American democracy is in crisis. Do we have what it takes to save it?
The journalist Robin Wright, writing in The New Yorker (11/8/20), asks, “Is America a Myth?”, a myth that no longer holds the country together. Unlike other countries united by blood and soil, the United States, social scientists have told us, has been held together by a set of ideas—the self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights … [to] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The American myth today faces existential challenges that no longer only come from the fringes. Rage consumes many in America. At the heart of it all, like the magma at the center of the Earth, lies a not entirely genuine sense of moral righteousness, a fruit of America’s Puritan past that is present in the ideas and mind-sets of some groups that are politically or economically influential.
The American myth today faces existential challenges that no longer only come from the fringes.
In the era after the Second World War, many Americans considered their country an exception to the political frailties that afflicted much of the rest of the world. For much of its history, however, the United States has been riven by internal conflict. The early republic endured fierce political competition between Federalists and Republicans, marked by dirty tricks and assassinations. From the 1820s through the 1860s, the proponents of slavery and its adversaries were engaged in a bitter struggle that ended in civil war. Reconstruction (the period from 1863 to 1877) provided only a temporary settlement until the “Jim Crow” laws re-established (from 1870 onwards) white supremacy over Blacks.
The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement brought a decade of contestation that set the general lines of division for the next two generations. “Today, America is still conflicted about its values,” observes Robin Wright, “whether over the social contract, the means of educating its children, the right to bear or ban arms, the protection of its vast lands, lakes, and air, or the relationship between the states and the federal government.” One has to add: The most painful division, as the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us, is over racial justice and the wrongful exercise of police power.
In the political distemper of the hour, the historic sources of comity, compromise and civic cohesion in the American polity seem to have dried up. For decades, the consensus that held America together has been eroding away; fissures have begun to grow in the very bedrock of American society. The forces splitting the bedrock beneath the republic run deep in post-World-War-II culture: a decline in civic consciousness, a debasement of the media, a degeneration of political processes and long-term dysfunction in the American constitutional system.
The Decline of Civic Consciousness
The loss of civic consciousness is fundamental to the present crisis of American democracy. From its beginnings in the 19th century, the American public school system concerned itself with forming a literate citizenry. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when wave after wave of immigrants came to American shores, it aimed at integrating the newcomers into American life. An early emphasis on Protestant culture, especially in the use of the Bible, led to the formation of Catholic schools; but up through the 1950s, civic education remained a goal of schooling.
In the 1960s, with tensions over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the stresses of generational change, schools grew nervous about being the transmitters of values, even more so its enforcers. The teaching of history and civics declined. At the same time, teachers were graduating from programs trained to treat history and politics from more critical and sometimes clearly ideological points of view. In response parents and local school boards, after growing discontent with what they regarded as unacceptable ideas taught to their children, began to insist on expurgated curricula and textbooks. Large conservative states, such as Texas, because of their buying power, exercised undue influence on the design of textbooks by publishers seeking to protect their profits.
Finally, as U.S. demographic patterns grew more diverse and protections for minorities became normal, multiculturalism led to a splintering of social studies (Black studies, women’s studies, Chicano studies, etc.), and debates accelerated over the inherited canons of education as dominated by “dead white males.” More and more Americans disagreed about what counted as American culture.
The news business lost much of its sense of civic purpose when it started to be regarded as a source of profit.
The Debasement of the Media
In recent years, social media (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and the like) have been blamed for their fissiparous effect on American political culture. Much of the blame, however, belongs to the old print and broadcast media. For decades, they have reduced their foreign coverage. Not only has news coverage largely narrowed to the domestic arena, it has focused more and more on politics and treated politics more and more like entertainment.
The news business, moreover, lost much of its sense of civic purpose when it started to be regarded as a source of profit, managed for financial yield rather than quality of content. As a result, reportage diminished and opinion journalism prospered; reporters gave way to “talking heads,” and cable news has turned into a highly repetitive debating society, adding to the public’s cynicism about politics.
