American Democracy Is Still Under Existential Threat

The midterm elections were a move in the right direction. But grave challenges remain.

It’s time to confront a lacerating truth: The age of Donald Trump is a wrecking ball for social cohesion which threatens democracy itself ― and America as we know it.

Granted, the Democrats’ takeover of the House reflects a heartening level of civic engagement which elected an impressive cadre of diverse candidates dedicated to our betterment. But they ― and we ― face grave challenges which, if not surmounted, could soon become intractable.

Preeminent now is a looming constitutional crisis. By firing Jeff Sessions and insinuating a constitutionally illiterate puppet as acting attorney general, Trump is preparing to quash or hamstring the Mueller investigation so as to suppress evidence of his own criminal misconduct and that of his associates ― likely including his eldest son. Such an autocratic power grab would pit Trump’s craving for immunity against the democratic imperative that no president subvert the rule of law.

By itself, this poses an existential threat to constitutional governance. But what makes it so dangerous is an underlying deterioration of our society ― and our democracy ― so severe that the age of Trump could all too swiftly become America’s historic worst.

Put bluntly, America is consuming itself from within. We are riven by tribal hatred and resentment. Lies, insults and unreason corrupt our political dialogue. The lust for partisan dominance paralyzes government and pollutes public policy. Civility becomes weakness; propaganda suffocates fact; fundamentalism suppresses science.

Our faith in basic institutions ― the presidency; the courts; Congress; the media; our schools and colleges ― deteriorates. Climate-driven disasters grow ever more numerous and ferocious. Violence proliferates; a venal gun lobby spreads murderous paranoia. Our common glue crumbles apace.

In response, contemporary ostriches offer the seductive sedative of historic “perspective.” After all, they tell us, yellow journalism attended our first years; the sainted Thomas Jefferson and John Adams slandered each other; why, in 1856, a pro-slavery congressman pummeled an abolitionist senator with a cane inside the Capitol! Remember the Depression? What about the 1960s?

This siren song of complacency is insidiously superficial. The agrarian society which spawned Jefferson and Adams was not maddened by social media. Instead of a divisive demagogue, the Depression brought us Franklin Roosevelt. Unresolved resentments from the 1960s ― over race; gender; guns; and culture ― burgeon anew. The existential crisis of the Civil War marked the accession of our greatest president ― and bequeathed racial and geographic fissures now exploited by a leader whose toxic tenure mocks all that Lincoln was.

What makes this epoch so incendiary is that our current problems are so multifarious and complex. We are beset by income inequality; global economic change; drastic demographic shifts; and a tsunami of disinformation which mutates disagreement into loathing. We interact with a complex world in ways previously unimaginable ― intensifying dangers that would be irreversible like climate change and nuclear calamity. Our seething contemporary distemper derives from not one division, but many ― racial, geographic, economic, religious, educational, informational, and cultural ― that erode the sense of common citizenship essential to democracy itself.

Heretofore, most Americans viewed rising opportunity, broadly shared, passing from one generation to the next, as the norm. Instead, accelerating income inequality has brought stagnant wages; inadequate health care; the opioid epidemic; the deterioration of family stability; a decline in life expectancy among white Americans; a chasm in political influence between the wealthy and the rest; and a pervasive loss of hope and opportunity among those left behind.

Thousands gathered to protest in Washington after President Donald Trump forced the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week.
Thousands gathered to protest in Washington after President Donald Trump forced the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week.

Growing geographic and class divisions enhance the belief and, increasingly, the reality, that economic and political power belongs to a privileged elite residing in gilded fiefdoms. Gerrymandering and demographic sorting combine with the electoral map to sub-divide America into one-party enclaves whose occupants marinate in mutual alienation. Wealthy donors purchase public policy while financing mendacious media campaigns that exploit tribal resentments to achieve their selfish ends ― joined by a foreign adversary bent on weakening American democracy by choosing America’s president.

Instead of collaborating to arrest our dysfunction, our political parties have become accelerants of disunity ― and, in the case of the GOP, democratic corrosion. Rightly, Democrats address the myriad injustices inflicted on disfavored groups ― the murders of unarmed blacks; discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or sexual preference; callousness toward immigrants and refugees. This demand for equality and universal dignity is essential to genuine democracy ― indeed, to human decency.

But it cannot, by itself, replace large-scale efforts to create a fair society that embraces all Americans in every state. And at its most insular, the insistence that only members of a disfavored group can grasp that particular group’s grievances defeats the empathy and moral imagination that promotes our shared humanity.

“Instead of collaborating to arrest our dysfunction, our political parties have become accelerants of disunity ― and, in the case of the GOP, democratic corrosion.”

Purposely destructive to America’s commonweal, however, is the GOP’s insidious reliance on white identity politics. Well before Trump, the party exploited cultural and racial anxiety to attract white voters ― including struggling blue-collar and middle-class Americans whose economic interests they subordinate to that of the Republican business and donor classes.

This effort combines an increasingly overt racism and xenophobia with the assertion that white Americans are being marginalized and disrespected by the Democrats’ favored subgroups. Indeed, the Republicans suggest, they are subjected to a pervasive racial, economic, cultural and religious shaming: Whether through a suffocating political correctness, the apocryphal war on Christmas, an imaginary flood of non-white immigrants, or displacement in our workplaces or college classrooms, it is whites ― not minorities ― who are the true victims of a discrimination so invidious that, prior to the GOP’s white awakening, they dared not speak its name.

