The Great American Experiment

Posted on November 16, 2008. Filed under: Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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42 Responses to “The Great American Experiment”

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You’ve misunderstood “The Great American Experiment” phrase. It derives from Alexis de Tocqueville’s book Democracy in America, written in the 1830s. You can read it online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ (Enter Democracy in America in the title field and you’ll find both volumes. Even if you just read the beginning of volume one, you’ll begin to better understand what the Great American Experiment is all about.

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Hello! Thanks for commenting. It’s true that the original phrase is from de Tocqueville; I am borrowing it to describe the unique basis of the United States’ founding and continuing mission.

For our other readers, can you offer a thumbnail of the term’s meaning as it’s found in de Tocqueville?

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Superbly assembled, well stated, and accurate… You did a great job with this little piece. Thank you.

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Thanks very much!

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[…] Al Qaeda?  If either of them win, the work American has accomplished will be lost and this Great Experiment will end. Tags: 1st Amendment, agnostic, al qaeda, america, american taliban, atheist, bible, […]

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Your commenters speak out of ignorance, which is pretty common today. The phrase in question, The Great American Experiment, did not originate with Alex de Tocqueville’s book, Democracy in America, but was first introduced by George Washington, and picked up by Tocqueville.

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You wrote this 2 years ago but it is particularly appropriate today because it helps to define the current economic situation and why it cannot seem to recover.
As a nation experimenting with a democratic government and a capitalist economy we have forgotten that the two systems are often diametrically opposed. That’s what makes it such a fascinating challenge.
Capitalists are profit driven while democrats are equality driven. If the entire population cannot be capitalists then it is inevitable that equality diminishes as individual wealth increases. Those who cannot be capitalists are left behind.
The net result is that a capitalist democracy is ill equipped to deal with the lower classes. As a result, every other democracy in the world is largely socialistic when it comes to providing for the non-wealthy.
In our country, people seem to know enough about the intent of the founding fathers to know that socialism is a dirty word. Of course most of them couldn’t define socialism in an essay, but they know it’s bad.
The crux of our economic woes will require another experiment to solve…

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Hello Richard; thanks for your comment. It was unfortunately too long to include in its entirety; can you direct readers to a web site where they can read the entire comment? Thanks!

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I (we) could not agree more. We are of the “experiment” school of thought and are starting our own experiment with the hopes of improving democracy in this country, and moving us closer to the ideals this country was founded on. We are GovTogether.com . Our goal is to utilize the current representative system to implement a truer democracy. Please check us out. We would love to hear your thoughts. We are NYC/Long Island based. We are also holding a panel discussion at NYU this coming June and are looking for panelists. Maybe you would be interested?

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Hello Douglas; thanks for responding. Can you tell everyone more about your conference and your organization?

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GovTogether aims specifically to enable citizens in a voting district to propose, deliberate and vote directly on legislation.

This would be accomplished in large part via a web-based utility where registered users can communicate amongst themselves and with their elected representatives, and be polled. Communities inclined to adopt this system will elect legislators, who are voted into office on the pledge to abide by this system, to legislate on issues in direct accordance with the majority vote of the people in the elected official’s district.

GovTogether is currently in its research phase, if you will. By no means do we claim to have it all sorted out already. Our initial goal is to have the concept vetted publicly and to assess how much interest and support there is for the idea, and build a coalition of support among citizens and respected institutions. Based on what we’ve seen so far, we believe we will encounter significant support for the concept and expect the concept to evolve going forward.

The NYU panel discussion will be one of the vetting sessions. We will present the idea and have professionals, professors, specialists and students weigh in on the feasibility of the concept and what would need to be done to make it happen.

If anyone here is interested, we would appreciate it if you take the quick first step of going to govtogether.com and voting. By voting YEA, you are telling us that you want us to move forward with this experiment. If we can get the GovTogether.com coming soon page to go viral (spread the link), than the concept won’t seem so impossible….its how real change happens.

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I was brought up on/grew up on the theme: “America the beautiful”…not “America the experiment”… How about you?

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Hello Joyce; it’s a beautiful experiment! One that has changed and improved our conception of how possible it is to create a perfect human society.

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Is it posible that the country united states of america was an experiment

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What a sad and uninformed piece. If you really think this is what American experiment is, you don’t understand future. You’ve mistaken consequences, side effects and the driving force. Good luck.

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The passion of your reaction is so far unsupported by the marshalling of facts. Please fill us in on the countering argument you support.

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May 17, 2012

Time has passed, and I beg to differ … And if you can not read this you are quite possibly self blinded.

