American Democracy in Crisis

The degradation of the norms of democracy has been underway for many years, but its pace has quickened tenfold since Donald Trump took office. The number of lies that issue from the White House and Congress on a daily basis dwarfs any truths they may happen to utter. This dishonesty undermines one of the very premises of representative government: that citizens, either as individuals or through elected representatives, can work together to address society’s problems and mediate conflicts of interest. For such an arrangement to have any chance of success, there have to be ground rules about acceptable behavior as well as a common understanding of the truth. Both are in short supply in our stressed republic.

Acceptable behavior, what is sometimes called “normal order” in Congress–where legislation proceeds in a largely transparent fashion that allows hearings, amendments, and plenty of discussion–has been ailing for some time now.  The republicans did everything they could to thwart the Obama presidency from the very beginning and held a Supreme Court position empty until the next administration, which then nominated a reactionary ideologue. This anti-democratic behavior has only intensified with the hide-them-as-long-as-possible bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact a tax bill to transfer an obscene amount of wealth to the already fantastically wealthy. So much for normal order and acceptable behavior in Congress.

The Trump presidency, of course, has been even worse, if that is possible. The president has appointed cabinet secretaries devoted solely to undermining the missions of their departments and agencies. Worst of all is the behavior of the president himself, who  appears not to understand the law or the Constitution. If he fires Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and gets away with it, he will have succeeded in placing himself above the law.

So much for ground rules about acceptable behavior. They are nearly gone. What about common standards of truth? They are no less under siege.

The republican party–along with its in-house media organ also known as Fox News–has worked to create its own reality. As a result, our country has entered a realm where even basic facts and commonplace understandings that are logical and provable through observation or the testimony of experts, are intentionally subverted. When Congressional republicans can talk about a “middle class tax cut” that “helps working class Americans,” but in reality delivers over 80 percent of the benefits to the richest one percent in our society, we are truly living an Orwellian nightmare. We also see this daily in the White House press briefings by Sarah Sanders, who can tell one shameless lie after another without hesitation or apparent reflection. This is what happens in authoritarian societies and this is what is happening in ours. It is dangerous enough that our elected leaders peddle falsehoods and try to impose their “alternative facts.” It is even more dangerous that major media outlets contrive to buttress this nonsense. And it is triply dangerous that a significant number of our fellow citizens have been brainwashed to the extent that they actively participate in reproducing the absurd and absurdist worldview of our leadership.

It is hard to imagine where this ends. But now that the tax bill has passed and a frontal assault on Social Security and Medicare queued up for 2018, we may be forced to conclude that the American Republic as we’ve known it for over a century has fully succumbed to rule by plutocrats. What then?

The bright spot in all this is that millions of our fellow citizens know in their minds and in their guts that something has gone terribly wrong. There is already a multi-dimensional uprising in process that has the potential to defeat the fraudulent politics of division and falsehood. And every sign suggests that it is only going to get stronger. People’s backs are against the wall and there is no choice but to take back this country and build something better. It may be the work of a generation if not more, but it is work that must be done. We can already see what happens if we fail.

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