Absent Republican resistance, the GOP intimates, whites could become a disempowered minority in a multicultural mosh pit as American democracy stabs them in the back. In turn, this racialized rage and paranoia has licensed the now-tribal GOP to attack democratic norms through shameless power politics.

Subverting democracy itself is now indispensable to Republican dominance. That’s the unifying principle for the GOP’s recourse to abusing the filibuster; unleashing money in politics; extreme gerrymandering; blatant voter suppression; stonewalling Merrick Garland; stacking our courts with political partisans; and, in 2016, refusing to acknowledge Russian interference on its behalf. These are the harbingers of a democracy ― and a society ― on the precipice of irreversible decline.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump.

This catastrophically unfit president did not force himself on us. He is a product of our own crisis of spirit, abetted by a constitutionally embedded process for electing presidents which has become, however accidentally, anti-democratic. He is not the cause of our societal sickness, but its product.

"He has perfected identity politics in the service of plutocracy."
"He has perfected identity politics in the service of plutocracy."
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Prior presidential aspirants have been demagogues and racists ― think Huey Long and George Wallace. But only in these debased and fractious times did we elect a man who incited violence at his rallies; threatened to jail his opponent; demonized the media; slandered his opponents; bullied and insulted minorities and women; bragged about sexual assault; lied routinely and transparently; and treated our political institutions with an autocrat’s contempt.

Nor has any candidate, including Richard Nixon, exhibited such glaring symptoms of personal pathology ― including a self-absorption so infinite that it obliterates any regard for democratic principles or other human beings.

His essential character was there for all to see. Even his purported business prowess was a thin veneer concocted on reality TV ― covering a career rooted in recklessness, callousness, dishonesty and baseless braggadocio which bespeak a sociopathy of epic proportions.

Now, as president, he deliberately metastasizes our divisions of ethnicity, sex, race, religion and class to cement the alienation of his followers from their fellow citizens. Spreading meanness is his essential tactic ― he confers dignity on his adherents by demeaning their societal “enemies” while serving the wealthy donors whose passion for tax cuts threatens to shred the social safety net and burden our young with crippling debt. In short, he has perfected identity politics in the service of plutocracy.

And autocracy. By further concentrating economic and political power in a privileged few, Trump erodes democracy. His personal and familial self-enrichment corrupts his office and obliterates the legal and ethical safeguards against presidential misconduct. He abuses our military by dispatching combat troops to the southern border in a racist political stunt. He cultivates a cult of personality that encourages magical thinking and casts himself as an indispensable leader whose gifts place him beyond accountability.

He practices electoral authoritarianism by subverting the right to vote. He undermines faith in our elections through bogus charges of voter fraud. He attacks the media, our courts, law enforcement institutions and the rule of law itself to protect himself from prosecution while pursuing unchecked power.

That so many Republicans applaud or abet him reflect our slide toward executive immunity and caprice evocative of a banana republic. History tells us that republican virtues, once enfeebled, are not easily revivified.

Little wonder, then, that Trump now believes that he can ruthlessly strike to place himself above the law ― and that our democracy is too enervated to resist.

“We desperately need Democrats -- because they’re all we’ve got -- to proclaim a creed which appeals to our common humanity.”

So how can Americans restore our social comity and democratic spirit?

Not through a Democratic Party that marshals its forces in a zero-sum game of them versus us, focusing on blue enclaves and treating everyone who reposed their trust in Trump as irretrievably lost. Such Darwinian politics might win elections, but it defeats the ability to govern or to provide a shared vocabulary of hope.

No doubt salvaging democracy mandates opposing Trump’s excesses without surcease. That means Democrats in Congress and Americans of every stripe must rally to stop Trump from destroying the rule of law ― pursuing justice and accountability for his conduct to the bitter end. Only the trauma of such a divisive battle will prevent the terminal trauma of a president accountable to no one but himself.

But what then? We desperately need Democrats ― because they’re all we’ve got ― to proclaim a creed which appeals to our common humanity by promoting the collective optimism and security without which no democracy can long survive. That requires more than erecting bulwarks against the crisis Trump would thrust on us ― it demands a determined effort to reanimate American democracy by giving more Americans something better to believe in.

Necessarily, this includes integrating marginalized groups into the fabric of a society that values fairness to all. At a minimum, this means providing early childhood education; universal health care; better schools; affordable college; student debt relief; vocational education for the new economy; consumer protection; higher wages; more equitable taxation; the re-development of depressed areas; curbs on money in politics, monopoly power and financial predation; environmental stewardship; a humane and balanced immigration policy; and a social safety net which includes a decent retirement.

Concurrently, Democrats must facilitate voter participation and ensure the right to vote, making as many Americans as possible shareholders in our democracy. But true democracy cannot be confined to the voting booth ― it must be lived, every day, in the homes and workplaces of Americans empowered to dream for themselves and for their children.

Donald Trump is telling us there’s no time to waste.

Richard North Patterson is The New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.

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