21 May Democracy Defined?
“There are three different definitions of ‘democracy’: one for those on the far right; another for those on the far left; and a third for everyone else.” – The Lonely Realist
Is American-style democracy coming to an end?
The answer depends on your definition of “American-style democracy.” Democracy, you see, means different things to different groups of American tribalists. Each tribe wants to “save democracy” – its brand of democracy – from the depredations of the other tribe(s) that it paints as unAmerican or, at an extreme, as treasonous, demonic and/or Godless. For those on the far left and far right, “saving American democracy” has meant branding those with differing views as agents of the devil. Hardly E Pluribus Unum! Dialogue for many therefore has reverted to name-calling, with social media screamers as the go-to sources for “the truth.” Such divisive rhetoric provides little room for discussion of national interests. And yet commonalities exist. America, after all, is called the United States for a reason. There not only is a basis for discussion, there are multiple bases for agreement. With each tribe talking past the other(s), however, trolling for those who speak the same language, today’s America has become a social-media Tower of Babel … and the Bible makes it clear where that ends! “Saving democracy” accordingly has become a battle cry, not to rally around the flag of national self-interest – which is what made America great –, but to oppose those who support a different tribal brand of “American democracy.”
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” (Cool Hand Luke).
While there can be no universal agreement on democracy’s definition, there are mainstream definitions that sharply contrast with the extremist alternatives.
America’s Constitution creates a representative democracy in which each American adult has one vote that can be readily exercised regardless of race, sex, religion, education, wealth or other factor. The Constitution attempts to exalt a form of democracy via equality of representation, “one-person, one vote.” However, that doesn’t mean that every person’s vote counts equally, only that every vote is counted in some way. With gerrymandering integral to American political life (addressed by TLR here and here), with the Electoral College providing for disproportional State-by-State vote-counting (addressed by TLR here), and with the Supreme Court having implicitly sanctioned the use of voter ID laws, limitations on voting times, restrictions on voter registration, and the purging of voter rolls, America’s form of representative democracy is not intended as a form of direct democracy. Indeed, “History has shown that both major parties are perfectly willing to rig the electoral rules to benefit their own, and to draw the lines to punish opposing partisans.” In short, American democracy is messy.
As it’s evolved, American-style democracy accordingly is a partisan free-for-all that, in the 21st Century, has entrenched Political Party loyalty. The penalty for party disloyalty is “being primaried.” America’s history shows that such free-for-alls work themselves out over time. The danger today is that a unique combination of American political idiosyncrasies has fertilized destabilizing extremism, both from the left and the right.
Over the last 30 years (or so), Republicans and Democrats have divided their constituents over any number of single issues, including gun rights, abortion rights (addressed by TLR here and here), the Electoral College (addressed by TLR here), the philosophical composition of the Supreme Court (discussed by TLR here), the extent to which States Rights should exceed Federalism (discussed by TLR here and here), limiting or expanding immigration (addressed by TLR here and here), validating or eliminating gerrymandering (addressed by TLR here and here), and determining whether the filibuster makes America a greater or lesser democracy. Mainstream Democrats believe that government necessarily must provide a relatively high level of services and protections to the public and mainstream Republicans believe that government should provide only essential services and protections. For the great majority, precisely how much would be appropriate is a matter of degree and, in the past, a matter for discussion and compromise.
Those on the far left and those on the far right don’t believe in compromise. They take a radically different approach to American democracy, each seeking the support of voters who are drawn to populist rhetoric.
Those on the far left advocate cradle-to-grave government support to lure the economically disadvantaged. Their platform also would eliminate alleged capitalist excesses through increased taxation of the wealthy. This is reflected in proposals from leftist extremists like Bernie Sanders who press for Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, writing off student debt, Federal job guarantees, a Green New Deal, and abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The far left believes that the people to whom power should devolve are those who currently have little economic or social influence. For them, government should be the provider. For them, bigger government is more benign government. For them, power should rest in a paternalistic, all-powerful government that doles out equity and equality.
Those on the far right agree that America indeed needs an all-powerful Federal government. Seeking the support of the socially disaffected, right-wing extremists advocate a radical departure from what they label an entrenched liberal bureaucracy and the severing of ties with established business and political leaders. J.D. Vance, the Republican candidate for Ohio Senate, typifies one radical right approach. In his view, America is “going to have to get pretty wild, and pretty far out there, and go in directions that a lot of conservatives right now are uncomfortable with.” America, he says, has been controlled by Ivy Leaguers who have led America down a path to dystopian collapse, equating culture warfare with outright class war: “[W]e should seize the institutions of the left … by fir[ing] every single midlevel bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administration state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country and say ‘The chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.’” Vance’s interviewer questioned whether this wasn’t “a description, essentially, of a coup.” It most certainly is not a description of American-style democracy.
Yet J.D. Vance is not the only spokesman for the radical right, just as Bernie Sanders is not the only spokesperson for the radical left.
Ronald Reagan said it best: “Government is not the solution to our problem.” More government only compounds problems …, whether more government comes from the left or the right. The substantial majority of voters, both traditional Republicans and traditional Democrats, believe in efficient, effective government. The conflict today is between those mainstreamers and the extremists.
American-style democracy uniquely relies on a balance of power among three separate branches of government, requiring decision-making to be deliberative, slowing down change so that issues can be debated and solutions reached that benefit the nation as a whole. In the absence of broad consensus, American-style democracy is not activist. It does not easily or quickly change direction. Today’s extremists, however, like extremists everywhere, want action now. They see out-of-proportion problems and view radical change as the solution. American-style democracy has a 240-year history of alternating liberal and conservative governments that have thwarted the efforts of every category of demagogue. America’s democracy has thrived because of its strict adherence to the Rule of Law (discussed by TLR here), because Americanism has promoted unparalleled (though admittedly imperfect) racial justice, and because America has adapted to multiple cycles of radical demographic change, consistently rejected race, sex, religion, education, wealth and other differentiating prejudices, successfully addressed economic hardship, poverty and inequality, united against adversity and adversaries, and successfully promoted the American Dream (discussed by TLR here), American Exceptionalism (discussed by TLR here), American capitalism (discussed by TLR here), and the American education system (discussed by TLR here). That’s American-style democracy.
An index of TLR titles can be found here.
Finally (from a good friend)