Tag Archives: Democracy

Civic Lethargy

Max Boot had a recent column in the Washington Post bemoaning poll numbers that seem to show most Americans brushing off the growing danger signals to our democracy. Boot was formerly a Republican; he now considers himself an Independent, and he is appalled by the extent to which the GOP has been co-opted by authoritarians of various varieties.

He is especially baffled by the widespread dismissal of the reality that is before our eyes.

A year after the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the Capitol, a CNN poll asked whether it’s likely “that, in the next few years, some elected officials will successfully overturn the results of an election.” Fifty-one percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats said it’s not at all likely. Only 46 percent of Democrats and independents said that U.S. democracy is under attack, which helps to explain why Democratic candidates aren’t campaigning on defending democracy.

Boot finds this optimism difficult to understand, especially given the constant stream of damning details that emerge daily about Trump’s bizarre behaviors as President, and especially about his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.  The former president “remains the dominant figure within the GOP, which means that most Republicans have tacitly accepted that inciting an insurrection is no big deal.”

Look at what just happened in Ohio’s U.S. Senate primary: J.D. Vance, who had been languishing in third place, won the nomination after Trump endorsed him. A fervent, born-again Trumpkin, Vance told a Vanity Fair reporter that Trump supporters “should seize the institutions of the left” and launch a “de-woke-ification program” modeled on de-Baathification in Iraq. (That worked so well, right?) He says that if Trump wins again in 2024, he should “fire … every civil servant” and “replace them with our people.” If the courts try to stand in the way, ignore them. As Vanity Fair noted, “This is a description, essentially, of a coup.”

Given Trump’s continued popularity within the GOP–some 70% of self-declared Republicans believe the “Big Lie”–and given Biden’s sagging popularity, Boots thinks Trump would easily win the nomination in 2024. He then sketches out a horrific–and all-too-plausible scenario:

His “trump card,” so to speak, is the House, which is likely to be under GOP control after the midterms. CNBC founder Tom Rogers and former Democratic senator Timothy E. Wirth point out in Newsweek that controlling the House would allow Trump to steal the presidency if the election is close.

Republican state legislatures in swing states that Biden (or another Democrat) narrowly wins can claim the results are fraudulent and send in competing slates of electors pledged to Trump. The House and Senate would then vote on which electors to accept. Even if the Senate remains Democratic, a GOP-controlled House could prevent Biden from getting the 270 electoral votes needed to win. It would then fall to the House to decide the presidency.

If that scenario sounds hyperbolic, Boots reminds us that a Russian invasion sounded hyperbolic to most Ukrainians before Feb. 24. He concludes that the only way to avert disaster is to vote Democratic in the fall. It no longer matters if you have policy differences with the Democratic Party, as he has–he says that a vote for the GOP is a vote to dismantle American democracy (or what remains of it).

The question Boots asks, but doesn’t answer, is why so many Americans who haven’t “drunk the Kool-Aid” are nevertheless sanguine about the ability of the nation’s institutions to withstand the fascism growing within. That question reminded me of the mindset of many Germans during Hitler’s rise. With a little Googling, I found a fascinating–albeit very disturbing– interview conducted shortly after the war with a German scholar who lived through that time. The interviewee explained how daily events distracted the population from recognizing the larger trajectory of political authority, and how the accumulating deviations from decency were normalized.

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head….

You really need to click through and read the entire interview. it’s chilling–and it could happen here far more easily than most of us ever imagined.

Boots concerns are not hyperbolic.

 

 

An Accidental Insight

My husband and I were on a cruise ship for two weeks, on our way to Amsterdam where we  visited our son. Anyone who has taken one of these trips across the Atlantic can attest to the fact that Internet access–when available–is maddeningly slow and intermittent. It’s also expensive. On our cruise, connecting to more than one device at a time was costly, so I was unable to make planned use of my Kindle by accessing those of my books that reside on “the cloud.”

As a result, I inadvertently encountered some important research.

A couple of years ago, I had downloaded a book on the “Submerged State,” a title issued by Chicago Studies in American Politics. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d read very little of it. (One of the enduring problems with academic research is academic language, which tends to be dense and inaccessible to all but the most determined readers…)

Since my vacation novels were unavailable, I decided to be determined, and to revisit it.

The authors make a basic–and very important–observation: thanks to America’s penchant for small government, conservatives have been able to give us governance that–despite being every bit as costly and ubiquitous as it it is elsewhere– is “uniquely invisible.”

They define the “submerged state” as policies and programs that function by providing incentives, subsidies or payments to private organizations or households to encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.