The media has also contributed to the collapse of values in American society. When HBO’s Real World pioneered reality TV in the 1980s, it exhibited adolescent and early-adult bad behavior as entertainment for a niche audience. In the intervening years, it became the norm. Women, customarily believed to be the molders and nurturers of virtue, were no exception. “Girls Behaving Badly” gave rise to “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” “The Real Housewives of New York City,” “The Real Housewives of Potomac,” etc. Reality TV now crowds the prime-time broadcast schedule with shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” and “Love Island,” where adults behave like unchaperoned teenagers acting out Lord of the Flies. President Trump himself first won wide attention with his roles in “The Apprentice” and “WrestleMania.”
Degeneration of the Political Processes
America’s culture crisis has become a political crisis because in a winner-take-all society, the guardrails have been removed. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Supreme Court voided limits on contributions to political campaigns, equating money with free speech. As a result corporations and wealthy individuals gained disproportionate influence on political campaigns. In 2013, the court voided a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that submitted to the federal courts the electoral legislation in nine states and many counties and cities where there had been historic evidence of racial discrimination.
Soon after Shelby County v. Holder, Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin took action to restrict the voting rights of minorities. The actions of North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory stood out. He signed legislation that terminated valid out-of-precinct voting, same-day registration during the early voting period, and pre-registration for teenagers about to turn 18, as well as enacting a stricter voter ID law. Critics contend that voter ID laws had the effect of suppressing minority votes. In Texas, the requirements were so complicated that state officeholders, including Attorney General, now Governor, Greg Abbott, were prevented from voting for a time. In a peculiar twist, Arizonans who utilized federally issued identification had also to show proof of citizenship (birth or naturalization papers) to cast their ballots. In North Dakota, ID laws prevented Native Americans from voting because their homes on reservations lacked street addresses.
Voter suppression takes many forms. In a number of states, authorities have reduced the number of voting places, forcing voters to travel long distances and wait in long lines to cast their ballots. Sometimes minority voting places are denied sufficient equipment, staff or even ballots to operate efficiently. In the recent election period, despite the protests of state authorities, Trump maligned voting by mail, even though he himself voted in Florida that way.
Dysfunctions in the American Constitutional System
Finally, the crisis of the U.S. democracy results from dysfunctions in its constitutional system. Compromise is presumed to be the way democracies do business. The U.S. Constitution had its origin in a number of compromises, but over time compromises can become weak points in the political process. Two such problematic arrangements contribute to the current crisis in American democracy. The first is the electoral basis of the U.S. Senate by which each state has two senators. It was and is presumed to maintain a balance between small and large states and between rural and urban populations. The second is the Electoral College, the body that makes the actual choice of presidents, which in close elections can lend decisive weight to the votes of the popular minority.
The Senate is designed to be a deliberative body, not just a more thoughtful chamber but one that keeps legislators from rash responses to the public will. The House of Representatives, with only two-year terms, is considered “the people’s House” where popular opinion is more readily reflected. Because of six-year terms, senators are expected to be more resistant to shifts in popular opinion. Until the early 20th century, senators were not directly elected but chosen by state legislatures.
In today’s blue-red divide, the populous coastal states are pitted against the land-rich, less populous states of the heartland. With a national population of 330 million and preponderant numbers living in urban areas, the Senate gives disproportionate power to rural states, their interests and preferences, defying the expectations of democratic legitimacy, expectations not held by the founding fathers.
Like the Senate, the Electoral College was designed as a check on popular power in the days before “democratic elections” became the standard of legitimacy. Twice in the last two decades (2000 and 2016), American presidential elections produced an Electoral College winner who did not receive at least the plurality of the nationwide popular vote. Especially when combined with voter suppression, victories dependent on narrow majorities in a few swing states lead to perceptions of illegitimacy of electoral outcomes, undermining trust in the democratic process.
The Latest Elections
On Saturday, Nov. 7, the major U.S. news outlets announced that Joe Biden had been elected president with 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 232. Ten days later Trump had still not conceded his opponent’s victory or set in motion the process of presidential transition. Biden’s victory came with some negative outcomes, with the Democrats losing seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate still hanging in the balance, awaiting a double senatorial run-off vote on Jan. 5 in Georgia. Despite talk of a new Democratic majority during the campaign, Republicans succeeded in winning ballot votes, holding on to the majority of state legislatures and governorships.
