In 2002 Hugo Chavez, the socialist president of Venezuela, was removed from office by military coup and reinstated by military force. I remember watching tanks roll through Caracas on the live TV coverage. That year and the next, I lived in Venezuela and witnessed first-hand that disturbing piece of history.
Venezuela’s crisis began earlier in 1998, when the newly elected Chavez called a constitutional convention. He named the representatives who would rewrite the country’s constitution, the 26th such revision. Among the notable changes was the expansion of executive powers. With the fledgling constitution, Chavez seized control of other government branches, media outlets, businesses and lands. He died in office in 2013, leaving ruin in Venezuela.
A weakened constitution and a socialist mandate gave a single man too much power. He abused it for his own gain to the detriment of his nation. There was no one to hold him in check. There was no balance in the government.
I mention this bit of international history to lend perspective to our current situation. We are on the cusp of a great decision — the presidential election of 2020. Some have called this the most important election in our time.
The record turnout of early votes cast in Cache Valley and throughout the country indicates that many people feel the urgency of this moment. As citizens who have the right to express our thoughts by casting a vote, we show that we care about the way our country goes forward. Many of us care. And so, we vote.
But dare we explore the reason this election is so important?
In my mind, it is the difference in the perceptions of the role of government and the Constitution. Looking at the candidates and especially hearing their responses to questions during debate, I feel one supports the Constitution as intended. The other has asked that certain rights be stripped away, including the right to bear arms. Interestingly, the right to keep arms was chipped during Chavez’ presidency and completely taken from Venezuelan citizens in 2012. Since then, Venezuela’s murder rate has tripled. This example shows that all the pieces of the U.S. Constitution are important and must be preserved.
Venezuela no longer has a strong and proven constitution. We do. The United States constitution provides for a strong executive, but contains appropriate checks and balances that withstand the test of time. With that in place, though I prefer one candidate over the other, I feel we can accept the election results without fearing a breakdown of our national fabric.
During my political science studies at Utah State University, I learned to appreciate the care with which our constitution was created. I especially love the term “checks and balances.” While campaigning, politicians promise to change things. Indeed, “time for a change” and like themes are the most popular campaign slogans. But once elected, very few new officials are able to create sweeping changes.
Despite their grand promises, new officials are kept in check by other politicians or by regulations made previous to their tenure. The result of the check is a balance in power which makes it hard to accomplish change. That is according to the founder’s design. Changes which do go forward cannot be caused by a single person or a small, extremist group. The majority of our elected officials must agree on a policy for it to gain traction and progress. Theoretically, the changes which do happen should be the greatest benefit to the state or nation.
The checks and balances the founders put in place have worked remarkably well. Overall, the executives of our state and our nation have been reined in by Congress and vice versa. Even the separation of powers between state and federal government also provides a strong check to government overreach. When needed, the courts have been called upon to check the other branches of government. And for over 200 years, no one man has been able to bend the Constitution nor to break it.
Since George Washington stepped down as president, there has been a successful transfer of power from departing president to the president elect. That transfer from one head of state to the next is the mark of a strong democratic republic. The United States of America is still a strong republic.
I discussed potential outcomes of this election with my former professor Michael Lyons, who still teaches at USU. Lyons expects that the election will be contested, especially if it is close. Yet the method of contesting would probably be appeals to courts. Recounts might be demanded. Undoubtedly, the losing party will be angry, upset and may attempt political retribution. But that is where it will end. With checks and balances in place, Lyons and I agree that when it is time for a new president to come to office, whether now or four years from now, the torch will pass as it has since President Washington.
Tanks will not roll on Washington D.C. Military leaders will not choose sides. The citizen militia will not come to arms to overthrow either the returning president or the president-elect. Responsible, intelligent people stand on both sides of the aisle and they will support the rule of law, the method of succession, and the Constitution.
No matter the outcome of the election, I trust the process. The record-breaking voting numbers mean something. The American people are awake and we care. Our voices do matter.
It is a privilege to be able to choose between many competent and qualified candidates at every level of government. Each race and candidate deserves our attention and requires our vote. After all, each person elected will add to the system of checks that keeps our government in balance.