The result is that we have channelled a preponderance of the government programs that benefit citizens through private and nonprofit intermediaries, and that practice has had some very negative consequences: it has obscured the extent to which many of these policies enrich the already affluent; it has kept ordinary Americans from recognizing the role of government in their lives while allowing the programs to be “plainly evident” to the special interests that reap the rewards; and worst of all, by obscuring government activities and their positive consequences, it has reinforced anti-government attitudes.

In short, by “submerging” the operations of government, we have kept most citizens blissfully unaware of the ways in which government makes a positive difference in their lives.

The researchers considered a number of programs with varying degrees of visibility; they then surveyed recipients in order to evaluate their awareness of the benefits they receive, and recognition that those benefits originate from government.

Most of the citizens who had saved substantial dollars thanks to the home mortgage deduction, for example, claimed never to have been beneficiaries of a government program. Students whose federal loans are serviced by lending institutions are frequently unaware that those dollars come from (or are guaranteed by) government, and that eligibility and interest rates are considerably more favorable as a result.

Tax policies like Obama’s “Making Work Pay” are so obscure that the general public often  thinks rates have been increased when they have actually been lowered, leading to a pertinent question: can a reform be considered successful if it goes unnoticed?

Policy debates are also hijacked by widespread ignorance of the extent of government’s actual current role.For example, while many Americans know that the country spends more per capita on health care than any other nation, few of us are aware that government already foots most of the bill (estimates range from 56% to 70%), and that a program of national health care–with its vastly lower administrative costs– would be unlikely to cost much more.

The book has numerous other examples, but what I found most important was the researchers’ conclusion about the effects of non-visible governance on democracy. As they emphasize, an idea fundamental to democracy  is the premise that people are citizens, and citizens are active participants in governance. Participation requires that they be reasonably aware of what their elected representatives do on their behalf–that they should be in a position to form opinions about policies and be able to be involved in the political process. The submerged state, however, empowers interest groups and disempowers the public.

A couple of quotations that sum up the central point of the book:

The idea that public policies should reflect the will of the majority of citizens is a basic principle of representative democracy. Yet in the case of the submerged state, many citizens lack basic information, and public officials fail to provide it.

And

As long as public officials criticize government but persist in channelling public resources surreptitiously through private means, Americans will be deluded.

I guess I should thank the inadequacy of oceanic internet for a deeply instructive–if very depressing–read.

“Crazy” Isn’t Just A Song By Patsy Cline

I wish I had a dollar for every well-meaning liberal who is preaching the importance of listening to “the other side.” I grant you that such advice is reasonable when the “other side” is rational–when the “other guy” wants policy X and you want policy Y.

But I constantly read about the people who vote Republican these days, and I defy anyone to enter into a civil, reasoned conversation with individuals who hold these particular views.

Just two examples:

The first is from a report in The Washington Post about a Tennessee pastor named Greg Locke.  Locke, who is  45, is head of something called the Global Vision Bible Church, and he has–according to the Post– millions of followers, “many of them online.”  He gained national attention during the coronavirus crisis “when he kept his church open and defied the mask mandates of the ‘fake pandemic.'”

Locke is an “ambassador” of a movement where he and other pastors around the country appear at rallies and tent revivals preaching Donald Trump’s fraudulent claims that the election was stolen as a new holy war, according to Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, an organization dedicated to religious freedom.

Locke was on the Capitol steps on January 6th. He’s divided his small town on the outskirts of Nashville, “most recently with a book burning where he and followers threw copies of the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series and Disney villain merchandise into a giant bonfire. He has declared he now wants to “deliver” people from demonic influences and witchcraft.”

There’s much more, and it’s all pretty horrifying to those of us who neither burn books with which we disagree nor believe in demons and witchcraft.

If that isn’t enough crazy for you, I highly recommend this column by Dana Milbank, titled “I Tried Trump’s Truth Social So You Don’t Have To.” (“Truth Social,” you will recall, is Trump’s competitor to Twitter, which banned him. It has “truths” rather than “tweets” and has been mired in technical glitches.)

And what did Milbank “learn” from visiting “Truth Social”?

Hunter Biden is involved in building and running biolabs in the country.

The CIA and National Institutes of Health are both “deeply involved” in the Ukrainian biolabs.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was set in motion by a CIA false-flag operation that was funded by George Soros.

The covid-19 pathogen originated not in China but in Shpyl’chyna, a village in Ukraine.

The bioweapons developed in Ukraine specifically target the “Abrahamic Bloodline.”

