It is becoming harder and harder to believe our American Experiment is going to succeed.
Does our Republican leadership really believe that they won’t suffer a devastating backlash for enabling and assisting Trump as he drives the party from casual cronyism to criminal corruption? Were the principles they’ve argued for the past fifty years truly nothing more than a farce? A smokescreen of empty promises designed to manipulate the masses? Are tax breaks for the rich, racial intolerance, and the power of the plutocracy all they really care about?
Do Democrats really believe that impeaching Trump will suddenly make the public embrace the increasingly radical rhetoric that scared a portion of America so much they gravitated to Trump? Are Democrats incapable of recognizing their role in exacerbating the partisan fear and anger that placed Trump in power? Is their sense of moral certitude so compelling they don’t care how much of the public they alienate?
Are both parties truly oblivious of how poorly they are viewed outside their shrinking bases? If you ignore non-voters, it looks like America is cleaved nearly evenly into two equal and intransigently irreconcilable camps. But if you examine the population in total, it becomes much clearer that the failure of our leadership and political process is even more complex and damaging than that. American Democracy is in a state of crisis.
Our dominant political parties pursue and wield power by each aiming flawed and inflammatory messages at barely more than a quarter of the population, simultaneously stimulating either enmity or distrust from the remaining three quarters. Donald Trump defeated the establishment politicians of both parties by marshalling support from a mere 27% of eligible voters. Hillary Clinton lost the presidency with 28% of eligible voters. While a handful of voters cast protest third party ballots, fully 41% of eligible voters abandoned the polls entirely in 2016, disillusioned and disenfranchised by the partisan dumpster-fire that rages in Washington. The media exacerbates the problem by treating the spectacle like a sports contest, picking sides, debating strategy and tactics, and feeding their shrinking audiences’ passions and predispositions instead of their intellect; framing every issue as a binary choice. It is far, far easier to attract eyeballs and votes with click-bait headlines and twitter-length soundbites that tell people what they want to believe than it is to challenge ingrained misconceptions. But by doing so we are inflicting great damage on our society.
Among developed countries America ranks near the bottom in both voter turnout and trust in government. Yet neither of America’s dominant political parties seem ready to acknowledge how out of step they are with the broader public or look beyond existing policy choices in search of a more unifying and productive vision for America. As a nation we persist in claiming we are the world’s leading Democracy… which doesn’t hold out much hope for Democracy.
The Canary in the Cesspool
Today, both parties treat Trump as the fulcrum of America’s political challenges; alternatively, the demon clown tearing down Democracy, or the last chance for Conservatives to rally the nation against hordes of immigrants and a destructive socialist agenda. But Trump is not the cause or core of America’s political dysfunction. He is a symptom. He is the result of political parties that have abandoned their mandate to govern on behalf of the collective will, “of, by, and for the people.” America’s dominant political parties are both attempting to govern by, and for, increasingly strident minority factions… and our republic may collapse because of it.
It is a truism among management professionals that if you wish to solve a problem you must accurately identify and address its cause(s), which are often distinctly different from its effects. Trump is not the cause of America’s political dysfunction. He is simply an opportunist who utilized that dysfunction to seize power. However compelling his daily outrages might seem, the Democrats’ panicked focus upon impeaching him, and the Republicans’ cowardly efforts to appease, accommodate and exploit him, both ignore our underlying problem. If our Republic is going to survive, we need to look beyond Trump and address the rot undermining America’s political process. In their battle for power and control, America’s leadership has lost sight of the core principles and most important responsibilities of government on behalf of the People.
The central challenge and core responsibility of Representative Democracy is to reconcile the conflicting desires, beliefs, and objectives of the population as a whole and assemble a majority consensus aimed at the common good. Our ruling class has abandoned that responsibility. American politicians and political parties on both sides are locked in battle over flawed and irreconcilable dogma attempting to impose minority agendas without regard to majority consensus. Reconciliation of opposing views in pursuit of common good is unnecessary in a system where control of government can be dictated by energizing minority factions.
