Can We Talk?

A reader of this blog recently shared a column from the Washington Post.   It warned that the most significant threats to democracy come from the internal inconsistencies of democratic ideology.

At least, I think that is a fair summary of the argument/analysis being put forward.

America’s democratic structure is indeed shuddering — but it is shuddering under its own weight. The threat to democracy isn’t (for now) a usurper system, but democratic ideology itself. At least that’s one way to read a significant new study on democratic attitudes published in the American Political Science Review by Danish academic Suthan Krishnarajan.

Talk of the “defense of democracy” in the United States evokes a conveniently sharp division between citizens who favor democracy and those who don’t. Krishnarajan takes a more subtle approach. He shows that citizens who self-consciously support democracy can simultaneously support undemocratic actions on a large scale when it suits their political interests — and not recognize the contradiction.

The author was disturbed to discover that foolish consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of American minds….

Partisanship, unsurprisingly, tended to distort respondents’ views of what is and isn’t “democratic.”

Democracy, of course, is a process defined by elements such as fair elections and free speech. Liberal or conservative outcomes — more or less immigration, or more or less social spending — can both emerge from the democratic process. In 2020 and 2021, Krishnarajan used a carefully constructed survey with “vignettes” designed to tease out how Americans’ views on democracy interacted with their partisanship. The result: Most people conflate the democratic process with their favored political outcomes.

Respondents “tend to delegitimize opposing views by perceiving them as undemocratic — even when they are not,” Krishnarajan found. “When confronted with a perfectly regular left-wing behavior” — such as implementing Obamacare — “48% of the right-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic,’ ” the paper says. “Conversely, when confronted with regular right-wing behavior” — such as repealing Obamacare — “46% of the left-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic.’ ”

There is considerably more, and if you find this “analysis” (note quotation marks) illuminating, click through and read the entire essay.  My own opinion is that it belongs with the very large pile of irrelevancies regularly produced by what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes”–and that pile contains an embarrassing number of supposedly scholarly publications. 

Here’s my (admittedly crabby) complaint.
 We Americans misuse and abuse terminology in ways that make it difficult to talk to each other. (There’s a great Facebook meme to the effect that “most people wouldn’t recognize socialism if it deposited a monthly Social Security check in their bank accounts.”) The imprecision of language–both “liberal” and “conservative” mean very different things to those employing the labels–makes “studies” of the sort reported in this column considerably less than useful.

What the respondents to the survey meant by “democracy” undoubtedly varied widely, but most of them probably use the term to mean the structure of America’s governance—including constitutional principles and democratic norms. Technically, of course, democracy simply means majority rule, although in the US, democratic processes are restrained /limited by the anti-majoritarian Bill of Rights.

It’s pretty clear from the examples in the column that the survey respondents didn’t limit their understanding of the term to its dictionary meaning.

The following paragraph is an example:

 Norm-breaking behavior, in other words, gets justified within a democratic frame, not outside it. That finding is consistent with how U.S. politics is practiced today: To take one example, presidents of both parties tend to claim the mantle of popular authorization when they sideline Congress and expand executive power.

Is the expanded use of executive power “anti-democratic”? Yes, when it falls outside longstanding constitutional constraints imposed by separation of powers, no when it doesn’t. Yes, when executive power is used to impose a rule with which a majority of Americans disagree; no when it is employed to further the clearly expressed preferences of that majority. 

 Americans are fighting over competing visions of democratic governance. It’s an epiphany!

So the fight in America right now isn’t between democracy and non-democracy, but between two opposing visions of popular sovereignty. The concept of democracy, broadly agreed upon but fiercely contested in its particulars, never came with fixed guardrails. And the higher the perceived stakes rise, the more tempting the invitation to destroy political norms — and to rationalize their destruction as necessary for democracy.

In other words, it depends–and it’s both simpler and far more complicated than the author of the essay (and presumably, of the study he references) wants to acknowledge. Does the  realization that Americans have different ideas about what democracy looks like really merit an anguished disquisition in the Washington Post?

