“Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you!” And, just because I’m biased doesn’t mean there aren’t at least two real threats right now to American democracy. Can we see the difference?
Our reflexive biases probably helped us survive through evolution, but they also limit understanding, impede learning, and block advancement. And so I make an effort to see around or through my suspect beliefs. Today, I’m challenging myself to look more objectively at a presidency I believe is threatening democracy.
One approach is to force myself to look for and acknowledge positive things this president is doing. He’s not always wrong. But an approach better suited to my philosophical turn of mind is to seek a broader perspective, one in which Donald Trump the person is a smaller player on a larger stage. Instead of looking only at him, I’m trying to consider the overall health or condition of democracy, something we all might agree is important.
On the up side, there is plenty of evidence that despite the challenges, the legal system and judicial branch are working pretty well. Much of the professional federal bureaucracy, too, is still serving its public mission with dedication. The press remains free and is going strong. Ironically, even our democratic election system can be said to be working in that it empowered a disaffected segment of the populace to upend the status quo. If a majority of us agree Trumpism was a mistake, we can make corrections in future elections and move on.
But that hopeful scenario depends on keeping certain fundamentals…well, fundamental. It requires a continuing commitment by most or all Americans to support certain core values. If those are lost, so in all likelihood is the democracy.
Two of those core values are threatened.
First is the right to vote.
Voting is an antidote to despair and a safety valve against violent social unrest; it’s everyman’s power to shape his world. As long as we the people have the power to choose our leaders, we must ultimately accept responsibility for bad choices and failures of governance. We might not always win, but we’re always in the game. Many take this right for granted, but underestimating its contribution to the perceived legitimacy and stability of our national government is a huge mistake. But for our belief in the opportunity to vote the rascals out in the next election, a nation as divided as ours could easily face violent revolution or civil war.
Second is the rule of law.
My wife and I were twice ripped off by in Italy a few years ago; once by pickpockets in an elaborate scheme involving fake security officers, and once by purse snatchers in a restaurant in which the furious owner could not interest the police in looking at the security tapes from cameras pointed directly at our table. In neither case would police even take a report. As I began to conclude that thieves were being given free rein to prey on foreigners, my rising anger flared into fantasies of violence that shocked me. If there is no authority to enforce the rules, if it’s “every man for himself,” I would defend myself, and as violently as necessary.
Fairness seems to be a deep and powerful need. Citizens can tolerate a lot of inequality and inequity if we are at least all operating under the same rules. If we want everyone pulling together, if we want acceptance of the rule of law by some, that acceptance needs to be imposed on all. Whether it’s treating Blacks the same as Whites, enforcing anti-trust laws, or prosecuting white collar crime, a free citizenry needs to know there is a commitment to holding all violators accountable. We can accept breakdowns and failures, but a system must be in place that promises to do right by everyone or riots of one kind or another will eventually ensue, and rightly so.
Both of these core values—the right to vote and the rule of law, are being threatened, and need to be vigorously and publicly defended.
High stakes political competition will always draw dirty tricksters and warriors who push the envelope and sometime cross the lines. But the premise of democratic elections is that want-to-be leaders have to convince voters of their worth and the superiority of their views. Extreme gerrymandering, purging voter roles, and onerous voter ID laws sidestep that competitive process and are a direct attack on the right, or at least the opportunity to vote. These strategies stab at the heart of the nation’s democratic ideal–faith in the collective wisdom of the governed, all of the governed, to govern ourselves.
The rule of law is also being challenged–directly by a president who publicly dismisses it as an illegitimate imposition on his power, and indirectly by a legislative branch unwilling to defend it.
The president harrangues the country to distrust facts and believe only him. He calls on us to deny the integrity, competence, and legitimacy of the FBI, State Department, CIA, and Justice Department, calling them a ”deep state” bent on thwarting his will. He may soon fire the Attorney General in a bid to stop a completely legal and well founded investigation. He impliedly offers to pardon potential witnesses who might have evidence against him, denies the legitimacy of courts that rule against him, and even praises leaders who murder people they don’t like. His disdain for the rule, institutions, and processes of law is being preached from the nation’s ultimate bully pulpit.
Undermining the nation’s trust in the public servants, and the institutions and processes they serve, and on which national defense and the rule of law so profoundly depend, is extraordinarily destructive. I tasted where that can lead in Italy, and it’s not pretty.
I doubt our nation will survive in anything like the form we’ve boasted of to the world without keeping the right to vote and the rule of law active in our commitment to democracy. Do Conservatives and Liberals still agree on this? If so, can we extract these values from the partisanship wars and insist they be honored?