Creating a loyal base by offering emotionally charged appeals, partisan outrage and selective (or alternative) facts to small, narrowly segmented target audiences is a highly profitable media strategy. But it has had a disastrous impact upon America’s once-functioning Democracy.
Republicans appear to recognize that they are serving a minority. But they hide their disdain for the majority by actively framing their rhetoric and arguments with principles and values their policies lack. Their success over the last several decades is largely the result of skill in couching their political arguments and policies in language that emotionally resonates with many Americans’ sense of pride, independence, patriotism, and morality. The weakness of those policies and arguments is that they are often, perhaps predominately, constructed upon flawed logic and factual distortions. As a result, much of the Republican base votes against their own strongly held beliefs in Equal Treatment and Equal Opportunity — as well as their own personal self-interest. The worst pain generated by this administration’s policies is being heaped upon the conservative, rural voters who brought them into power.
Democrats appear oblivious to their minority appeal. In fact, they seem to revel in it; seemingly targeting and embracing every niche special interest constituency that exists just outside America’s mainstream — minority communities and activists of all stripes. But both the tone and substance of their aggressive advocacy on behalf of those factions often leaves many of what used to be called the “silent majority” feeling ignored and disrespected. Thus, while Trump has been bafflingly successful at managing a conservative minority to rally behind xenophobia and judicial activism, Democrats have cobbled together a very, very fragmented and fractious alliance that is unlikely to either hold or grow.
Democrats’ controlling principle is that benevolent government activism can manage society to better outcomes. A substantial majority of American citizens are highly skeptical of that premise based upon both instinct and experience. Democrats largely ignore that skepticism. While Republicans’ play to the public’s principles and fears, Democrats tend to be dismissive of them. Hillary Clinton’s infamous faux pas, anointing her opponents as “deplorables,” only drew blood because it rang so true. Blinded by their self-perceived righteous superiority, Democrats aggressively challenge principles that the Public broadly trusts and respects.
America’s Founding Fathers were famously suspicious of Democracy. They feared the tyranny of the majority — afraid the aristocracy’s historical prerogatives for confiscating wealth and limiting liberties would simply be transferred to the voting public. So far those fears have remained unfounded. Despite the democratic principles and mechanisms embedded in our Constitution, Washington continues to serve the Plutocracy far better than the People. The mechanisms intended to allow representative government to function and flourish are rapidly collapsing…. and unless we recognize the damage our dueling minorities are imposing, the impeachment trial which commenced this week in the Senate promises to accelerate that collapse.
Impact Of, and On, Impeachment
By arrogantly and obstinately persisting in placing party before country our elected officials are destroying our Republic. The brazenness with which they display their partisan passions and bias is simply stunning. Facts and principles have become subjectively malleable. Truth is now situational. Even after taking an oath to faithfully “do impartial Justice under the Constitution and the Law” the GOP appears prepared to close ranks behind Senator McConnell, feign blindness, suppress evidence and join Trump and Mulvaney in pretending that applying back-channel diplomatic pressure and linking foreign aid to domestic election interference is somehow perfectly acceptable behavior. The majority leader of the Senate has proudly and openly refuted his oath, asserting “I am not impartial about this at all,” assuring he will closely coordinate the proceeding with the President’s counsel, and promising a quick acquittal.
If you wish to understand how Republicans really feel about Donald Trump’s character and behavior you simply have to look back to the quotes they offered while he was trouncing them in the 2016 primary elections. My favorite among the many principled examples you can find comes from Lindsey Graham, who accurately called Donald Trump “a race-baiting bigot,” and insisted, “I’d rather lose without Donald Trump than try to win with him…. This is not who we are as a party. This is not who we are as a nation.” Regretfully, that now is who we are a nation, a nation guided by unprincipled, corrupt and immoral leadership. [Listen to the media. Almost no one expresses the naïve belief that votes in the Senate will owe more to facts and law than political allegiance.]