Neo-Nazis from Ukraine joined with the FBI to infiltrate the Capitol on Jan. 6 and participated in the insurrection.

Ukraine was planning to use drones to attack Russia with pathogens from the U.S.-funded bioweapons labs.

President Biden has been using Ukraine to launder money.

Ukrainian neo-Nazis controlled the Ukrainian city of Mariupol before Russians invaded.

Russia’s alleged war crimes were staged.

I also found many posts calling President Biden a pedophile (or a “groomer” in the new parlance of QAnon). I found badly photoshopped images of Vice President Harris in sexualized situations. I found ceaseless attacks on trans people, an edited video of a cat attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, attacks on Disney for opposing Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, references to satanic sacrifice by the “deep state,” a few racist epithets and endless accusations about Hunter Biden’s laptop and drug abuse.

When Milbank looked for “hashtag Ukraine,” he found posts produced by Russian state propaganda, and a variety of doctored images–one showed Trump holding a sign saying “Zelensky is the Avenatti of leaders,” another was a doctored video of Putin saying “Let’s go, Brandon.” There were also posts accusing Ukrainian leaders of being corrupt, and a claim that Ukraine is “defending the NWO” — New World Order.

If you have the stomach for it, I encourage you to click through and read both the report on Locke, the Christian Nationalist preacher, and the column by Milbank. Then tell me how a rational person can have a respectful, productive exchange of views with people who firmly believe that LGBTQ+ people are the spawn of Satan (and that Satan is real!) and that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election,  (those inconvenient seven million more Biden votes were all fraudulent)….

I’m perfectly fine with the fact that many reasonable, sane people disagree with me on issues ranging from national health care to minimum wage to First Amendment jurisprudence. I promise that I can listen to those people, and engage in civil discourse with them.

I can’t–and won’t– sit down with the crazies.

What terrifies me is how many of them there are.

 

 

The First Corruption Is Language

Jeffrey Isaacs, a distinguished professor of political science at IU Bloomington, had a very thought-provoking essay in Common Dreams.It was evidently triggered by the issuance of a Chinese State Council position papers asserting that China is a “democracy that works.” The paper argued that the “Chinese model” is superior to the “Western model,”–that it is more efficient, promotes solidarity, and is not “an ornament to be used for decoration.”

As Isaacs notes

Most readers of the piece will rightly focus on the manifest hypocrisies of the Chinese power elite and its intellectual supporters who justify terrible violations of human rights.

But this rhetorical appeal by authoritarians to the values of “democracy” is nothing new. It has antecedents in the official rhetorics of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian Communism—all of which claimed to represent a “higher form” of “folk democracy” or “proletarian democracy” or “people’s democracy.” In more recent times, Hugo Chavez presented himself as a proponent of an anti-imperialist “protagonistic democracy,” and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime, famously declared in 2014 that Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” pointing to Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as his models. And we must not forget, of course, that Vladimir Putin long extolled his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy” that placed national traditions above global commitments and regarded “human rights” as a “Western” abstraction.

As Isaacs goes on to discuss, the Chinese claim to be a democracy is just the most recent iteration of a longtime debate over what the term means.  “Democracy,” as he reminds us,  is a “complex and essentially contested” concept, and arguments  over the connections between liberalism and democracy have been central to modern politics.

But we don’t need to look to mid-20th century totalitarianism, or current-day anti-liberal authoritarians in China or Russia or Hungary, to see versions of this contestation. For it is taking place before our very eyes in the U.S., in the form of a Republican party that is deliberately assaulting core norms and institutions of liberal democracy and doing it in the name of . . . democracy itself.

In the essay, Isaacs highlights a critical and too-often overlooked element of America’s current political impasse: the misuse–the intentional corruption–of language in service of propaganda and power.

He reminds us that GOP “leaders” from Tucker Carlson to Mike Pence have made it their business to commune with Viktor Orban, and that Republican efforts to “Orbanify” U.S. politics don’t just adopt Orban’s authoritarian legal tactics–they also mimic his rhetorical ones.

Isaacs is quite right that when Trump and his MAGA supporters pontificate about “democracy,” they mean something quite different from  American liberal democracy.

They mean the popular sovereignty of “true Americans.” They do not mean by this universal adult suffrage, they mean voting restrictions designed to limit the participation of “undesirable” and “un-American” people. They do not mean by this a system based on robust debate and free and fair party competition. They mean a system that opposes “fake news” and “liberal science,” that privileges their own media and their own academics and their own partisan advantage, and regards any alternatives as “enemies of the people.”