But then, I told you I was crabby…..


  1. The author used to write editorials for the WSJ. He has no credibility after being slimed by the Murdochs.

  2. A better or more relevant essay is why does the U.S. government continue doing things not supported by most people?

    Why do we have continuous wars if peace is popular with 75% of American citizens? If 75% of the people want universal healthcare, why can’t Congress get that approved?

    If you look at the approval ratings of Congress and the POTUS, SCOTUS, and the press, it’s dismal.

    There’s plenty of already compiled evidence to prove a problem with democracy long before DJT appeared in the picture. The trust in most democratic institutions in this country has deteriorated rapidly over the past several decades, and people ignore them entirely. We rank 23rd globally.

    Academia and public media are now primarily controlled by corporate donors and government-appointed boards to reflect the current oligarchy. So much for independent minds and critical thinking.

    At Ball State University, early retirement packages included gag orders for life. Seriously!

    People, it’s all a facade. The American people have a hunch not to trust our democracy and are right in doing so. I don’t understand the small percentage that does trust what’s going on. Maybe they are getting respondents from dementia patients at nursing homes. 😉

  3. Todd is absolutely correct and democracy in the US is on a fast slide into oblivion thanks to the takeover of the GOP by the Fascists. They will still claim to be democracy, but it will be in name only as it will be a one party government even if they allow a small opposition to survive.

  4. Yes. The fascists. This iteration of fascism has been brought to us by the Republican-appointed SCOTUS’s egregious “opinion” in Citizens United v. FEC. When a Justice uses words like “jiggery-pokery” to define his view that corporations are actually people, that slide that Stan mentions is greased. The grease has been provided by Todd’s list of oligarchs – all Republicans. THAT is how the GOP became COMPLETELY fascist instead of just partly fascist.

    When the courts allow corruption of politicians to be legal, what else would one think would happen to democracy? Karl Marx figured it out that greed in capitalism would destroy it. And since our Wall Street banks were allowed to invest depositor money into Ponzi schemes, guess what happened. The 2007-08 economic disaster was the direct result of Republican-initiated deregulation. And we are STILL trying to sort that out. Oh. Did I forget that the moguls all got even richer and stinkier from the bailout while everyone else scrambled to pay their rent?

    Yeah. Fascism. Democracy has been distorted so much by Republicans – ever since Reagan/Regan – that the word itself has become meaningless. It’s devolved into money/power, nothing more. Freedoms are just words, and if there is no financial backing to those words, the freedoms go glimmering.

    Sorry for the cynicism, but I’ve been watching the Republican mindset destroy this democracy for most of my 80 years. I’m glad I’m old.

  5. Let’s look at zoning ordinances and democracy as an example. Directly across the street from me is a house that is an obvious fire hazard, to the owner and residents and to neighbors on both sides due to the narrow properties. In the driveway sits two SUVs, one hooked up to a large enclosed trailer which sits in front of a large boat in front of the garage crammed full of who knows what. Only about 5 feet between the vehicles, trailer and boat and house on the west side with their small strip of lawn full of its own crap. On the east side they moved the 8 ft high board fence which is attached to the east side neighbor’s privacy fence and 3 ft from their garage, back to about the middle of the house and put up a swing set frame with only the slide attached. I can’t tell what the junk is around the sing set or what is covering the ground under the entire area under it and back to the board fence. They built two large wooden buildings for storage in the back yard which is crammed with cast off shelving, old furniture, huge barrels, their children’s trampoline and their fire pit for burning. Their burning has gotten out of hand a few times and fire department and police have been there a number of times. The back yard is fully shaded with huge old trees which add to the fire danger. On the street in front of the house is a 3rd SUV attached to another illegally stored large enclosed trailer which is rarely moved. I backed out of my driveway one day, front of my car was about middle of the large enclosed trailer and the home owner came backing out of his driveway, talking on his phone. Had I not laid on my horn he would have rammed into the front of my car. A couple with two young children live there but the children are rarely seen outside the house and never without the parents, the father doesn’t appear to have a job, claims to own rental properties, but does work on numerous cars and trucks with his curbside car repair service. Reports to Zoning Violations have worked temporarily for part of the problems a few times but zoning enforcement doesn’t return to check the situation and reports with pictures sent to City Councillor and President of the City Council were ignored.

