In 2017 I will continue to work on local civic efforts to foster dialogue and strengthen democratic processes. It’s what I do, one way I can try to help. But there’s a voice in my head asking if it’s too late.
Mine has been a profession and career steeped in the workings of our Constitutional democracy. That experience has clarified two things: Solving complex problems between strong competing people without violence, the very essence of democratic self governance, requires a willingness and ability to subjugate anger and aggression to a disciplined process like negotiation. The other is that civil processes and institutions, like settlement agreements and the courts themselves, will not work or endure without voluntary acceptance of their authority.
Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt spent 20 years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and in the process identified warning signs of the rise of anti-democratic politicians. Among them are the failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. In a December 16th opinion piece in the New York Times, Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy, they point out that a well designed constitution is not enough for a stable democracy.
Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms. Like a pickup basketball game without a referee, democracies work best when unwritten rules of the game, known and respected by all players, ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation. Norms serve as the soft guardrails of democracy, preventing political competition from spiraling into a chaotic, no-holds-barred conflict.
Voters this year chose a candidate who smiled on violence at his rallies, threatened to jail his opponent, and said he would not accept the legitimacy of the election if he lost. They voted to disrupt the “status quo,” to upend the American “political establishment,” and to challenge “political correctness.” As Democrats mourn the loss of civility, resist the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, climate accords, and Social Security, and object to the nomination of cabinet heads whose most relevant background in some cases is a history of opposition to the mission of the agency they’ve been tapped to head, to those concerns the response of Trump supporters has been “We won, get over it.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump mocks our U.S. intelligence agencies and rejects (without evidence) their conclusion that Russia, a country in which he has significant business interests and whose president he openly admires for his “firm control” over his people, hacked American political websites to steer the election to him. He is celebrated by white supremacists, scoffs at objections to his integrity-shaking conflicts of interest, and prefers his private security force to the Secret Service. He avoids national security briefings, promises tariffs that risk a global trade war, and tweets cavalierly about renewing a nuclear arms race. To whom or what does Donald Trump pledge allegiance?
“Get over it” is a disingenuous response to these circumstances. To any patriot they warrant concern and vigilance.
Maybe it’s because I am old enough to have heard my father talk about his personal experience liberating a German concentration camp after WWII, and to have friends whose family members were “exterminated” in those camps, that I don’t find the president-elect’s idiosyncrasies charming, amusing, or harmless. Instead I find myself wondering when Germans knew they had lost control of their democratic political process to a rising politician who would become a world class dictator, or when European governments finally realized that appeasement had only enabled him.
True, we’re not Germany, but there has always been a strong streak of authoritarianism in America. In a January 2016 article in Politico Magazine, One Weird Trait that Predicts Whether You’re a Trump Supporter, political scientist Matthew MacWilliams reported that his survey of voters (in December of 2015) found education, income, gender, age, ideology and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate. Only two of the variables he looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism and fear of terrorism, with the former being far more significant than the latter. This does little to quiet the voice in my head. Authoritarians supporting a narcissistic, autocratic leader (Please don’t balk at those descriptors, they are fair and accurate and important.) in control of the United States government is a combination that should at least give everyone pause.
I get that it’s hard to tease apart honest policy debates from systemic threats to democracy, but I believe that’s what we need to do. The assumption that our Constitutional rules and institutions will always protect us from tyranny is misplaced. We, the people, ARE those institutions! And I’m sorry, my Republican friends, but you’re in charge here. If you fail to resist the understandable temptation to ignore, excuse, and support Donald Trump’s anomalous and dangerous threats in order to ride this train of political opportunity to the promised land of conservative policy conquest we could all end up in deep trouble. When I see you stand against Mr. Trump’s indefensible extremes in the defense of our national interests and democratic norms perhaps the voice in my head will finally stop.
In the meantime I will keep working on ways to facilitate public and political dialogue. It’s long past time that conservatives and progressives stop demonizing each other and denying the value and truthfulness in our respective world views and policy preferences. Structural problems like gerrymandering need to be attended to and the flames of partisan antagonism need to be cooled; these are reforms we can probably manage. What we might not survive, might not be surviving, is the unchecked rise of authoritarianism that disrespects and disregards national interests, institutions, and values and the norms that protect them.