Let’s Go Deep – The Destruction of Democracy

There is a narrative out there, one I happen to think is true, that we are on the road to losing our democracy. We have a narcissist child President with a pathological need for lying, who has demonstrated his racism, ignorance, and nativism on numerous occasions, elected by a minority of the people. But I think we could solve that if our institutions and norms were not under assault.

Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have studied the demise of elected democracies around the world. In a new book, How Democracies Die, they argue that too many American politicians, including President DFF (I call him Trump DFF, Dumb Fat F*ck because, well isn’t it obvious?), are violating long-held norms of American democracy, including a respect for the legitimacy of political rivals and a commitment to some restraint in political combat.

They tell us there are four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:

1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.  

“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”

But that is just the beginning. In the book and in interviews (The best one is a Podcast with Ezra Klein) they tell us is that “the primary way in which democracies have died since the end of the Cold War, over the last 30 years or so, is at the hands of elected leaders (See above), at the hands of governments that were often freely or close to freely elected, who then use democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.”

Now let’s think about that a minute. We know that on many issues the Congress (Republicans who control both chambers) do not represent the will of the people, be that about Dreamers, simple background checks for gun ownership, or Obamacare. Starting with the House of Representatives, the authors above have shown in the next election Democrats could win by a margin of 6 or 7% and still not be in the majority. That is because of gerrymandering. In the Senate as I and many others have shown, representation favors those living in low population/rural/conservative states (two per state regardless of population). The population of California has the same representation in the Senate as Wyoming. Really, the ratio of population is 68:1. And as the authors above pointed out, those Republicans represent a smaller and smaller minority of white people as our country diversifies and grows.

This then actuated the “who then use democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.” We saw it back in 2009 when Mitch McConnell and the Republicans decided to make the filibuster and needing a super majority for any major legislation the tool they would use to make Barack Obama a one-term President. We see it in gerrymandering and the successful attempt to deny President Obama a Supreme Court Justice so they could control the Supreme Court who is today reviewing gerrymandering. We see it in voter ID laws that are now in 30 states that have one and only one aim, to make it harder to vote for those that don’t support their policies. President DFF tried to continue that with his voter commission, but the states rebelled.

Think about purple North Carolina when in the last election their state government changed hands.  So what did the Republicans do?  In a lame duck session they passed laws that hamstrung the new government to benefit themselves.  That is democracy at work?  Where was the norm that the people want a new direction and we should release the reins of control? But still, with all this, our democracy would be self-correcting eventually, because the institutions and the Constitution would hold up and we would swing back the other way, except it isn’t happening. So why is that?

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that:

To function well, democratic constitutions must be reinforced by two basic norms, or unwritten rules. The first is mutual toleration, according to which politicians accept their opponents as legitimate. When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.

The second norm is forbearance, or self-restraint in the exercise of power. Forbearance is the act of not exercising a legal right. In politics, it means not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so.

Then they catalogue in an interesting way how that mutual toleration and forbearance has eroded.  One of their interesting assertions is that race has played an important role.  As long as the majority say the status quo of racial injustice was okay, we could work together because we had that one mutual interest.  See the formation of the Constitution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the passing of the voting rights act.  They point out that when South Carolina was Democratic, and Wyoming was Republican, we did have accommodation.  Today both are Republican and mutual toleration and forbearance are gone.

As Republicans represent a smaller and smaller segment of America, “Democrats being a party, essentially, of secular, educated whites and a diversity of ethnic minorities and the Republicans being a fairly homogeneous white, Protestant party, or white Christian party, the Republicans have basically come to represent a former ethnic majority in decline. You have many – certainly not all – but many Republican voters who feel like the country that they grew up with, or grew up in, is being taken away from them. And that can lead to pretty extremist views and voting patterns.

And they weren’t afraid to point who started this cycle of extremism:

We think that the most egregious sort of pushing of the envelope began with Republicans, particularly in the 1990s and that the most egregious acts of hardball have taken place at the hands of Republicans. I’ll just list four – the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 2003 mid-district redistricting in Texas, which was pushed by Tom DeLay, the denial – essentially, the theft of a Supreme Court seat with the refusal to even take up the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and the so-called legislative coup pulled off by the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina in 2016. Those are among the most egregious acts of constitutional hardball that we see in the last generation, and they’re all carried out by Republicans.