    This may seem to be a petty complaint in the broader scope of what we, as a nation, are dealing with today regarding whose democracy trumps (no pun intended) whom. The fact that it presents a danger to neighbors lives and property on both sides regarding the fire hazard doesn’t seem petty to those who could lose their homes due to one man abusing the democracy of being a home owner and doing as he pleases on his own property.

    I am also crabby!

  6. It’s true that we define our government based on our own thoughts and practices. There are more than two sides to most stories, but largely we each believe that our side is right, whatever that might be. And note that our side can change as easily as we change our clothes.

  7. Big Head Todd is right again. I just hope he gets the musical reference and doesn’t take TOO much offense. OR let it go to his head.

    The MAGA-fascist movement is based on a whole basket of griefs….some are nonsense but some are also legitimate and likely shared across the political spectrum from left to right. But the MF end-game is sheer madness and it doesn’t matter if they are adopted by majority vote within a democratic republic form of government. If they vote to install a monarch then democracy as we know it with all its warts is over. That’t it! Done! Finis!

    President Biden’s ratings are going up as the price of gas goes back down and also because he got a couple of massive spending bills passed, one for much needed investments in infrastructure and one to on-shore the design, development and manufacture of semi-conductor chips.

    Both bills will likely have significant positive effects on the future of the American economy – I don’t believe that is in debate.

    But both bills ALSO reinforce the true nature of our underlying economic system of crony-capitalistm, where a few people with enormous power (oligarchs) are making or influencing policy decisions that drive economic activities toward their objectives, including that of making obscene levels money. This, I believe, is ONE of our most basic institutions that fueled the movement-conservatism, the Tea-Party and now MAGA-fascism.

    Take the CHIPS Act, for example. Today there are a seven companies, six American and one a South Korean American subsidiary, responsible for all of our semiconductor capacity. Those 7 companies earned $70 billion last year in profits. Now they will divide up $50 billion of federal largesse to do something they should have initiated on their own years ago. This is because the geo-political tea-leaves show that Taiwan’s existence as an independent entity from its motherland is coming to a close. I think that’s sad, but I also think it was inevitable.

    But no, the Seven Sisters had other plans for those profits, namely, continuing to buy up the competition (or run them into the ground by other means) and buying back their own stock. If we had a monarchical form of government, they could simply be ordered to re-shore their development as an industrial policy, as opposed to having to bribe them to do so. Democracy isn’t necessarily more efficient….it just avoids monarchy.

    If I were in Congress and in a key position to pass or kill such a bill I would have insisted on more strings attached to ensure that all Americans benefited from the cushy arrangement. Senator Sanders tried and was rebuffed a number of times. As a result he voted against the bill.

    In the meantime, hedge fund managers still pay only 20% income tax on fees they are paid to manage other people’s money. The economic system that undergirds our society is not being challenged nor systemically changed and everyone knows it.

  8. What is, and is not, freedom? It seems that we all want it, but perhaps define it as what we want, not necessarily as what it is.

    Over my eight decades of experience, I would say that freedom that is inherent in the aspirations of liberal democracy has been increasingly realized as our society became “woke” and extended the founder accepted freedoms for wealthy, white, Christian, heterosexual, male gun owners to, more or less, everyone. But apparently, there are some wealthy, white, Christian, heterosexual, male gun owners who consider my life’s times to have subtracted from their freedom. They feel constrained by the freedoms of others who are unlike them and they miss what it was like back in the day when we were, in fact, entitled by what we happened to be born with and into.

    Politics plays into both sets of beliefs.

    Strange and understandable and dysfunctional.