In some ways, the vote itself was a victory for American democracy with a record voter turnout of 145 million. The courts, now dominated by Republican, Trump appointees, time after time rejected legal efforts to hold back, limit or otherwise challenge the voting counts. Voting largely went on peacefully. Tallying the vote results was a bipartisan process conducted by civic-minded poll workers and defended by secretaries of state, the state officials responsible for supervising elections.
The vote, however, revealed deep fissures in the body politic. The election was a repudiation of Trump’s divisive political style. Ironically, despite the death of a quarter million Americans due to Covid-19, so deep is the ideological divide that the administration’s handling of the pandemic seemed to have played only a minor role in the voting public’s decisions.
In the wake of his victory, Biden promised to unite and heal the nation. Deprived of acknowledgment and cooperation for the presidential transition by the Trump White House, his campaign began to take on the mantle of a government in waiting. Biden appeared before backdrops reading “Office of the President-elect.” He immediately announced the formation of his own pandemic taskforce and appointed members of his White House staff.
The vote revealed deep fissures in the body politic.
Unless there is an electoral miracle in Georgia with two Democratic candidates winning senate seats, it is unlikely that the new president will be able to have significant new legislation endorsed by a Republican-controlled senate. The wins will be pragmatic ones, bipartisan packages that Biden, with his long legislative experience, is suited to achieve. Of course, with the pandemic to wind down and an economic depression to reverse, the everyday work of government will have serious challenges to meet.
Both parties will face questions related to their identity. Will the Republican party remain Trump’s party, or will it carve out a new identity for itself? Even without Trump, can it wean itself from a win-at-any-cost ethos that has deprived it of any real interest in governing to a renewed civic-mindedness, once associated with Middle America? The Democratic Left has to face the bad news that in the suburbs and the countryside the Trump campaign had succeeded in painting their preferred policies (the Green New Deal, the public option in health care, free college education) as extremist “socialism.” On the other side, some of their most effective campaigners were Trump-No-More Republicans like Steve Schmidt and the members of the Lincoln Project. Furthermore, commentators’ projections of a major political realignment, with African-Americans and Latinos bolstering the party’s numbers well into the future, seems to be exaggerated. The majority of both groups vote Democratic, but not in reliably large numbers, and significant minorities of both groups vote Republican.
Beyond partisan identities, a great gulf of incomprehension divides the American public. Some of it is tribal, with political identities taking on a quasi-religious quality, allowing many to dismiss those on the other side as evil and dangerous. One commentator has proposed that it is no longer appropriate to identify conservative Evangelicals as “Evangelical” or the Christian right as “Christian,” because the religious identity of many has been swallowed up by their political allegiances. Religious nationalism has come out of the shadows as a self-confident political force untrammeled by church structures or the demands of religious orthodoxy, to the detriment of both political and religious life. Healing America promises to be an ever more difficult challenge for politically engaged believers, like Catholic Biden.
A Democracy, If You Can Keep It
Americans did not always think of their government as a democracy. Queried by the wife of Philadelphia’s mayor, Elizabeth Willing Powel, about what the outcome of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had been, Benjamin Franklin is reported to have replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin and the other framers, schooled in ancient history, were apprehensive of popular democracy, and they designed the Constitution with a variety of checks against the assertion of popular power. A more favorable view of democracy came with the electoral reforms of the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s)—primary elections, referenda, recall, the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage—that rolled back the constraints of the republican model for a more democratic one. Two World Wars fought “in defense of democracy” fostered in the public mind the conviction that the United States of America is a democracy.
To a great extent the popular passions the founders and the ancients they read both feared have brought the United States to a moment of crisis. To this point, neither the Constitutional restraints, nor the virtues of today’s elites have been able to stay the dismantling of the American Experiment. Whether a republic or a democracy, the question is, will the American public continue to support it?
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