Wednesday, September 29, 2021

America's Estates General

I have been reading Mike Duncan's excellent new Lafayette biography, which has been especially good at seeing the French Revolution from the angle of a pro-Revolutionary yet anti-Jacobin nobleman. Reading the drama of this even again I also remembered the oddity of the Estates General, called by Louis XVI in 1789 to sort out France's financial difficulties.

It had not met since 1614 because the kings of France had maintained such a tight grip on power via the construction of the absolutist monarchy. This medieval representative body included three groups voting as blocs: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. It was an obviously undemocratic system meant to prevent the commoners from wielding real power, and soon the third estate and revolutionaries from the other two formed a national assembly to write a constitution.

Going back to when I learned about this in high school I had always laughed at the crown trying to gain legitimacy in a changing, modernizing society through such an institution. I have stopped laughing, because I have come to realize that the US Senate as an institution is hardly less farcical.

Wyoming getting the same representation as California is just as ridiculous as the nobility getting the same number of votes as the commoners, isn't it? Just as the Estates General did not in any way represent the majority, the Senate is split down the middle despite many more votes in Senate races having gone to Democrats. Of course, the majority (once counting the vice president) still doesn't even get to govern due to the filibuster. Like royalists clinging to the traditions of kingly authority when it had long lost its luster with the people, the filibuster is being preserved by Democrats who are more invested in the symbols of a dying, dessicated system than they are in paving the way for a more democratic and beneficial future.

Ironically the American Estates General could in fact lead to the kind of collapse the original was called to avoid. Congress needs to raise the debt limit, but with Republicans blocking it via filibuster and feckless Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to budge, our government could default not due to extravagant spending on palaces or foreign wars, but simply because our system is being taken hostage by a radical minority that the majority simply refuses to stop. 

Reading about events like the French Revolution is a reminder that things do not have to be as they are, and that events and the world can radically change in ways that are impossible to predict. In 1783, after a successful war against Britain, the French monarchy looked to be the strongest in Europe. Its palace at Versailles put all others in awe. Ten years later the king was beheaded, a republic established, and Notre Dame cathedral transformed into the Temple of the Supreme Being. 

Nothing says that the United States is going to be the world's great power in ten years, or that it will even continue to have this form of government, or even exist as a unified country. I get the feeling that we are sitting atop a volcano. Interesting times, indeed.

No comments: