In a historic move, that will likely impact legislative history for many years, yesterday House Democrats took to the floor for a "sit-in" led by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). This latest political development, in a year that has been marked by numerous "firsts" for the American political system, may signal American democracy finally transitioning from adolescence to adulthood complete with all of the insecurities and moments of self-discovery that come to define the human experience of this transition.
Wading through this moment of political uncertainty and transition presents us with an opportunity to reflect on three issues that seem to be at the forefront of American politics: The threat of a single man and his bombastic rhetoric attempting to override the American system, the recognition that Congress is in need of a democratic revitalization, and the fact that hate serves only to undermine democracy.
One man cannot steamroll a system designed to limit power
Throughout the campaign season, Donald Trump has sought to paint himself as the American Messiah, a self-proclaimed success who is ready and able to shake-up the political establishment. He has also presented himself as the voice for every man - going up against trade deals and policies that he argues, albeit with rhetoric rather than substance, are at odds with the will of the people. Coming from Donald, these arguments are rather intriguing since he and his companies have benefited greatly from these "deals." Of course, the role of the populist is to disrupt the dust bunnies of public policy and sentiment that have been gathering for decades and leverage them to establish his personal power.
Although Donald's strongman plan for change may work in a country like Venezuela or South Africa, the American political system is highly unlikely to cave to a man like Donald Trump. By its very nature, the system of checks and balances as well as federalism prevent the type of consolidation of power that Trump's plan is more and more dependent upon, especially as he pushes members of his own party aside and attempts to go at it alone. In other words, even if - God forbid - Trump were to become president and attempt to steamroll his rhetoric through Washington, he'd quickly realize the limits of his office. It's moments like this when you thank God for brilliant legal minds like that of James Madison.
Those following this 21st Century messiah would do well to consider the risk associated with following a strongman rather than coalescing behind a series of clear and succinct policy proposals, thereby, rallying behind a movement rather than a person. In many ways, Donald Trump's "followers" are quite distinct from the other populist of the 2016 cycle, Bernie Sanders, in that Sanders' supporters appear to be rallying behind a clear set of ideas rather than a series of talking points or a figurehead as in the case of Trump. Further, whereas Sanders has experience as a public servant, Donald Trump appears more comfortable assuming the character of, and in keeping with Trump's fascination with Disney characters, Governor Ratcliffe from Pocahontas or Rasputin from Anastasia - in other words, a let's go at it alone approach to leading, which is a leadership philosophy I'm quite sure Harvard Business Review has never featured on a top ten list.
The democratization of Congress is good for democracy
Whereas Donald Trump has sought to portray his rise as a kind of heralding of a new day for America, the actions taken in Congress over the past two weeks appear to most clearly indicate a significant power shift in Washington. In essence, House and Senate Democrats are appealing directly to the American people rather than their congressional colleagues for action on gun control. In doing so, they're are simultaneously changing the power dynamic in Washington as they challenge Republican leaders to stop ignoring their calls for action and that of more than 85% of Americans.
Although we live in a democracy, the rules and procedures of the House and Senate have for too long restricted the type of debate and floor action that should be taking place in both houses. There was a time in American history when both houses were home to some of history's greatest minds, minds that respected each other and worked together to achieve solutions rather than foster division. Today's House and Senate are instead controlled by the majority party in a way that is no longer productive and lacks the integrity a democratic system is worthy of.
It's for this reason that the sit-in being led by Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader known for leading sit-ins in Nashville in the 1960s, will likely one day be viewed as a watershed moment for the minority party of the House exerting its power. Of course, abuse of this newfound power could cause utter chaos and stagnation, however, used appropriately it could help to shed light on legislation the majority party has blocked from bringing to the floor.
In the case of the current struggle for common-sense gun control, the Democrats are bringing to the floor measures that 85%-92% of Americans support depending on which aspect of gun control is being discussed. Either way, it's clear that House Democrats and their Senate colleagues are forcing both houses of Congress to budge on an issue that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of having addressed.
Let's hope that this may mark a moment in American political history that will ensure that the minority is never silenced, is never prevented from bringing forward ideas and taking action on pressing issues affecting the lives of millions of Americans.
Tolerating the intolerant will destroy a tolerant society
A final issue and one that continues to plague American democracy even in this period of transition is the presence of unchecked hate and bigotry that in some cases has been reinforced by our nation's leaders under the guise of "religious freedom" or "protecting our way of life." It's time for us to admit that both of these arguments threaten our security. On this point, Karl Popper's landmark work The Open Society and Its Enemies could be read as speaking to the need to end the existence of a bipolar America. On the question of how to respond to movements rooted in intolerance, Popper writes, "We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal."
Hate continues to wield its ugly face in American democracy in a way that undermines the very freedoms that define us. As uncomfortable as it may be, we must call hate and bigotry by their names for to call them anything less is to justify their existence. What took place in Orlando was an indisputable act of hate, however, the hate that is spewed under the guise of policy debate or shielded by "religious freedom" is equally harmful to our democracy. In the end we cannot merely tolerate the intolerant for as Popper warns, "If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them," in other words, democracy itself is at risk if we merely accept the presence of bigotry.
As Donald Trump attacks Mexicans (and Mexican-Americans), as Republicans refuse to consider nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans with the argument it threatens religious freedom, and as Republican leaders seek to paint Islam and its adherents as "radical," our tolerant society begins to crack. If anything, this presidential election cycle has shown us that hate is still very much alive in America in a way that weakens our nation.
As talking heads work to leverage intolerance as a means for strengthening their own hold on political power, we must call out this hate and bigotry, so as to let it be known that intolerance is not an American value.
A path forward for America
I'm confident that America will defeat the would be strongman, will force a deaf Congress to hear, and will say no to intolerance as each of these are necessary steps on the path to realizing a mature democracy. Although these situations place America in a state of largely self-inflicted uncertainty, it gives us a tremendous opportunity to revisit what makes America great - the promise of a free, open, and tolerant society that welcomes the outsider and raises that person up to achieve all that America offers. We will overcome the hurdles we currently face, it will not be easy, but as long as we don't cower, as long as we don't place our bets on any single person, but rather on a movement to reclaim truly American values, we will win by advancing the rational argument over the irrational rhetoric and, in turn, we will hold the moral high ground.