At first blush, asking whether our democracy is in crisis comes across as negative thinking. But sometimes, there are just those symptoms that grab our attention. For example, if someone sitting next to us started to cough, sneeze, and shiver it would only be natural to ask if that person was feeling well.
When it comes to our democracy, many of us have seen symptoms of something wrong and have questioned its health. Usually, these are just temporary disorders that resolve themselves. After all, our democracy which is protected by our Constitution is a strong one. But to believe it is indestructible may just be a little too much false security.
Many democracies around the world have died or are going in that direction. The reader is encouraged to check out this interesting and informative study done by Freedom House.
Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017…
Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.
So what are those symptoms we are seeing that are causing us to question the health of our democracy? Here is an admittedly subjective but by no means exhaustive list.
Especially since the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, big money from often unidentified sources is gaining an ever increasing stranglehold on our electoral process. It has been argued that the ability to give money to candidates is an exercise of free speech. But when candidates accept disproportionally large money donations from various commercial or political interests, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that big donors are calling the shots instead of the voters. Here is just one example. In a recent Quinnipiac Poll an astonishing 97% support background checks for all buyers. With this amount of universal support, it should be a slam dunk for Congress to pass this. But because the National Rifle Association funds so many candidates, the general voters' desires are mostly being ignored.
In a democracy with free and fair elections, a bedrock principle is whoever gets the most votes wins. Not necessarily with the Electoral College which goes back to the original ratifying of the Constitution. Twice in the last 16 years, we have had a president elected with a minority of votes. And it almost happened again in 2004. In essence, some votes count while others don’t. That’s not a real democracy!
There have been many forms of voter suppression over the years. Voter ID laws are the latest. While it all seems legitimate, there is a lot of red tape for people like out of state resident college students and those without driver’s licenses – who by and large tend to vote Democratic. Why do just about all the requests for stricter Voter ID laws come from Republicans? Because it provides them an unfair tactical advantage as openly admitted here.
Gerrymandering has been employed by both Democrats and Republicans through the years. It is about politicians redrawing electoral districts to benefit their own party. In effect, it’s about politicians picking their voters instead of the other way around true to the principles of democracies. The results can be incumbent candidates who are impossible to remove because their parties have unassailable majorities in their redrawn districts. Fortunately, judiciaries are now starting to strike back against this undemocratic practice like recently in Pennsylvania.
Our intelligence community has determined without a doubt that Russia led by President Vladimir Putin made a full assault on our democracy by tampering with our presidential election in favor of Trump and against Hillary Clinton. While we will never know for sure whether this tipped the election in Trump’s favor, with his razor-thin margin of victory, it is entirely possible! Even worse, we know that Russia intends to tamper with our upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections! The integrity of these elections and our democracy will be greatly in question unless we are able to stop this tampering. Thus far, there has been little effort to do so especially with Trump having been in denial of the tampering.
But perhaps the most egregious sin against our democracy was the stealing of a Supreme Court Justice pick from Democratic President Barack Obama. Although Supreme Court Justices have a lifetime term if they want it, the Constitution as part of its system of checks and balances grants the sitting president the right to choose the Justice subject to the Senate’s approval. When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly, President Obama's replacement pick was stonewalled by the Republican majority Senate in hopes that the Republicans would win the upcoming presidential election. When Donald Trump scored his upset victory, he got to install his choice with approval of that same Republican majority Senate on a strictly party line vote. This added insult to injury since Trump was elected while losing the popular vote.
It has been asserted by many going back to Thomas Jefferson that an informed electorate is vital to a strong, functional democracy. This is quite intuitive. Elections are about choices. It stands to reason that without informed choices, the freedom to choose is not necessarily beneficial for a democracy. At its worst, really bad choices can lead to the end of democracies. Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter had dire warnings in this video which I urge the reader to watch.
