The ingenious framers of our Constitution got most things right. It is amazing that a document crafted in the 18th century can be largely intact now in a very different world than the one in which it was conceived. Their plan to structure a government system that would check the power of the executive — the “checks and balances” — allowed us to succeed and make progress even when our president is misguided or has made a mistake.
We saw a great illustration this past weekend after the President decided to ban travelers from seven Muslim nations from entering our country. In dictatorships or monarchies, no one would been able to overrule this pernicious attempt at excluding people for their religion. In America, within a few hours of this executive action, a judge in Brooklyn was able to temporarily right a potential wrong. I live across the street from the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn and it was amazing to watch the lights flick on Saturday night for an NYCLU injunction that led to a hearing and a stunning rebuke to Trump.
Wow. That’s real democracy in action and it heartened millions of Americans who worry that we are going off a cliff with this new administration. I’m sure this “stay” is just the beginning of a long battle, but round one ended encouragingly and it reminded everyone that in America citizens have lots of power and legal mechanisms to fight the White House. No other country in the world has such a robust and resilient form of government. In addition to the “checks and balances” we have our First Amendment, protecting freedom of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble. This is one of the more stunning pieces of forward-thinking in governance. It is another bulwark against an out-of-control executive branch, and it has never felt more important in my lifetime than it has these past few weeks.
The peaceful protests that went on around the country the day after the inauguration — engineered and mostly populated by women — were evidence of the strength of our democracy and our unparalleled tradition of free speech. It showed our fellow citizens, the rest of the world, and, hopefully, the incoming administration that the power to assemble and protest is one of the most powerful rights Americans citizens retain.
More than 4 million protesters around the country sent a message to the incoming administration that there is a movement brewing that will resist attempts to trample on the rights of minorities, women, immigrants and other oppressed groups.
The Women’s March on Washington will undoubtedly be a thorn in this government’s regressive side, and one hopes that it will translate into efficient political organizing and encourage more women to run for national office.
This past weekend, a pop-up demonstration at Kennedy Airport illustrated the passion and solidarity of those who were appalled by the anti-immigration actions of the new President. “If you build a wall, we will tear it down,” they chanted. A quick mobilization at airports, within hours, is an astounding modern development made possible through the powers of social media. Like the Arab Spring of a few years ago that toppled longtime leaders in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, the power of viral protests should never be underestimated.
The press is called “The Fourth Estate” because it belongs in our system of checks and balances. As a graduate student at the Columbia School of Journalism in the mid-’80s I was taught good journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. Truer words could not be spoken about the role of the media in America in this scary moment. We need a strong, independent, and fair press to question, probe, and expose the misuse of power.
The media needs the support of the citizenry against manipulation by the government so we don’t degenerate like other countries have when the government made the media the enemy. Steve Banon’s chilling words last week that the “media is the opposition party” and “should shut up” are not far removed from the bullying tactics in Nazi Germany in the mid-20th century. And we know where that went.
So, as citizens of the most democratic country in history, we must exercise our power to assemble, protest, organize, and support our free press.
Tom Allon is president of City & State NY. Reach him at tallo