The Atlantic has articles about the coming end of democracy in the United States. I think, “How could we pull so long, and not think or write about what we pull?” We have these constructs that do not die. Anti-Iranian riots break out among Shiites in Basra, and journalists write about Iraq as if it still exists. Iraq ceased to exist as a country the moment the United States disbanded its army in 2003. That was a long time ago, but we still pretend it is a country.
Our democracy ceased to exist on November 22, 1963. To be more precise, it died on November 24, 1963, when U. S. intelligence had a mobster whack Lee Oswald, and no one with power or influence uttered, “Wait a second,” or, “Wait just a minute…,” or some other phrase to indicate something seriously wrong. Instead, the president himself calls Oswald on the phone while he expires in Parkland hospital, to extract a confession from him! I suppose he thought a confession would be just the thing, to give his new position in the White House a little spit and polish.
You cannot overlook the details, you know, especially if people call you commander-in-chief. That’s how you get to be powerful: pay attention to details. Do that, and commit crimes whenever circumstances require.
We see a similar willingness to overlook basic reality in the way we regard our political institutions. Even if democratic ideals come under assault from people who want to remove citizens’ ability to direct their own lives, we still see the Capitol dome standing, so we think circumstances must be okay. It took Trump’s accession for many to see they are not.
Trump’s predecessors did not attack democracy as such. They defended torture, then tortured people. They defended slavery, then enslaved people. They defended aggressive war against those they wanted to subjugate or exterminate, then attacked people. These and other crimes made people wonder what kind of democratic government would do things like that. Yet we still said the Pledge of Allegiance in school every day, and flew the flag on the Fourth of July. We tried to overlook crimes and other misdeeds. Then Trump comes around with a box full of little brown bottles and colorful hats, to say he’ll make you feel great again. You think well, maybe this guy is not as bad as the others.
Another phenomenon in our political life is readiness to oversell threats. Someone always comes around to tell us we are in danger, we have to protect ourselves, our freedoms and our way of life will disappear if we do not do A or B right away. Our democratic institutions have always seemed in trouble, under threat from one quarter or another. Our usual response has been, “Yeah, what do you want from me? My vote? More money? Look away when you do something wrong?”
After a couple of hundred years of that, you see the dome still standing, and you think, “Just leave me alone. I vote. I pay my taxes. I pretty much let you politicians do what you like. Why do you keep bothering me?” They keep bothering you because every generation of power mongers has to return to the watering hole: the Constitution says they have to do that.
Now they see a chance, at last, to stop doing that. We all want to act without restraints. We value autonomy. Politicians are no different. They tell themselves they are public servants, but they want to govern: to set rules and means of obedience. That is how you maintain an orderly way of life – you rule some things out, you rule some things in. That is not service. It is enforcement.
If autocracy is the best way to achieve an orderly way of life, then so be it. The paradox of politics is that politicians have a strong interest in creating a sense of disorder. When people turn to politicians for help, they grant power to restore the sense of security we always seek. The safe spaces we hear about on campuses? We see those safe spaces everywhere. We call them our homes. The rights of free speech we have always protected? Not if your speech makes me feel unsafe.
Politicians recognize all of that. They know they sell the one thing people place at or near the top of their list of needs: security. If they do not feel safe, they know they can turn to so-called public servants for help. If they perceive public servants can give them what they want, they will tolerate a certain amount of abuse and corruption, as long as public institutions come through with the services they promise. That is part of the contract: you make us feel safe, and we citizens will leave you alone.
Then 9/11 comes along, and the public’s sense of fear and insecurity shoots off the charts. That’s a gift from heaven for politicians, if they can manage it properly. They can start wars, spend money, spy on people, and most of all, act autonomously. They can do what they like, as long as they restore expectations of safety and predictability. Predictability means you do not arrive at your desk one sunny morning, and find the next moment a cruise missile has blown you out of a ninetieth-story window.
Politicians act quickly after the attacks, but they do not manage things well at all. They start endless wars they cannot win. They torture and assassinate enemies, to no clear purpose. They oversee multiple shocks to economic activity that supplies them with revenue, but their main remedy is to save the people who ruined the rest of us! If blowing up skyscrapers creates a sense of fear, losing your job when you have nowhere to go – and endless taxes to pay – finishes the job of making you feel hopelessly insecure, vulnerable, and disoriented.
Now a strongman arrives on the scene. Chaos is his middle name. He respects no one – least of all other politicians. He denigrates democratic institutions. He reveals the politicians and institutions we watch so closely as shadows on the wall. We thought we watched a real show. Instead we see a bunch of dishonest, self-seeking, incompetent, preening and over-confident performers who have no substance. Trump comes on the stage and says, “You know what, I’m all of those things, but I’m real.” A few million voters in the right states say, “We’ll give you a try.”
Those people do not care if he is an autocrat. They do not care if the speech enforcers on campus act like Maoist Red Guards. They want a job and a home. They want to send their children to school, without a school resource officer arresting their boy or girl for getting in a fight. They expect their workplaces, their homes, and their schools to be safe. If they see these outcomes, they pay their taxes willingly enough. If not, they become angry, cynical, and disillusioned. Disillusionment means you no longer see the shadows on the wall as real.
The people who brought us 9/11, and who responded to it, acted out an astonishing series of self-destructive blunders. They essentially said, “Look man, now we have this much power, who cares how incompetent and murderous we look? We’ll send your sons and daughters off to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they won’t come back. Or they’ll come back without their legs. Do you think we care? Here’s a gold star.” Along with that, you had to put up with endless propaganda, as well as “See something, say something” campaigns. It all amounted to the same thing: support the power mongers.
If that is the best a dying democracy can do, people think, why should we try to save it? A self-absorbed autocrat who swaggers and preens may be anti-democratic, but he can hardly do worse. So far, what you call democracy has led to nothing but death and depression. Yes, and poverty, as government agencies leech away every nickel the tax collector can find. No extraction device is too low. We will exploit poor people with fines, judgments, and tax liens. We will even raise the minimum wage, the agencies say. Now you can lose your job, or you will have more to pay us.
Worst of all, democratic institutions do not recover from neglect or abuse so easily. Ronald Reagan observed decades ago that “democracy is not a fragile flower; still it needs cultivating.” Democracy seemed strong enough at the time, especially in our own country. His speech to the British parliament in 1982 reminds all of us, however, that you cannot rip plants out of your garden by the roots, and plan for them to grow back next season with no effort. You can destroy in a short time what requiresd several generations to cultivate.
People say Trump is a symptom, not a cause. You can read the causes as you like. I have tried to lay out one pattern of causation here: a new willingness to dispense with democracy, if autocracy gives individuals, families, and neighborhoods what they need. We all want to be left alone. In the past we valued democracy, because it seemed the best path to a good life. We tolerated politicians, because they did not come around that often. The contract we had with them seemed to work well enough. This round seems different. This time, democratic institutions could continue to wane for several generations.