Obama is anything but an American patriot. He is a governmental stooge who perpetuates exactly what you claim to be great. He and his compatriots share in an irreverence to the American principle, and a ‘controlled’ freedom for all through massive taxation to support governmental omnipotence. His and his ‘opposite’ political party are all cut of the same cloth. To quote Thomas Jefferson, ‘A government big enough to supply you with everything you need is a government big enough to take away everything that you have … The course of history shows that as the government grows, liberty decreases.”

Continuing to run presses to print our American currency is the same trap that caused the German people to embrace Adolph Hitler 80 years ago. Extreme financial duress completely devaluing the German mark … It did not work then and it will not work now.

We must reestablish the Great American Experiment and put our towns back at the governments head as it was before world war 1, returning the state and federal government below us. Read the Constitution without deleting paragraphs like the Preamble, then ask yourself who our posterity are. The rights are guaranteed for our posterity through this document, unless you taint it like our great supreme court did of coarse. They actually claimed out loud in our court of law that the preamble was never meant to be part of the Constitution!I Then they sentenced our posterity to death.

Thank God that people are beginning to wake from their deep sleep. For that I thank President Obama and his socialist followers like you.

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Thank you for your thoughts. One note is that the quote you attribute to Jefferson is not authenticated. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation says, “The following statement, or variations thereof, is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have….”

We have never found such a statement in Jefferson’s writings. As far as we know, this statement actually originates with Gerald R. Ford, who said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have,” in an address to a joint session of Congress on August 12, 1974.[1]

This quotation is sometimes followed by, “The course of history shows that as a government grows, liberty decreases,” which is most likely a misquotation of Jefferson’s comment, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, and government to gain ground.”

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Thanks for that heads up … I will research that.

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Let us know what you find out, if you don’t mind sharing your research. So many quotes are attributed to Jefferson; it would be great to know the history of this quote and whether Ford was paraphrasing Jefferson or if it’s something different.

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Way to ignore the meat of the comment and focus on minutiae. The origin of the quote is largely irrelevant. I realize it’s been a few years, hopefully you’ve broken this nasty habit. It does nothing. History is a fickle thing anyway and shou km d be taken with a grain of salt, as should everything loosely substantiated.

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[…] are going so far as to suggest that the current occupant of the White House is the one who wants to continue that experiment, to expand liberty to new horizons: America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the […]

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[…] de Tocqueville famously coined the phrase “The Great American Experiment,” referring to a young country that, like its people, was forging its way to greatness during a time […]

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Written from a distinct 21st century perspective with some accumulated “baggage” from the 20th century, this writing does not adequately or properly address how and why so many of these “experimenters” and “radicals” came to what was to become the United States of America. From the collapse of the Roman empire, long after the birth of the Christian church, the civil and ecclesiastical domains have been blurred and confused. Over 1,000 years of bloodshed left the citizens of Europe vexed and bewildered and without an adequate resolution to the lingering adversity that existed between “church” and “state.” It is still present in America today though we “experimented” with separation of church and state as well as separation of powers. This is, I think, the great American experiment. Do you know what? Only the gospel of Jesus Christ provides an answer and resolution to this matter. Only, it must be understood truthfully or it too will become distorted and corrupted as much as everything else pretty much has when left in the hands of unredeemed human beings. Peace to you.

Greg Van Davis

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[…] famous words in 1831, our nation had been busy fleshing out the inspirational phenomenon of “The Great Experiment” on practical, measurable, and meaningful terms. From the willingness of the Founding Fathers […]

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I greatly enjoyed reading this essay. It is particularly timely at this juncture in our electoral history. It remains to be seen if “we the people” will continue on a forward trajectory, or blindly stumble backwards into an old-fashioned idealized America that never was. I fear the latter may come to pass. Lest people think otherwise, no country is granted perpetual dominance on the world stage, regardless of the motto on our currency.

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There is so much work to be done. Its like I’ve awakened two hours into a calculus class and realized while I knew what the purpose of the math was, I was severely lacking in the basics. A common malady among most Americans today. Now I can either drop the class or start burning the midnight oil. Only this is not a math class, its the freedom of myself, my family, my friends, and the friends I have not met yet. So, midnight oil it is.

However misery loves company! So, here is my plan. I am starting a Constitutional study group in my own county this month. We are using an excellent site already set up to accommodate such a mission, and they have even given me a web site to use! Excellent! http://constitutionclub.ning.com provides a page for every county in the US to post and communicate with each other. I will have a regular meeting on the same night of the month. There are 3142 like counties in the US. If each county has 200 members there will be over 620,000 people in America who know exactly how this country was meant to be run, and they can wield serious power in numbers. And even begin teaching others about the importance of the Constitution, and a united nation protecting it. Want to get started? lets compare notes! I’m on the above web site in Chautauqua county New York. Will there be beer? absolutely! After class of course!

