Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Is Democracy Doomed?

Matt Yglesias has written a provocative article titled simply: American Democracy is Doomed.
America's constitutional democracy is going to collapse.

Some day — not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies — there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else. If we're lucky, it won't be violent. If we're very lucky, it will lead us to tackle the underlying problems and result in a better, more robust, political system. If we're less lucky, well, then, something worse will happen...

Back when George W. Bush was president and I was working at a liberal magazine, there was a very serious discussion in an editorial meeting about the fact that the United States was now exhibiting 11 of the 13 telltale signs of a fascist dictatorship. The idea that Bush was shredding the Constitution and trampling on congressional prerogatives was commonplace. When Obama took office, the partisan valence of the complaints shifted, but their basic tenor didn't. Conservative pundits — not the craziest, zaniest ones on talk radio, but the most serious and well-regarded — compare Obama's immigration moves to the actions of a Latin-American military dictator...

The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it's nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.
Not surprisingly, a lot of other pundits are weighing in on this one. Jonathan Chait is right to call Yglesias out for his "both sides do it" assumptions.
Yglesias’s case is convincing, and he may be right. There is, however, another possibility he does not consider. Perhaps the most dangerous thing about American politics is not its institutional design but the unique power of its right wing. And perhaps, since the far right’s power is not immutable, American presidentialism can outlast it after all.

Yglesias presents the dysfunctional partisan gridlock of the Obama years as a mechanical expression of partisan self-interest. Republicans realized early on that their best strategy for regaining power lay in withholding support for any elements of Obama’s agenda. But if this strategy reflects nothing but the inexorable progression of a polarized system, why did we see so few signs of it in the previous administration? Congressional Democrats negotiated over, and provided some support for, many of George W. Bush’s major initiatives: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, post-9/11 security expansions, tax cuts, education reform, prescription drug coverage, and others. While they did resist his plan to privatize Social Security, Democrats offered to negotiate over his putative goal of preserving its solvency if he agreed to give up privatization.
Here are a couple of things we can add to Chait's list. I would assume that those sitting in on that editorial meeting at the liberal magazine Yglesias worked for were part of the left that became livid when then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the impeachment of GWB off the table...the same group that howls about how President Obama and AG Holder haven't prosecuted the previous administration for war crimes. Much to the dismay of these leftists, Democrats have a long history of not kow-towing to their ideologues on the fringe.

The one example Yglesias returns to over and over again to support his claim that this crisis in democracy is the fault of both sides is President Obama's executive actions on immigration. But just as Republicans so often do, he totally ignores that - since day one - this administration has embraced the GOP side of the immigration argument...that we must secure our borders. As a matter of fact, this President has been so successful on that front that he's taken a tremendous amount of heat from immigration activists and he led this writer to ask, "When is our Southern border secure enough?"

I actually think that Yglesias' argument about "both sides" is dangerous. As Republicans continue to take unprecedented steps against Democrats - like impeachment over a sex scandal, requiring that the first African American president produce his birth certificate, taking the country to the brink of economic disaster over raising the debt ceiling, requiring that any legislation in the Senate garner a super-majority to pass, and bringing in a foreign leader to speak to Congress specifically to undermine our President's foreign policy - we need to be clear about where the problem lies if we are going to have any chance of solving it.

To better understand the problem, I am reminded of something Mistermix at Balloon Juice wrote over four years ago.
Poker is a win/lose game. Negotiation is a win/win game, because both parties get something when a deal is struck. Republicans aren’t playing poker or negotiating. They are playing another game, call it “You Must Lose”. They’re happy with win/lose, if they win, but they’ll tolerate lose/lose as long as Obama loses.

The only analogy that springs to mind when I look at the Republicans’ recent behavior is a bad divorce. Think of a situation where Lisa and Bob are getting a divorce, and Bob is so hell-bent on hurting Lisa that he doesn’t care about their kids or their bank account. Bob will deploy a hundred variations on the same tactic: put the Lisa in a bind where she has to choose between damaging the children and losing money. Lisa will lose money almost every time in order to save the children.
As a former family therapist, that analogy speaks to me. I saw hundreds of cases where both parties embraced Bob's strategy of using their children as a weapon. It is an unmitigated disaster for everyone...until someone finally stops playing. So not only do I reject that idea that Democrats have joined the fray. I sincerely hope they never do.

But that doesn't mean I'm not worried. As we watch the Republicans continue to up the ante of trying to destroy the opposition (and putting the country at risk by doing so) rather than govern, I find myself wondering when/how this will all end.

The frame on our current situation that Yglesias and other pundits who responded to his article have missed is the one articulated by Rev. William Barber...that we are in the midst of a Third Reconstruction.

Or as I wrote recently, we must understand the threat of a confederate insurgency. It's not simply about our first African American President (although that plays a big part). This third time around it's also about the changing demographics in this country, the rise of women in positions of leadership and the success of the LGBT movement. In other words, its about a dying white male patriarchy. Pundits who miss this as the root cause of our current situation (mostly white males) fail to see the depth of this crisis.

If Barber is right and we're in a third reconstruction era, the history of the first two present us with both good news and bad news. The good news is that the forces of freedom and justice prevailed. The bad news is that it all came at great cost.

Personally I'm not one to predict the future. Beyond that, I'm not sure that history is always a good indicator to rely on when attempting to do so. But what we must do is accurately assess the present.


  1. I agree that the country is in bad shape. Look at the bad decisions made over the last 15 years. Letting the Supreme Court choose a president. Ignoring plain signs of an attack on our soil. Going to war for knowingly false reasons. Losing those wars. Creating economic collapse. Allowing a movement to arise that holds the destruction of our government as it's long term goal. Electing members of that movement to serve in the government they seek to weaken to the point of dissolution. And on and on. It's grim. And the only, single remedy we have is the process of elections. And we watch as some seek to tamper with those. Voting for the right people is the only way out. If there is another, I'd love to hear it.

  2. We can have a Third Reconstruction that solidifies democracy IF we don't make the same horrific error of the 19th Century and perpetuate racial divides. The model for overcoming that lies in unions. They overcame the rifts between working people and discovered common purpose against those who would choke them all. That has to be part of how we get back. Molly Ivins once wrote that American politics really isn't Left and Right - but it's Up and Down. If the Down - the 99 or 47 or whatever percent - realized the commonality of their experience, the Ups would have no power over any of us. Jim Webb's exhortation that the Dems need white working men missed the GREAT opportunity to point out the bonds of solidarity between deindustrialized working class white communities and #BlackLivesMatter who are suffering the same predations from capital. He perpetuated the gulf between white and Black and Latino people rather than calling for the party to be for working people and each one for the other in difference as well as commonality. We don't have to be the OTHER party of stupid. This is not an either/or situation. We live at the expense of others when we refuse to make the commitment TO others to be on their side against the common enemy - corporatism and a slavering ruling class. We are doomed - democracy is doomed - only if we let it happen by refusing to find our shared victimization and refusing to join together to fight like hell for the living. (H/t Mother Jones the woman and labor leader.)

  3. The first time I heard a lefty tell me America was careening toward Fascism was nearly 50 years ago. It's a familiar refrain.

    1. Yes, and interestingly, the very people who were tilting that way now have their kids in power today. What IS scary is the numbers of people who seem supportive, but I'm worried more that they're better organized than there are more numbers of them. At the end of the day it is the middle ground folks who always reject all kinds of extremism. As we rejected McCarthy and HUAC and Moral Rearmament and John Birchers then, we will reject the same today. Even with all the Koch money.


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