There were a number of points he made. But the last one made a particular impression on me. In essence, he said that if the electorate is not aware of the causes of problems that have not been addressed, it is all too easy for a demagogue to ask for (and receive) total power to solve these problems. How prescient! It was less than a month after this talk that a demagogue who said that for all the problems he claimed America to have, they could be fixed “only by me” after which he was given the keys to the government to run with it.
Which brings us to the 500 pound gorilla in the room in the way of President Donald Trump who has far more authoritarian tendencies than any president in our nation’s history. I can outline all the reasons why but can I once again refer the reader to this outstanding video lecture by liberal economist and professor, Robert Reich?
Interestingly, this video which had a number of scary warnings about the authoritarian nature of Trump was produced shortly before his inauguration. Now a little over a year later, I think everything he said was spot on! I urge the reader to watch this video to see if you agree.
Of all of his authoritarian tendencies, the one that is perhaps most disturbing is his relentless turning of truth upside down to where it is presented in the form that was labelled as “alternative facts”. Meanwhile, any questioning the media had of his version of the truth was brushed aside as “fake news”. The notable exception in Trump’s mind is Fox News which caters to him unconditionally. It has been derided by its detractors as being the closest thing to state-run media America has. Here is a rather amusing video of Fox News in action. And just to make things worse, Trump is now filling a number of his positions in his staff with sycophants, many of them former Fox News commentators. The result will be fewer and fewer restrictions on the impulses of this erratic president.
So we finally return to the question posted in the title. Whether we truly are in crisis is a matter of opinion. But it is a fact that Russia is doing everything possible to undermine our democracy by their meddling in our elections. A democracy is truly in crisis if its citizens begin to seriously question whether we have fair and free elections. We must stop Russia at all costs!
In addition, the media has a special duty to call out Trump to hold his feet to the fire as much as possible. Perhaps our best hope lies in Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating Trump and his staff for possible money laundering and/or illegal collusion with the Russians during the recent presidential election. But as his dragnet comes closer to Trump, there is always the fear that he will fire Mueller which if it happens will almost certainly put us in crisis mode.
Our democracy has survived through a number of mortal threats to it, most notably the Civil War and World War II and to a lesser degree, Watergate. If it survived crises like these, surely we have little to worry about, right? Maybe not! I would like to offer this quotation by Robert Hutchins:
The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.
I think Hutchins nailed it! Overall, Americans have indeed exhibited a lot of apathy and indifference over our political system. We have one of the lowest voter turnout percentages among democracies in the world. All too many people are just indifferent about the vital political issues of the day. Yes, they are understandably more concerned with work and family. Politics is more for political junkies like me but not for them. The result is a democracy that is running on autopilot. While this may be OK for much of the time, we may veer off course and if we aren’t keeping an eye on things, we may at least stray far off course or at worst – crash!
But I’m going to end this decidedly negative essay on a positive note. The shocking upset victory by Donald Trump and the resulting chaos that followed has served as a major wake-up call for many Americans. Many are now taking to the streets to say that they’re mad as hell! But more importantly, they are registering their dissatisfaction at the ballot box, most recently in the special election in Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district where the Democrat Conor Lamb scored an upset victory in an area so heavily gerrymandered that Donald Trump won this district by over 20 points and the Democrats in previous elections here didn’t even bother to field a candidate!
History has shown that the party of an unpopular president (like Trump) suffers major losses in midterm elections like the one coming up this November. Many Republicans in Congress have seen the writing on the wall and have announced their upcoming retirements from office.
Republicans now control all three branches of our federal government. Political prognosticators are predicting with some confidence that the Democrats will at least retake the House in 2018 which will provide some vitally needed balance of power in Washington until the next election in 2020. But November is a ways off and anything can happen in the meantime!
Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking a single election is going to fix all of the considerable problems our democracy is going through. It would be a step in the right direction, though. If enough of us care to make a difference, then the tide will turn to our elected leaders serving the interests of its citizens and not the other way around. Now that’s what a real democracy is all about!