Or is it?
Shakespeare’s famous words from The Tempest are chiseled into the pedestal of the Robert Aitken sandstone sculpture, named Future, at the entrance of the Archives of the United States. As a young boy growing up only a mile or two away in Washington’s inner city, I enjoyed roaming the area around the national mall, and that sculpture always stopped me in my tracks. The statue, a seated and contemplative woman, holding an open book on her lap, always fascinated me. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that sculpture is worth a million. Google it and take a close look at the woman’s face. Go ahead, do it.
Think about what you see. The woman, as the sculpture, Future, makes clear has looked into what has been, and is contemplating what is to come, and has learned something of great consequence. Maybe something wonderful, perhaps something foreboding, perhaps something beyond merely disappointing, maybe something terrible. Then let your eyes drift down to the inscription, “What is Past is Prologue.” The past portending the Future.
The present is, of course, very fleeting. Almost everything has either happened or is about to happen. We have no influence over the past (revisionists aside), and the Future will be a product of our decisions in the fleeting present. As Shakespeare wrote, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.” A touch of wisdom coupled with a touch of warning from the Bard of Avon.
If we let this time in history be a que sera sera moment, what will be won’t be pleasant. If we, as citizens of this great republic, do not resolve in this, our present, to protect the republic our founders gave us, we will lose it. Franklin knew how fragile the fledgling republic he and his compatriots gifted to us would be. He warned us; they had given us a republic if we could keep it. We can no longer take our republic and its constitutional democracy for granted. Its Future is on the line in this, our present.
On the far left and on the far right, however, there are movements that seem determined to tear the country apart. Indeed, the provocateurs no longer even try to disguise their objective.
But let us return to Truth, that mesmerizing sculpture at the entrance to our National Archive. The woman’s face might be thought of as a sandstone Rorschach Test. Everyone will see in it what they will. So, as 2021 draws to a close, I will share with you what I think her contemplative expression might be revealing to her about the year that is about to begin and the Future it might portend. She observes, once again, the march of the January 6th insurrectionists as they make their way to the Capitol, passing right in front of her as they did on that fateful day. What might that vision tell her?
A senseless siege morphing into a solid strategy
No, I’m not suggesting another senseless siege of the U.S. Capitol as planned by the organizers, promoters, and participants involved in the so-called Stop the Steal Rally; the Giuliani’s, the Bannon’s, the gaggle of Trumps, among others. I’m referring to their elected acolytes in what was once the Grand Ole Party, who are actively preparing to set the stage to reassume power. They won’t try to stop the constitutionally mandated counting of electoral votes as they did on January 6th. They won’t be that ham-handed again. Instead, they are openly scheming to reset the table, to create the tools to subvert the will of the voters by, if necessary, rewriting election procedure laws in the states where they hold power. And, most notably and with very few exceptions, never admitting that Joe Biden is the legitimately elected President of the United States. They know they can’t keep the stolen-election farce alive if they acknowledge that Biden is the legitimately elected President. They know they can’t keep the 68% of registered Republicans who have bought into the stolen-election lie in line if they acknowledge that, yeah, Biden really won.
So, they will not utter those words. That’s not stubbornness. That’s strategy. They need to keep the stolen-election farce alive. And it is an incredibly self-serving, malevolent strategy because it is intended to undermine America’s confidence in its own elections. The 2020 election was, in fact, the most secure election in our history, according to those responsible for election security at our own Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Justice. Even former Trump-appointed Attorney General William Barr acknowledged there was no voter fraud sufficient to have affected the election outcome. No court of law, and there were dozens, failed to see through the Trump election-fraud farce. Of course, priming voters to buy into election fraud is an old and tired Trump strategy. He sent up that trial balloon before the 2020 election and even before the 2016 election, which he assumed he would not win. Never admit defeat, former disgraced attack dog Roy M. Cohn taught him. It’s a lesson Trump learned well.
Concurrently, the Trump loyalists are eyeing whatever they can do locally and at the state level to unlevel the election playing field. So far, according to the States United Democracy Center, whose mission is to promote free, fair, and secure elections, fourteen states have moved to either strip election oversight from non-partisan election officials, increase legislative (partisan) management of elections, or enact new laws that would subject election officials to intimidating criminal or financial liability even though there have been no crimes alleged against election officials.
States that have moved to strip election officials of their overseeing role as of June 2021 are Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and Montana. States that have moved to increase legislative (partisan) management of elections are Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. And those states that have pursued intimidating criminal or financial penalties for election officials going forward (in the absence of any such material violations in the last election) are Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas.
None of us can afford to take our democracy for granted. Our founders certainly didn’t. As Jonathan Rauch writes in his marvelous book, The Constitution of Knowledge –the Defense of Truth, “From where Americans sit today, the Constitution’s success seems preordained. To Madison and his contemporaries, the Constitution was the longest of long shots. They understood that America’s republic cannot be legitimate if it is not democratic, but they also understood that democracy, at least pure democracy, is an inherently unstable form of government, prone to manipulation and overthrow by parochial interests, passionate minorities, and dangerous demagogues…Madison understood that any truly representative democracy must allow factions to form and promote their various causes, but he also understood that unchecked factionalism would make the polity ungovernable.”
The republic’s future rests within reasonable proximity to the governable center, where both parties must work to reconcile differences. Sound governance cannot simply be a tug-of-war, but, instead, it must be a meeting of the minds through deliberative and sometimes painful compromise. As Benjamin Franklin feared and warned, government by tug-of-war can only tear the country apart.
The Future is, indeed, ours to see. “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come—in your and my discharge.”