This essay–well worth clicking through and reading in its entirety–reminded me of the following exchange from Alice in Wonderland between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Communication is difficult even when the participants to a conversation agree on the meanings of the words they are using. Tone, body language, professional and “hip” jargon can change the connotation of otherwise simple exchanges, even when no misdirection is intended. When language is is corrupted–when, in the words of Tallyrand, words are chosen “to conceal true thoughts”–we no longer have the critically-important ability to engage in productive conversation.

Language is what allowed humans to emerge from caves, to collaborate, to investigate, to create. It’s not only essential for intellectual and emotional expression, it’s the primary vehicle through which humans transmit culture, scientific knowledge and  world-views across generations, the way we link the past with the present.

When words no longer have objective content–when we lose the ability to understand what other people are really saying–the resulting chaos empowers the worst of us.

Us And Them, Again

One of the most troubling aspects of America’s current political gridlock is the degree to which the citizens who choose political leadership are currently polarized. A recent essay from The Conversation considered the extent to which that polarization is implicated in the the country’s widely reported “downgrade” as a “backsliding democracy” by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

One key reason the report cites is the continuing popularity among Republicans of false allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

But according to the organization’s secretary general, perhaps the “most concerning” aspect of American democracy is “runaway polarization.” One year after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Americans’ perceptions about even the well-documented events of that day are divided along partisan lines.

Polarization looms large in many diagnoses of America’s current political struggles. Some researchers warn of an approaching “tipping point” of irreversible polarization.

The author of the essay, who has recently published a book on the subject, identifies two types of polarization: political polarization and belief polarization. 

Political polarization is simply the ideological distance between opposing parties. When–as now–those differences loom large, they produce the sort of gridlock we are experiencing, especially at the federal level.  As the author points out,  although political polarization can be extremely frustrating, it isn’t necessarily dysfunctional. (It does offer voters a clear choice…) 

Belief polarization, also called group polarization, is different. Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves. These more extreme selves are also overly confident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behavior.

Belief polarization also leads people to embrace more intensely negative feelings toward people with different views. As they shift toward extremism, they come to define themselves and others primarily in terms of partisanship. Eventually, politics expands beyond policy ideas and into entire lifestyles.

That hostility toward members of the other party leads members (“us”) to become more conformist and thus increasingly intolerant of the inevitable differences among “us.” The rigidity of our identities as “woke” or “anti-woke” demands conformity from others of our own tribes. As a result, the Left loses Al Franken; the Right loses Liz Cheney. And as the essayist writes, “belief polarization is toxic for citizens’ relations with one another.”

Even more concerning is the way that political and belief polarization work together in what the author calls “a mutually reinforcing loop.” When a polity is divided into two clans –an “us” and a “them” increasingly fixated on what is wrong with the other guys–the situation provides political actors with incentives to amplify hostility toward their partisan opponents.

And because the citizenry is divided over lifestyle choices rather than policy ideas, officeholders are released from the usual electoral pressure to advance a legislative platform. They can gain reelection simply based on their antagonism.

As politicians escalate their rifts, citizens are cued to entrench partisan segregation. This produces additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence. All the while, constructive political processes get submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal, while people’s capacities for responsible democratic citizenship erode.

I think this analysis is exactly right, and–unfortunately–an accurate description of today’s  American public (at least the portion of that public that is politically engaged).

In a recent guest essay for the New York Times, Rebecca Solnit considered an important element of “belief polarization,” the tendency of partisans to accept propaganda produced by their “tribe” as fact. (This happens on both the Left and Right, but is particularly widespread on the Right. Sandy Hook was a hoax. Hillary Clinton was trafficking children in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Bill Gates has inserted chips in COVID vaccines…Donald Trump really won the 2020 election.)

Tribalism, it turns out, enables and encourages gullibility.

Distinctions between believable and unbelievable, true and false are not relevant for people who have found that taking up outrageous and disprovable ideas is instead an admission ticket to a community or an identity. Without the yoke of truthfulness around their necks, they can choose beliefs that flatter their worldview or justify their aggression….

But gullibility means you believe something because someone else wants you to. You’re buying what they’re selling. It’s often said that the joiners of cults and subscribers to delusions are driven by their hatred of elites. But in the present situation, the snake oil salesmen are not just Alex Jones, QAnon’s master manipulators and evangelical hucksters. They are senators, powerful white Christian men, prominent media figures, billionaires and their foundations, even a former president. 

The problem–as both essays conclude–is that while  autocracy requires people who will obey orders about what to think as well as what to do, democracy requires independent-minded people who can reason well. 

We desperately need more of those people.