Vulnerable Democracy

After the 2016 election, David Runciman in the London Review of Books wrote a prescient piece about how democracies die when we take them for granted.  I do think (but, then again, what do I know—and I certainly don’t have any way to influence what happens) Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th

Republican twaddle about a stolen election will collapse as the next two months unfold because their lack of substance means no court in the land will credit that narrative.  But counting on the courts is a thin reed when so many judges are right-wing nut cases.

Ninety percent of Republican politicians and government officials know that cries about a corrupt election are unjustified.  They are only spouting the narrative because the Trump base is now their base, their source of power, and they alienate that base at their peril. 

The trouble, of course, is that the base does not have this cynical relation to the stolen election story. The base believes. The last four years (nay, the last ten; ever since the rise of the Tea Party) have shown the extent to which the base drives the party, not the other way around.

A digression: I understand that the full story is more complicated, since the Tea Party is only partially a true base, grassroots phenomenon.  But it would be a bad mistake to deny that a true populist base exists for the Republican party—and that that base stands at some odds with the party officials. Perhaps it is simply more accurate to say that the far right wing of the party has now taken it over, and not speak in terms of “base” versus officials. The trouble with dropping all references to the “base” is that it discounts Trump’s ability to enthuse voters, among them many who have rarely voted before. Leftist Democrats would like to mirror that right-wing success—in taking over the party and bringing many new voters to the poll.

The party hacks are counting on the courts and our other democratic institutions to hold the line—just as they have counted on the taboo against political violence to keep their inflammatory rhetoric from inspiring wide-scale actual violence.  They believe their words will have no serious impact, will be seen as the empty rhetoric they are, just what a politician has to say to curry favor.  That’s why their words are cynical; those words are designed not to effect what they say, but to manipulate those to whom they are addressed.

But Trump’s words have never been cynical; he is at one with the base in believing in the corruption, malfeasance, and devilry of his opponents.  And to the extent that he has transmitted those convictions to 40% of the American populace, it would be foolish to think it will all blow over, that our democratic institutions and norms will somehow keep that genie bottled up.  The bottling up will work until it doesn’t—and then we will have not the slow erosion of norms that the punditry keeps bemoaning, but full-scale collapse. 

When the hacks cynically parrot Trump’s non-cynical words they place a faith in our democracy that is touchingly naïve.  They think that democracy is not vulnerable to their attacks, which aren’t, after all, sincerely meant.  They still think they can contain and control the beast of the anti-democratic, authoritarian right, using it as a lever to obstruct and oppose anything the Biden administration attempts to accomplish.  But by making our government utterly dysfunctional, utterly hamstrung in its efforts to even begin to address our society’s (and world’s) multiple crises, they feed the notion that we need a different kind of governance altogether—a strong man, authoritarian kind.

The next four years are going to be ugly as Biden tries to ride the whirlwind.  Right-wing media and a fair number of right-wing politicians are going to push the illegitimate government line hard.  Biden may be able to undo some of the administrative, executive level damage that Trump has done, but his scope for action beyond that will be extremely limited.

And the prospects post-Biden are even grimmer.  The roused right wing is not going away—and its fury at losing will be even more frightening than its triumphant displays during the Trump years.  It is no rhetorical hyperbole to say that American democracy is at risk.  And one of the risks is a complacency about its strength and resilience in the face of attacks, no matter if those attacks are made cynically or meant sincerely. 

The friends of democracy are going to have to fight long and hard for it.  And their fight will be handicapped by the right wing’s hold on the courts and on the majority of state legislatures.  Gerrymandering and voter suppression will proceed apace, with nary a checkpoint to curtail these practices in the whole governmental apparatus.  The hounds of the right-wing media will continue their hunt.  Please, oh democrats, don’t be deer in the headlights.

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