I read a piece this morning that was published in The New York Times, entitled “5 Midterm Lessons for American Democracy.” It appears in The Interpreter newsletter, which is authored by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. A general link to that column can be found here.
Their article raises some salient points regarding the state of American democracy. However, it misses the mark on others.
The first postulation in the article is that the “U.S. avoided a legitimacy crisis.” I would contend that we are in the midst of a crisis, one that is supported and propelled by many far-right conservative public officials, their staffers, allied think tank officials, and (critically) powerful economic interests.
Moreover, I would further argue that racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and hostility against those who belong to religious minorities (those who practice such faiths as well as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers across the spectrum) are not merely deeply ingrained in such forces, but they are also actively stoked in order to encourage societal divisions and thus prevent democratic challenges to our socioeconomic and political structures.
For example, voter suppression efforts in many states tend to disenfranchise Black voters at much higher rates compared to other racial populations. This is a deliberate strategy intended to create electorates as favorable as possible for conservative candidates and causes. Such practices, which manifest themselves in many ways in different jurisdictions but all to the same effect, are in and of themselves a crisis of legitimacy. If voters cannot exercise their franchise, do we truly live in a democracy? Or if you are one of those who say, “Actually, we live in a republic…” fine, but how can we have a representative form of government if the governed cannot have a protected voice in electing their representatives?
The second point raised is that “the risk of future legitimacy crises may have grown.” Yes, the author and I agree on that basic theory. We may have different beliefs as to “why.” I have argued elsewhere that we may be leaving “Political Time” in favor of a politics which is more embedded in “Cultural Time” .... specifically, the rise of popular culture as a force in our politics and how it shapes who we elect, how we debate issues, and how it impacts our perceptions and behaviors. For example, Trump is an “entertainer” who is deepening his support among his target viewership in order to receive their adulation, make wheelbarrows full of money for himself and his family, and (potentially) obtain a pick-up for another four-year season. He keeps tossing out incendiary language because it helps him meet his short-term needs. He, alongside his enabling cronies, do not care about the long-term well-being of the Republic.
Unless we have a politics grounded on the rule of law, with a commitment to small-l liberal values, we are at an increased risk of demagoguery and the subversion of law by those who hold political power (and their agents who operate on their behalf).
This cultural shift isn’t the only reason why the risk of legitimacy crises might have increased; I agree with some of the authors’ arguments, for example, gerrymandering to game the system is a problem. Legal challenges to fundamental rights and courts that are out of sync with where the majority of Americans stand on social and political issues erode confidence in institutions and in the belief that laws will be fairly enforced. Again, this has been happening for a while now and if you are looking for a red-line that shows where the crisis began, look behind you.
For the reasons mentioned above, I concur with their third point, “social polarization is likely to get worse” in the near-term. I believe that the 2020 presidential election cycle is going to be one of the ugliest this nation has seen. There will be coded and uncoded appeals to white nationalism, and to narratives that could easily come from old-line European fascists. Trump, his minions and the “malefactors of great wealth” who stand to benefit from his continuance in office are going to employ every divisive strategy under the sun, no matter how much it corrodes the national dialogue, to re-elect their “man in 1600.”
The articulation of point four, the so-called “Latin Americanization of the U.S.” is not appropriate. Frankly, it is problematic as it paints a very broad brush when you are thinking about 639 million people living across 33 nations. Yes, there are some Latin American countries currently undergoing some turmoil (Venezuela being a good example) and some that are hurtling off in a very troubling direction (Brazil coming to mind). The larger point regarding “delegative democracy” is a legitimate concern. Our checks and balances do not seem to be working. For example, the cowardice among many prominent Republicans, especially those in public office, to stand up to the authoritarian rantings of Trump is appalling and an abdication of their responsibilities to the nation.
Regarding their somewhat truncated fifth point regarding there being “mostly good, if mixed, signals for global democracy,” I think they did not avail themselves of the opportunity to discuss how structural changes can help build stronger democracies world-wide.
For example, I believe that a disaggregation of economic power (some good old-fashioned trust-busting) and the passage of laws that promote greater economic democracy along with other Constitutional or parliamentary reforms (depending on the nation) will help empower everyday people while impairing the ability of “the powerful few” to gather the fuel they use to sow discord.
Am I saying that we should immediately bring into being in the United States the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange?” While public and democratic control over select parts of our economy would help ensure that “people are being put ahead of profits,” it is not necessary to transform our society into some form of socialist utopia by tomorrow. However, if we want our citizenry to enjoy effective liberties, not just the liberties they might possess if they became wealthy, then we need to have stronger safeguards built into our system. A higher minimum wage is one such safeguard, Medicare-for-All is another, making higher education far more affordable to facilitate economic mobility is yet another. This is hardly radical, it’s social democracy…a new New Deal for our time, practiced at the national, state, and local levels.
And it is grounded in what our principles are supposed to be: fair play, equality under the law, treating our neighbors as we would wish to be treated, and providing a helping hand to our neighbors who may be going through a tough time (as we would wish to be helped if the same happened to us). Right now, there are forces in our society opposed to such fundamental concepts, because they see them as threats to their power.
If we want to preserve our democracy, we can’t simply rely on voting in members of Party X to solve our immediate problems. We need to hold them accountable and we need them to press for systemic reforms that transfer clout from “the few to the many.” Vigilance does not end when the polls close. In a democracy, electioneering and governing (and the nexus between the two) rely on an informed and engaged citizenry. Obstacles to the flow of information and to engagement should be eradicated so every American, to the greatest extent possible, can have an authentic say in how we as a society operate.
And those are my thoughts on “lessons for American democracy” following the Midterm elections. This is likely to be a format I employ for future posts, so I hope you enjoyed it.