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This is one of the most idiotic descriptions on the topic of America as an experiment that I have ever read. You as “author” make no accurate reference to anything even closely relating to the time period when this quote was dictated. Don’t act like you have a voice when you have no idea what you are even “speaking” about.

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Hello Megan; can you share with us what the errors are, and how you would describe it?

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[…] I was young, the narrative that we were given in school was that the United States was undertaking a great political experiment that was best expressed as government by the people, for the people. No one knew if it would work […]

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[…] is called the “Great Experiment.” The notion of revolting against the British monarchy in 1776 was radical, but the idea of a […]

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[…] hard truth we all must accept from the unhinged lunacy following January 20th, 2017 is that if the American Experiment is to continue, we must learn to get out of our bubbles and listen to those with whom we disagree […]

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[…] American political experiment has seen fit at this juncture of the Bread and Circuses phase of its empire to allow a putative […]

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You and possibly former President Obama misconceive the reason Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, de Toqueville and others have referred to our republic as an “experiment.” It is an experiment because direct democracy had failed terribly everywhere it had been tried. The Founders feared democracy and sought to craft a government with an elaborate scheme of limitations and checks and balances that would guard against democracy’s two fatal flaws, consolidation of power in the hands of a few and “tyranny of the majority.” Modernly, direct democracy has been described as “four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

Thus, the Constitution was viewed as a dangerous experiment in self-governance premised upon the then-novel ideas that a Creator, not a government, established all fundamental human rights that no government can touch without great justification, and that all governing power is owned by the citizens of a society. The primary goal of the Constitution, then, was to regulate human nature through limitation and decentralization of power.

It is former President Obama who promoted giving up on the experiment by efforts further to consolidate power in the Executive as a way of circumventing Congress and Constitutional limitations designed carefully to prevent him from taking actions for which there was no popular consensus. Constitutional gridlock, which Obama bitterly criticized, is perhaps the most elegant feature of our government that protects our rights. It forces status quo until there is a clear consensus.

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Hello David; thanks for a thoughtful comment. We wouldn’t go so far as to say the Founders feared democracy; they did think it should not be absolute, but they wouldn’t have taken the enormous risks they did to establish a democracy if they really feared it. You sum up their definition of democratic government well: regulating human nature through limitation and decentralization of (federal) power.

But we would argue that no Founder anticipated, let alone hoped to engender, gridlock. When you read the Federalist Papers on how the branches of government were meant to check and balance each other, nothing like a description of gridlock appears. Gridlock is what they feared, really—one branch of the government preventing another from functioning properly. Congressional gridlock provokes executive order, which means a failure of both branches do act as they are designed to. When members of Congress stated their clear intention not to pass any legislation under Obama, they were violating their role as members of the Legislative branch. And it seems clear that status quo is only ever broken by the Judiciary, not by the Legislature or, of all things, by legislative gridlock. The role of the Judiciary is to prevent tyranny of the majority from obviating the Constitution—overturning laws that violate citizens’ Constitutional rights.

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To assist in crafting a new government, John Adams published a detailed review and analysis of all known governments in history. “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” So, the Founders knew that unbridled majority factions that arise from direct democracy had caused ALL preceding republican governments to degenerate into tyranny or ochlocracy. Thomas Jefferson referred to those republics as “government of wolves over sheep.” James Madison discussed faction in Federalist No. 10 and further explained the problem in Federalist No. 51: “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” John Adams coined the term “tyranny of the majority” to describe the problem, and he wrote, “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Aaron Burr’s election as vice president spurred Alexander Hamilton bleakly to label “too much democracy” as a “disease” and “poison.” Although the Founders never discussed “gridlock,” the Constitution is clearly designed to prevent action without a broad consensus that respects the rights and interests of most citizens. The resistance in Congress to passing legislation was not the result of some rogue legislators acting on personal impulse; it was the will of their constituents. So, to say that the legislators were “violating their role” is incorrect. Simply, there was no national consensus on the way forward, and it is never acceptable for an impatient Executive to dictate a personal choice for which there is no broad consensus. This is the definition of tyranny. Obama and FDR hold the distinctions of having their actions rebuked by the Supreme Court many more times than any of the other 52 presidents.

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Yes, the Founders were, as you and we have agreed, in favor of limited democracy. We maintain that members of Congress do violate their role when they refuse to act. If their constituents do not want particular legislation to pass, then their representatives will vote against that legislation, and that’s fine. But their legislators cannot get together and decide they will not pass any legislation from a particular president for party reasons. That is a violation of their role. They are meant to represent their constituents’ interests, not work to ensure that a Democratic president (in this case) does not win re-election. And in one example, the Affordable Care Act, the majority of Americans, from all states, support it at least in part, yet Republican legislators voted dozens of times to repeal it to prove a point about President Obama.

