Musings on Democracy

TLR continues to ponder the question of what makes democracy so attractive and so enduring … and, more recently, so unstable (having discussed “The Widening Partisan Divide” here, America’s “Degenerative Democracy” here, and “America’s Broken Constitution” here).  What is the secret ingredient that has made American democracy the most successful form of government for more than 200 years?

A metaphor for the success of the democratic form of government is a lifeboat.  Survival in a lifeboat depends on finding ways to work together … so that the oars are pulled in the same direction to steer clear of shoals and shark-infested waters, secure food and avoid storms.  Disagreements are expected, but agreement is essential.  Everyone in a lifeboat recognizes that he’s in a struggle for survival.  Successful democracies function like lifeboats … and America has been a Darwinian success story.  A lifeboat is different from a galley where there are galley masters and rowers … the latter being drawn from the worker classes (as described by Wiki here).  Autocracies, monarchies and oligarchies function like galleys where there are galley masters … and rowers.

American democracy has been the quintessential lifeboat …, with mostly collegial left-of-center and right-of-center governments that over the past 230 years periodically alternated their time in power, successfully and consistently weaving steering the American ship through hazardous domestic and international waters.  America’s Political Parties offered Americans a choice based on not-terribly-different visions, each honestly seeking to provide the country with economic growth, international stability, and an ever-brighter future for America’s children and their children’s children.  The political competition in America’s two-party system[1] therefore rested on different orderings of policy priorities that nevertheless sought shared goals … with both Parties most often pulling the oars in the same forward direction and each Party most often soliciting potential allies from the other Party on issues of national importance … while recognizing that the other Party was a legitimate opponent on others and comprised of fellow Americans with different – though often wrongheaded – policy approaches.  America’s democracy functioned so well best because opposition was tolerated and national priorities respected.  Opponents were neither viewed nor treated as traitors … or enemies of America …, or communist sympathizers …, or agents of foreign powers …, or socialists …, or aspiring autocrats …, or God-forbid zombies …, and, most certainly, not as devils incarnate.  (There were times, however, when government policy careened from side-to-side to the country’s detriment (as discussed by TLR here).)  Neither Party was trying to destroy the other, tear down the country, or weaken democracy … or America’s social contract or its economic success or its international stature.  It was acknowledged that political opponents desired a better America, but unfortunately sometimes pursued “foolish” political agendas.  They were misguided, not malicious.

That no longer is the case in 2021.

Mudslinging is a common political tactic used by candidates in contested elections.  It’s a polarizing approach that can be quite effective at marginalizing election-year opponents.  As a constant practice, however, it makes for degenerative government.  Historically, after America’s election season, mutual restraint and toleration-of-the-opposition would return.  The reappearance of that restraint cemented a shared vision of governance and validated a belief in American Exceptionalism (discussed by TLR here) that enabled America’s democratic lifeboat to safely navigate hazardous waters, an attribute in sharp contrast to the practices of undemocratic nations where opponents are harassed, persecuted, prosecuted and labeled as traitors … and where there is no toleration of the opposition.  The acceptance of the legitimacy of competing views distinguishes the success of democracies and, most especially, is what has distinguished the extraordinary success of America’s democracy.  Election season may be fraught with anger and denunciation, but after election season politicians have put aside their legitimate disagreements and worked together, recognizing that the alternative would be … Darwinian.  Democracy erodes when, instead of mutual toleration, instead of treating members of the other Political Party as simply misguided, political opponents are branded as traitors and enemies.  When polarization separates a society into “us” versus “them” (as today’s media have done, discussed by TLR here), when polite conversation disintegrates into heated monologuing, when stable partisan rivalries devolve into acceptable political violence, when the partisan divide widens to the point where forbearance is abandoned and elections must be won at all costs …, democracy fails.

Today, rightwing extremists are decrying “Antifa violence” and “socialist policy-making” while leftwing extremists are pointing to “white supremacist violence” and “systemic abuse.”  Each has a cult following (as discussed by TLR here) that is making every effort to bifurcate the world into “us” and “them.”  Durable success requires that both extremist minorities be marginalized.  If they are not, their extremist constituencies influence will grow and they will become validated empowered to drown out the voices of the majority … and, in so doing, could well topple American democracy.  History teaches that extremists are amazingly successful in creating the type of divisions that provide opportunity for upheaval (20th Century notables include Lenin, Hitler, Peron, Chavez, Khomeini, etc.).  Other democracies have followed this road (as described by TLR in “The Autocrats’ Playbook” here).

Labels employed by extremists … and politicians … and talking heads … are not realities.  They are propaganda words, forms of sloganeering intended to trigger cognitive, emotional and behavioral actions responses.  Optimally … at least from the speaker’s perspective …, quite strong responses.  Agitators, activists, manipulators, demagogues and opportunists prey on those responses.  Consider the emotions triggered by politically-targeted best-sellers such as Ann Coulter’s Adios, America:  The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole.  Even though the extremist “Left” described by Ann Coulter has no “Plan” to turn America into a “Hellhole,” the title intentionally elicits an extremeist reaction that includes justifiable repulsion and anger.  Triggering such an emotional reaction sells books and provides revenue from speaking engagements which, after all, is Coulter’s goal (as do the intentionally emotive titles of her other books, “Treason…,” “Demonic …,” “Godless …,” “Mugged …,” “Slander …”).  It is important – and necessary – to recognize that the words, whether or not they represent an arguable or potential version of reality, are not themselves the reality.  They are mere words that are intended to infuriate as an irritant for a targeted constituency audience.  (As one of my teachers consistently reminded his students, “The word is not the thing.”)  Mudslinging employs incendiary language that is carefully designed to spiral so that, with time, it becomes accepted as emotionally-charged fact.  Continued repetition – echoed and repeated by politicians, talking heads and social media – leads to the belief that the words themselves are the reality … which leads to extremist reactions … which is precisely what has been happening.

Revolutionary changes in communication and the impact of social media, automation, urban-rural migration, technology, pandemic (and post-pandemic) upheaval … and time … have transformed America from a nation in which Americans assumed believed in the goodwill of their fellow Americans into one in which political opponents are viewed painted as venal, immoral enemies bent on America’s destruction.  No society, no community and no country can survive such a level of adverse civil and political warfare character assassination objectification … and none has.  Over the last 30 years, Republicans and Democrats have become more than merely competing Political Parties, one right-of-center and the other left-of-center.  They’ve divided their constituents over a host of issues (including gun rights, abortion rights (addressed by TLR 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).

As other commentators have noted, the demographic reality of America has changed … which has been a significant contributor to today’s hyperbolic civil strife.  In 1950, nonwhites accounted for 10% of the U.S. population.  By 2019, nonwhites and Hispanic Americans constituted 40% of the population … and are projected to become the majority by 2045.  Such a racial transition is itself exceedingly disruptive … as well as being unique in human history.  No other country has sustained such a multiethnic demographic transition.  That is the challenge that America faces … and must overcome.  That effort will not succeed – it cannot be successful – with a divided polity and divisive partisan politicking.  As Walt Kelly’s Pogo memorably said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


[1] America’s unique two-party political system arose as a consequence of the electoral college mandated by the Constitution (discussed by TLR here).

Finally (from a good friend)

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