  9. Democracy isn’t in danger,it is working out and will continue to work. Case in point; Martha’s Vineyard’s response to 50 illegals being sent to them was to declare a humanitarian emergency, activate 125 National Guard soldiers, and in a quick manner shipping them out of their town in less than 24 hours.

    Democracy is fine. God bless the Biden Administration. Thank God for the Martha’s Vineyard Donor Class in keeping America safe and democratized.

  10. will it change,if, the immediate democracy still exists,when the newer gens become of age? will those polls of percentages in favor of what is needed over what is profit by those who c0ntrol the switches now? if we move foreward in nov,(i believe we will) can we amass a voter base to at least seperate the hate from whats left? everyone here has agreed that the good of the people over the divide and conquor bunch is a major now. facism is bred into those how dont know the diffrence,or wont understand,after the fact. its getting testy here to have conversations,now the god,guts and guns mob,have lost most any civility they had left. being prodded by murderdoch and such,its become a street fight without any rules. the demos too little too late too lame might just kick us back into the stone age..though we like to believe we have the votes,it doesnt matter if we,dont vote. fighting the ignorance these fools believe should have been a priority long before this blog started.

  11. John – Please rethink your use of the word “illegals”. Hint: it’s not a noun, and only pejoratively used as such by the right wing.

  12. Funny you should quote Molly Ivans today, the same day that Andy Borowitz referred to her quote in regard to
    the idiocy of Dan Quayle: “If you put his brain in a bee, it would fly backwards.” Just sayin’.
    Yes, implementing, or repealing Obamacare is not relevant to the status of “Democracy.” In all of its
    faulty being, it was enacted into law in a democratic process. Whether one likes it, or not, is a separate
    issue. And, that issue is related to partisan points of view, broadly speaking.

  13. To quote ‘Richard John Neuhaus’ “Culture is the root of politics and religion is the root of culture.”

    An interesting article on suicide-of-the liberals. Is quite fascinating. It also gives an insight on how history is repeating itself.

    A foremost historian on Russian terrorism Anna Geifman brings out how the the anarchaic Communists/Bolsheviks, created so much turmoil and terror, their credo became sadistic, throwing fragmentation bombs into train cars and cafes, “to see how the foul bourgeois will squirm in death agony.”

    Did the liberal Duma do anything to stop the terror? No, the liberal leader of the Duma, ‘Ivan Petrunkevich’ famously stated, “Condemn terror? That would be the mortal death of the party!”

    Lawyers and teachers and doctors, industrialists and bank managers all raised money for the terrorists. The so-called enlightened progressive camp considered it “advanced opinion and good manners.”

    A quote by Lenin stated “when we are ready to kill the capitalists, they will sell us the rope!

    And, true to their word, when the Bolsheviks took control, they eliminated or liquidated the terrorist wing, and then proceeded to eliminate all of the progressive and liberal parties, the very ones that raised money for the terrorist wing.

    Wow, Russian history sounds a lot like what’s going on today here.

    I believe they called it political hypnosis! I think you’ve got to read the article, it’s lengthy but very very enlightening.

    The decay of any sort of functioning politics, is just history repeating itself.

    When family becomes weak, the family unit is considered obsolete, it directly points to the collapse of society and thereby the collapse of powerful Nations and states. These world powers were not conquered from the outside but destroyed themselves in societal suicide thereby making themselves ripe for overthrow.

    The mortality of men prevent any of them from learning about their fate from history.

    Unfortunately, with the growth of military might and chemicals which destroy the planet we live on, the ignorance that humanity possesses will destroy it’s entire existence.

    Irrational behavior by those who are supposed to be leaders? It’s happened over and over again, as brought out in the beginning of this comment, political hypnosis.

    You can add willful delusion or willful ignorance along with political hypnosis. They have no solutions, and when they are on the outside, things seem clear, when they are on the inside, their glasses are fogged up by hypnotic rhetoric and they fall in line just like they’ve done since time immemorial.

    Unfortunately time has all but completely run out.

