By Roger Bowen
Look into my eyes, what do you see?
The cult of personality.
I know your anger, I know your dreams,
I’ve been everything you want to be.
If former President Trump has given our nation even one positive legacy, it’s that he awakened Americans’ awareness of and concern for democracy. As President Biden remarked in his recent address to Congress, “We have to prove democracy still works.” Who would have thought that after nearly 250 years of democratic government an American president would feel compelled to make this mind-boggling point?
Amazingly, and without precedent, it has taken two impeachments to drive home what is obvious, namely that Trump was, and remains, a threat to our democracy. The second impeachment followed the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by die-hard Trump supporters to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election results. Had the insurrectionists succeeded, today we would be referring to Trump’s incitement of the mob as a coup d’ etat or putsch.
Our democracy was in trouble even before the Trump-incited insurrection. During his four-year term, according to the Washington Post, Trump told well over 30,000 lies and half-truths. Any American capable of discerning truth from lies understands that trust in government depends on the credibility of our leaders. Today Trump’s Big Lie — that he won in 2020 and Biden lost — is believed by only his cultist following in the GOP; and by those cynical GOP leaders like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who aspire to mobilize Trump’s base for their own craven purposes.
Democracy, philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain reminds us, “requires laws, constitutions and authoritative institutions, yes, but it also depends on what might be called democratic dispositions.” A fuzzy concept, to be sure, but importantly refers to a citizenry that understands individual liberties must be balanced with the pursuit of greater equity in order to preserve civic society.
Democracy in American politics is a traditional way to resolve the central rubbing point of politics — the allocation of scarce resources. Since ours is a liberal democracy, with liberal meaning marketplace capitalism, American politics can work in or out of sync with the economy. As William George of the Harvard Business School, a former CEO, put it, if democracy is “at risk … that puts capitalism at risk.” When public policy is rigged in favor of the already wealthy, as was Trump’s so-called “tax reform” in 2017, equal opportunity, equal access to policy makers, equal access to good education, equal access to the polling booth and equality before the law all suffer. Cynicism, anger, division grow apace.
Elshtain is right in another respect: constitutional guarantees of citizens’ rights are necessary but not sufficient to the health of democracy. Two examples are the First and Second Amendments. Most Americans know that shouting fire in a crowded theater is not protected by the First Amendment. Neither is slander. Neither is lying. Nor is the right to assemble an absolute freedom. Those wishing to demonstrate are required to get a permit from local government. Nor is the practice of religion; screaming obscenities at patrons of abortion clinics can be and is often regulated. Similarly, there is nothing in the Second Amendment resembling the NRA’s absolutist interpretation. Assault weapons and hunting have been regulated and government-issued licenses are required to own weapons in many jurisdictions. Public safety is a legitimate concern for tempering Second Amendment freedoms.
Having lived for extended periods in four different liberal democracies — the U.S., Canada, Japan and Ireland — it is obvious that all four nations’ march toward greater democracy was aided by the dynamism of capitalism that produced winners (the rich) and losers (the poor), as well as a large and growing middle class that everywhere is at the heart and soul of liberal democracy. Since in every liberal democracy the middle class far outnumbers the rich and the poor, governments in those societies should use their legislative powers to prevent skewed growth of rich and poor populations if they are to avoid extreme systemic instability and gross inequalities.
Politics is the avenue, always an uncertain one. America’s two-party system means one party or the other will have authority to allocate resources. In the pre-Trump modern era, the GOP was the party of economic growth through free trade, fewer government regulations, weak labor unions and individual liberty. The Democrats in contrast sought trade deals, regulations to force capitalists to treat workers fairly, the expansion of opportunity to women, the poor, minorities and a way to balance individual liberties with policies that promote the common good.
Trump’s attempts to subvert democracy so far have failed — 80 percent of Americans still believe that democracy is central to our nation’s identity — but doubts about the long-term prognosis for democracy are warranted since only one-third of GOP members believe Biden was elected fairly. Finding common ground on policy will be a challenge to President Biden: he should never forget, nor should the American people, that eight GOP senators and 139 GOP House members voted against certifying Biden’s victory. How does a Democratic president find common ground with any of these lawmaking GOP scofflaws?
Roger Bowen lives in Prospect Harbor. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Japan Times, the Irish Times, the Globe & Mail, The Nation, Newsday and the Chronicle of Higher Education.