. In the impeachment process, facts and democratic values apparently mean nothing. The majority leader has announced a verdict before the trial. Among Republican senators, a case that would clearly convict a political opponent is generally (so far) taken as the vindication of a political ally. The obvious hypocrisy is viewed with pride rather than shame. And a vital constitutional process is revealed as a political pretense.

This does more than surrender the dignity and role of the Senate. It betrays the institutional care shown by men and women within the executive branch (including the executive office of the president). Most Republican senators have refused to even engage the damning testimony of people such as National Security Council aide Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, vice-presidential aide Jennifer Williams, ousted Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former National Security Council aide Fiona Hill and former acting ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. These men and women risked their careers — and public slander by the president — to call out a serious abuse of presidential power. So far, virtually no Republican senators are willing to assume any risk to endorse their bravery. GOP senators are not only sacrificing their own standards and honor; they are devaluing (to this point) the standards and sacrifices of people with a superior sense of service and honor. That is a crime against democratic courage.

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These are the stakes for the Senate. The servility of Republican senators would leave both the Senate and the executive branch damaged and call into question Republican fitness to govern.

Other institutions are also about to be tested in 2020. Because the president views anyone he can hire and fire as his personal valet, the integrity of federal law enforcement is also under severe stress. President Trump has already secured the appointment of an attorney general willing to polish his shoes, wash his laundry and obscure his scandals. At the president’s direction, the attorney general is investigating members of the FBI who have investigated the corruption that surrounds Trump like a cloud of horse flies. Individuals at the FBI were not faultless in the pursuit of their duties. But given William P. Barr’s record, the effort seems more like a campaign to bring the bureau under the president’s boot. To a long list of professional milestones, Barr is adding toady, minion and yes man.

A similar type of institutional assault is taking place in the U.S. military. In his cartoonish conception of strength, the commander in chief clearly views members of the armed forces as “killing machines” who should act without conscience. And so he has upended military discipline to absolve members of the military accused or convicted of war crimes. In reality, our military sets a chasm between the justified use of force and acts of savagery and murder. And it takes great care to honor the code and character of those who respect the difference.

In all these cases, a president of crude, cunning and low character is attempting to leave his imprint on important democratic institutions. During 2020, many will resist that influence — not as a “deep state” but as defenders of public integrity. They deserve our support. But only the presidential electorate can prevent four more years of institutional vandalism.

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