  14. Patrick writes, “But both bills ALSO reinforce the true nature of our underlying economic system of crony-capitalism, where a few people with enormous power (oligarchs) are making or influencing policy decisions that drive economic activities toward their objectives, including that of making obscene levels money. This, I believe, is ONE of our most basic institutions that fueled the movement-conservatism, the Tea Party and now MAGA-fascism.”

    Crony-capitalism is the establishment oligarchy funding the Democratic Party.

    The Tea Party crowd is funded by Charles Koch, an anti-government Libertarian. Koch Industries, founded by his father, is a privately-held company (it’s not listed on Wall Street). He’s the 5th richest man in the world.

  15. I can add to the crabbiness – I agree with the worthlessness of the study
    Sure, people (I notice a large minority) toss labels around – so what – here are the real issues

    One – the true internal inconsistency in democracies is that be can, in theory, vote to end it. A popular vote can elect a dictator/king, and we could call a new Constitutional Convention that would require little to ratify and give all power to our new dictator/king – all democratic.

    Except, that isn’t how democracies die. The autocrat stacks (a la McConnell) or abolishes the courts, jails his opponents (so far, mostly “he” autocrats), and if he doesn’t just dismiss the congress/parliament, he rigs elections to stack it (easier if you jail all opposition.)

    We were saved (barely) that outcome from Trump, although McConnell did STACK the court. But the “anti-democratic” danger lies in people who will not accept the results of democratic elections (remember Robert Mugabe – “I won’t recognize any election that I don’t win and will continue violence until that happens” — OK that wasn’t a direct quote, but it is what he said. Then we have Trump, and soon Bolsonaro in Brazil.

    Then you add the voter suppression tactics – sorry Paul, whatever you think of the effectiveness of the laws, unless you keep your eyes and ears tightly closed, their INTENT was to hinder the ability of people who might vote for Democrats. The elections were fair. Lots of Republicans, except for Trump, won. Why all of the new laws? Occam’s Razor – voter suppression.

    One last point – the migrants in Martha’s Vineyard, to my understanding, were asylum seekers awaiting adjudication of their petitions (or beginning to file them) – that means they were not “illegal” as that term is usually used for migrants that come here to take the jobs that no American wants to do without obtaining a “green card”.

  16. Perhaps I’m being naive, but “democracy” seems pretty simple to me. To me, it’s the method by which we pick the people to represent us in our government, and how those people are allowed to decide on legislation.

    The method for selecting our representatives must be fair and transparent. The following examples are anti-democratic: processes that hinder anyone’s ability to vote (like the many vote suppression tactics), or provide undue influence on the outcome (such as the huge amounts of money, both dark and otherwise, that can be applied), or that make the regions unfair (see gerrymandering). And there are more, of course. Every person should have an equitable and easy time voting, and should be encouraged to do so. Every person’s vote should be reasonably equal in weight to every other person’s.

    The functioning of the government needs to be reasonably transparent, too. There are processes in place to make this so, but far too many of them are just longstanding norms, rather than codified rules, and rely on the honour and ethical behaviour of the people involved. This should be corrected. (Someone like Trump will run roughshod over these and without codification there’s little that can be done about it.)

    If elections, and thus representation, are fair, then I am happy with the state of democracy.

    The actual legislation that gets passed doesn’t bear on this question, unless it specifically is designed to undermine the areas I’ve outlined above. If it’s just about determining policy, then the majority should be able to implement their policies. Whether I _like_ those policies is immaterial to the question.

    John, your example related to Desantis’ recent political stunt just flummoxes me. It has nothing to do with this question at all. (Also, your use of “illegals” is suggestive to me about how you really feel about this topic.)

    And a last note: I also agreed with Todd today _way_ more than I usually do. What a strange day! It’s quite disorienting.

  17. John, I may be a day late and a dollar short, but according to US and International law, those 50 Venezuelans are in this country legally. They are asylum seekers awaiting the outcomes of their asylum cases. By shipping them to Massachusetts, the middle school bully who runs Florida, made it difficult for them to continue seamlessly through the process. The volunteer lawyers are trying to relocate their hearings to Massachusetts.

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