When there is no national consensus at all (which is very rare), our Judiciary is meant to step in and weigh legislation based on its adherence to the Constitution. This was done in the case of the ACA, when its basic principles and workings were upheld by the Court, yet Republicans in Congress continued to try to repeal it. Republican efforts now to repeal the ACA and replace it with something fairly identical undo any claim to their simply trying to represent their people. They just want to rid our nation of anything with Obama’s name on it.

There is never a time when one branch of our government should go on strike. If Congress had functioned properly, Obama would not have overstepped so often with executive orders (something the current president, by the way, seems to be doing already).

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Not sure where you get your idea that a majority of people favored the Affordable Care Act. Here is one fairly reliable indicator that it never received plurality support, much less majority support: Real Clear Politics Public Approval of ACA Health Care Law 2010-present 47.3 For and 48.0 against. Moreover, we now know that some of the support it received was secured through obfuscation and falsehoods. One senior advisor from MIT is seen repeatedly on video bragging how officials bamboozled the Congressional Budget Office and stupid American voters. Whatever one thinks about the merits of the law, the arrogance, propaganda and demagoguery attendant to its enactment was troubling — not what the Founders intended, at all. Though, in fairness, the way legislation was promoted and passed just before government turnover in 1801 was quite similar and at least equally contentious.

I disagree with your statement, “When there is no national consensus at all . . . , our Judiciary is meant to step in and weigh legislation based on its adherence to the Constitution.” Its only power and duty is to disregard popular political passions of the moment to assess independently and objectively whether laws either (1) infringe on basic rights of citizens or (2) violate provisions of the Constitution required to protect such rights. I cannot agree that it has any power whatsoever to settle political or policy disputes. Nothing suggests it was intended to be a super legislature under any circumstance. Its ruling in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius decided ONLY whether Congress had exceeded it Constitutional authority to create the mandate directing citizens to pay a tax if they failed to buy healthcare insurance under provisions of the ACA. It DID NOT decide ANY political or policy question. It acted completely without regard to national consensus. It gave due deference to the duly enacted law, and it arguably comported with “originalist” analysis. Notably, in dicta, it rejected 9-0 the idea that Congress had power under the Commerce Clause to enact the mandate, finally and mercifully putting a stop to a century of dangerous expansion of Congressional power under that clause.

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But in doing 1 and 2 as you list them, the Judiciary does indeed settle disputes, such as whether schools should be racially segregated or abortion legal. The reason Dred Scott was so impactful was that Congress had sent the issue of whether slavery should be recognized in a free state or an undeclared territory to the Court because Congress could not decide it (it was too sectionally divided). The Court took a pass, however, saying only that precedent gave enslaved black Americans no legal rights of citizenship, and that the Court declined to challenge that precedent at the time. The Justices chose not to settle the issue because they were afraid of the reaction that would provoke on both sides. In that way, they shirked their duty.

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I agree the Supreme Court has not always properly exercised or refrained from exercising its power. It clearly succumbed to political influence on numerous occasions where it acted or failed to act. These errors and omissions support an argument in favor of strict “originalist” interpretation, which completely eliminates consideration of current political and policy issues, and it protects the elaborate and elegant system of limitations and checks and balances the Framers instituted with the Constitution. Take for example the near evisceration of this system through expansion of Congressional power through profoundly strained interpretations of the Commerce Clause (CC). In Wickard v. Filburn, SCOTUS used the CC to validate a federal law that prohibited Roscoe Filburn from growing wheat on his own land for his own personal use, because his total production exceeded federal limits designed to limit supply and increase price. In Gonzales v. Raich, SCOTUS relied on Filburn and the CC to validate a law that authorized federal agents to arrest and prosecute Mrs. Raich for growing 17 “medical” marijuana plants in her back yard for her own personal use. SCOTUS used the CC to validate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which brought about admirable and necessary integration, but set the stage for near elimination of limits on Congressional power and the Constitutional scheme. Citizens appear to believe that Congress has the constitutional authority to do anything that receives a majority vote. They think whether a particular measure is a good idea or bad idea should determine passage, as opposed to whether that measure lies within the enumerated powers granted to Congress by the people in the Constitution. They impatiently deride the elegantly designed “gridlock” that serves as a primary defense against tyranny, protects everyone’s rights, and maintains the status quo until there is a clear consensus. Increasingly, professors, politicians and public figures disparage the Electoral College as an antiquated, unfair insult to democracy that thwarts the will of the People. They judge the Supreme Court by the political impact of decisions, rather than compliance with Constitutional principles and restrictions. Unfortunately for the future of our republic, politicians now regularly exploit this American constitutional ignorance and contempt.

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