Before you conclude too strongly that the Democrats hold much higher moral ground here, examine with care their complicity in our current conflict. There is only one defense against Trump’s impeachment. It was handed to him by the Democratic party. The Resistance. The so-called Witch-Hunt. The Trump administration’s actions have been indefensible. But the Democrats’ aggressive and undemocratic Resistance movement has been instrumental in solidifying unbreakable support among his rural conservative base. Conservative fear over the liberal/progressive agenda coupled with fury over Democratic obstructionism are jointly responsible for Trump’s apparently unshakably loyal supporters.
Trump was duly elected. He was not elected because people did not know who he was. He got elected because of the things he promised to do. He is exactly what he said he was. As a candidate he bragged openly about his experience and expertise exerting corrupt influence on politicians. He promised if elected he would exert his influence on the corrupt political class on behalf of the American People.
Trump trounced the GOP establishment by promising to abandon their elitist conservative principles. He promised a populist agenda; to protect social security, replace Obamacare with something better and cheaper, bring high-paying manufacturing jobs back to America, and confront the foreign interests stealing our money and flooding our shores. He used the same message and elitist resentment to beat Hillary Clinton soundly thru the electoral college. He attacked the free trade ideologs from right and left who many voters blame for the disruption of America’s workforce and decline of the middle class.
A portion of Trump’s agenda was openly racist and offensive to liberals. Key components of his financial promises, specifically tax cuts for the middle class, were probably always duplicitous, hiding a dangerous cronyist agenda. But major portions of his agenda resonated strongly, not just in his core base, but with echoes of a progressive agenda aimed at the broad working class. Elite Democrats opposed it all.
Instead of looking for places to work together, holding his feet to the fire with regard to his promises on healthcare, taxes and trade and attempting to split him off and separate him from the most egregious elements of conservative economic and social dogma, they chased him back into a bunker mentality, making him increasingly paranoid and dangerous; susceptible to his worst instincts. They forced him to retreat back into the arms of the GOP establishment, enabling their worst instincts as well. Democrats have quite a lot they should feel guilty about.
Democrats will argue that Trump’s promises were always lies and that the Resistance was only duplicating the Republicans’ well-worn obstructionist game-plan from the Obama years. I will concede much of both those arguments rings true. But in abandoning the responsibility to govern collectively both parties contributed greatly to the situation where we are today. We have dueling minorities attempting to impose irreconcilable visions upon each other with almost no trust or responsive communication crossing the void between. Respect for alternative perceptions and beliefs, and self-awareness of personal complicity in damaging the national dialogue, is so weak, and the drive for partisan advantage so strong, that the impeachment votes are likely to all be decided based upon partisan predispositions with neither side displaying the slightest compunctions about failing to seek and represent a majority consensus of the population.
What Hope Might We Have?
Regretfully, though I hope I’m wrong, I see little cause for optimism.
By design, impeachment does offer hope. If it functioned today as our Founders intended, and there was honor left among the current members of the Senate, witnesses would be called, contempt cited, testimony taken, votes held, and in all likelihood Mike Pence would promptly and smoothly assume a new role in the oval office. Both parties could then hold their breathe with care as they step back to reassess the debacle just experienced. (Absent the unlikely emergence of proof that Donald Trump sought valiantly, but failed, to restrain Giuliani et al from their rogue influence operation.)
In truth, that might not have a very major positive impact on the core problem. The GOP would shift frantically into a search for a 2020 candidate. The disarray of Democratic candidates would continue unabated. And the underlying rot, of minority rule, would remain the most consequential influence upon our political parties. But it would at least become theoretically possible that the public might be roused by the canary in the cesspool I cited earlier. Perhaps even the remaining elected officials might find cause to reconsider their views and actions.
More probably, the GOP will duplicate the pattern displayed in the most recent Supreme Court confirmation fight. Suppressing evidence will provide a shadow of doubt. Absent acknowledged proof of outright criminality, acquittal will be granted. Trump will pronounce exoneration. And both parties will continue even angrier and more combative and isolated than before.
It’s almost inconceivable that the partisan process under way today in the Senate could actually result in Trump’s removal. It would of course be better for the public good if the fight over process does result in witnesses and testimony. But regardless, if the process proceeds and is completed under the same level of rancor, distrust and pre-judgement that it has begun, neither acquittal or conviction will sway many of the core faithful on both sides who increasingly distrust and disrespect the government.