Of course that does not include President DFF and the total capitulation of the Republicans in Congress to violate norms and the rule of law to try to tarnish and end the Mueller investigation.  The release of an obviously (from FBI statements) inaccurate and politicized Nunes Memo that could damage national security, destroy trust in government, is really the last straw. With all this, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that if Democrats follow the same scorched earth policies of the Republicans, we lose democracy.  Here is where we part company.

Democrats are beginning to respond in kind. Their recent filibuster triggering a government shutdown took a page out of the Gingrich playbook. And if they retake the Senate in 2018, there is talk of denying President Trump the opportunity to fill any Supreme Court vacancy. This is a dangerous spiral.

American democracy retains important sources of strength, including vast national wealth, a vibrant media and civil society, and a robust judiciary and rule of law. But the norms that once protected our institutions are coming unmoored. President Trump has accelerated this norm erosion, but he didn’t start it. Intensifying polarization, driven by an extremist Republican Party, is making constitutional hardball a new norm for party politics.

The lessons of history are clear. Extreme polarization can wreck even established democracies. America is no exception. As long as Americans do not overcome their deepening partisan animosities, democracy remains at risk — President Trump or no President Trump.

I have been arguing for years that Republicans no longer represent legitimate partners in a democracy and we should treat them as such.  Not to do so turns our democracy into a wrecking machine. There is a difference between Democrats and Republicans that Levitsky and Ziblatt, as a bipartisan writing team, I don’t think recognize yet.  Democrats don’t usually lie and they believe in facts and science to inform their policies.  That actually leads to rational debate within the Democratic Party on the way forward.

Republicans through their use of Fox news , Right wingthink tanks and media create an alternate reality that does not allow for data, facts, and science, only dogma.  Their ignoring of the threat to America by Russia and following in line behind President DFF is just the latest proof of how illegitimate they are as defenders of the Constitution.

Now in the podcast I cited above, they argued that as the Republicans go further off the rails, the other side, as hard as that argument is to make, must be the adult in the room to save democracy with this argument:  Republicans have valid points of view that should be respected.  They used abortion which Republicans see as murder as an example.  We Democrats should respect that.

Okay, but in that argument they ignore what science tells us about the fetus and abortion, or that nature as a natural process aborts millions more that we ever do in a hospital. Finally and most importantly, Democrats giveRepublicans the right not to have one, to choose to or not to.  Republicans want to take their religious belief and force it down our throats using government, not moral arguments, to end abortions way past what science tells us is necessary.  That is fundamentally different than respecting a point of view.  It is capitulating to their intolerance in defiance of facts, data, and science.

I believe that while I understand their academic view of what is necessary for a democracy, seeing your opponent as legitimate and displaying forbearance, can only apply when your opponent is legitimate, that facts, science, and data can in fact inform an argument and lead to a resolution.  We no longer have in America rational debate.  We have one side creating a propaganda machine to change our perception of reality to maintain their hold power.

There is only one legitimate political party in our two-party system, the Democrats, and quite frankly that is where you will find real debates about the limits of government, the economy, action on global warming, tax reform, immigration policy, and many more issues.  On the other side we have dogma and misdirection to consolidate power, using the levers of a democracy to kill it.  Forbearance my ass.

I think the Democratic Party has to play hardball with an irrational foe.  The damage that we are seeing to institutions as the Republicans in Congress co-opt their need for control and power over good government, can no longer be forbeared.  Democrats can no longer act and look powerless as the truculent child acts freely to destroy our country.  The difference here is the Democrats will utilize facts, data, and science to attack Republicans, and no longer show restraint and forbearance in the face of bold lies.

There is one other dynamic that may be in play here, the Republicans have policies that facts, data, and science show us will badly damage America. As the damage builds up, maybe the radical right will come to their senses.  In the meantime, Democrats have to recognize that their political foe is no longer as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue worthy of tolerance and forbearance.  They lost that respect when they embarked on a fact free and propaganda mission to take over the government.  It is really time to fight back.


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