The Real Promise of Representative Democracy
It is often observed that the most efficient form of government is autocracy. It is easy to get things done if the head of government can do exactly, and whatever, he determines he wishes to do. The challenge, of course, is that in order to ensure that “efficient” government is also “good” government, the autocratic head must be both benevolent and wise. Humans can be relied upon to be neither. And power corrupts.
Representative Democracy is messy, not efficient. Its genius, to the extent it has one, is that it both draws its power and assembles its guidance and direction from the consent of the governed. It is a mechanism designed to assemble majority consensus in pursuit of the common good. The design of America’s Constitution combines the power of Representative Democracy with the enumeration of inalienable, individual rights that also protect minority interests and factions. I still believe it is a process that will work — if we will use it.
Our American experiment has always been more aspirational, than fully realized. It started by assembling the consensus of white male landowners, in furtherance first and foremost of their personal interests. But in design it was elegant and inspiring; aimed upward in pursuit of “a more perfect union.” Over the decades it has stumbled forward in slow, uneven steps, expanding its reach across gender, race, ideology, class and status. It has been progressing; opening the American Dream of opportunity and upward mobility to encompass more fully the complete community of citizens and residents of our nation. Until recently.
We are approaching a crossroads where declining voter participation and corrupt, narrow-minded leadership are conspiring to move us backward in time. Inequality is inexorably rising. The scars of racism which had been slowly healing, are beginning to once again tear. The fabric of our society is being stretched and many of the principles upon which we thrived for over two hundred years are being neglected.
Is there a Path Forward?
If we wish to move forward once again, we need to look beyond the irreconcilable flawed dogma and minority visions that dominate our political landscape. We cannot accept dishonest discourse from our politicians. We have to demand a higher standard. We have to re-instill trust in government amongst the population. If, as I assert, the design strength of our political system requires assembly of majority consensus, we cannot realize that benefit if our leaders continue aiming their messages and deriving their support from only 27/28% of the eligible voting public. Turnout and participation is key.
Voter reform sounds like an obvious remedy. However, even a casual observer will discern that the bulk of existing reform efforts are aimed primarily at obtaining partisan advantage. Active voter reform movements essentially come in two flavors, voter suppression, or electoral manipulation, both pursued with a jaded eye on the effect reformulating the electorate will have on the next election cycle. Politically engineered voter reforms are inevitably linked to efforts to politically engineer voting blocks.
Thus, I conclude that the most viable potential path forward may seem like the most unlikely; it needs to come from individual leadership in the form of policy and outreach. We need leadership which will stop trying to tell small segments of the population what they want to hear and start telling big segments the things they need to hear. They need to stop pandering to minority constituencies and reassess why majority consensus seems so elusive. Republicans need to stop acquiescing to corruption in the White House. Democrats need to examine why a third of Americans are more afraid of the liberal agenda than Trump’s obvious incompetence and corruption. Both need to listen to, and attempt to serve, the population as a whole, not just their campaign contributors and narrow voting block.
Elsewhere, see Democracy in Freefall, I’ve examined how our the binary partisanship of our public dialogue obscures and obstructs examination of more promising and productive policy options in multiple areas because the solutions for America’s most severe and intransigent challenges do not lie in either party’s dogma, but outside the thinking of both. Both parties need to challenge their own flawed dogma.
I will repeat myself; the core responsibility of Representative Democracy is to reconcile the conflicting desires, beliefs, and objectives of the population as a whole. That cannot be accomplished from inside an echo chamber.
I will not repeat here all of the various ways I believe specific policies can be made more broadly inclusive by stepping outside the silo. But I will suggest that if the America’s “greatest deliberative bodies” exercise one of the most solemn duties they hold under our Constitution by suppressing facts and operating in lockstep with partisan political leadership, though they draw power and authority from less than 30% of the population, then Representative Democracy has already ceased to exist.
We should all mourn its passing.