Is American Democracy Dying?

by Michael Liss

Gentle CorrespondentIs American Democracy dying? For months, as I have watched the bizarre spectacle of the new Marshal in town and his posse, there's been a phrase rattling around in my head—the historian Allan Nevins' observation that "Democracy must be reborn in every generation."

For Nevins, the man who met the moment was Lincoln, who persevered through failure and terrible loss of life to lead "a new birth of freedom." For me and many of my generation, it was Watergate—a crime met with the deliberative process leading to bipartisan consensus that a sitting President needed to resign. For others, it might have been the Reagan years and the restoration of American power, or the astonishing rise of Barack Obama.

What rebirth might this generation, marinating in the glory that is the Age of Trump, see that would reaffirm their faith in first principles?

For the moment, it's not coming from the Right. We have a Tweeter-in-Chief who demonstrates his policy chops by sending out 140 character jeremiads. A substance-free Speaker who practices posing three quarters' front with chin upraised, affecting a scholarly but manly demeanor. And a Senate Majority Leader who periodically emerges from whatever underwater den he schemes in to gum a little lettuce while spreading his own bilious joy. This is not a trio that inspires confidence.

Meanwhile, on Stage Left, La Résistance (sounds chic and très Macron, n'est-ce pas?) bravely fights the good fight with banners and words and marches—but without victories in Congressional Special Elections, or on cherished policies. And, besides a Democratic version of #nevertrump, without a coherent ideology.

Drama, poor judgment, and just malfeasance we have in abundance. The White House seems to be stocked with people who spend their time watching their backs. Most of the Executive Branch jobs that require Senatorial oversight are unfilled, either because of benign or malign neglect. The State Department is so understaffed that they are considering setting up a search party to find anyone who might know anything about foreign policy—or just anyone who knows anything about anything.

It goes on. There's Russian meddling, a tragi-comedy in three acts. Trump meets privately and alone with "Friend of the Show" Vladimir Putin and Putin's translator. Donald Jr. had a chinwag with seven caviar salesmen bearing gifts of opposition research. Jay Sekulow, one of Dad's platoon of lawyers, does a "Full Ginsberg," appearing on all five Sunday talk shows, in each one showing his remarkable intellectual dexterity by seemingly claiming simultaneously that Senior has never met Junior, and if he had they would have never talked about the campaign, and if they had talked about the campaign, no laws were broken—because Jay Sekulow says so. I'm certainly satisfied. And, again, the Democrats chasing every thread as if it were catnip, and, again, taking their eyes off the ball. Please, boys and girls, I beg of you. This is why the Almighty invented Robert Mueller. Look to your own house first. It's not like you don't have work to do.

We can also check in on the Senate, where sly old Mitch McConnell is now experiencing a dose of John Boehner's private Hell—when you insist on single-party, Parliamentary-style rule, then you empower even modestly-sized ideologically motivated factions to bring things to a screeching halt. Some of those factions might just be ornery, and some might even have good reasons for voting no, but a miss is as good as a mile here.

That's the box the GOP is in now on all its big policy initiatives: tax reform, cutbacks in entitlements, and most prominently, healthcare. Whatever compromises they are willing to make within their own caucus, they can't be seen cavorting with Democrats. In a perverse way, this incentivizes failure. It's almost better for them to lose on Obamacare and entitlement "reform" than to take responsibility for winning and the actual policy that follows. What some of them are beginning to realize is that Donald Trump managed a hostile takeover of the good old "money and morals" GOP—but the new elements that made that possible were already embedded. Ever since Obama's first election, the party's coalition has been moving towards an unwieldy linkage of the uber-wealthy who write the checks, Evangelicals, seniors who resist social change, hardline anti-government purists, and Trump's Blue-Collar Brigades. But a reckoning for the GOP is coming. Giving (as in tax cuts and regulatory goodies and state-sponsored religion) is easy. Taking (as in health insurance, Medicare and Social Security and literally hundreds of local programs) is hard. It was a heck of a lot easier when implementing ideology didn't involve fragging some of your own.

Should we let the Democrats off the hook? Well, it's probably good politics to allow the GOP to flounder, but I wonder if it's really wise. There is a subscript here: Winner-take-all legislating invariably leads to apathy, atrophy, and intellectual laziness—for both parties. You stop thinking about the real-world implications of what you are doing, including disparate impacts on subsets of the electorate, and focus only on the intra-party mechanics of passing the bill—or opposing it. In short, you forget who you are working for and misunderstand even many of those who would be inclined to support you. Then, you lose them, maybe forever.

We Democrats (and I write this as someone who has, in his entire life, pulled the lever for a Republican at any level exactly once, for Mayor, and that with shaking hand) should be sensitive to this. The vandals may be tearing down the house, but we deserved it. The electorate wants solutions, and the perception is that our Party is so engrossed in finding the oppressed and reviled to represent that we have forgotten about the rest of America. Human rights and social justice are important and worthy causes. So are putting people back to work, rebuilding our infrastructure, and improving our schools. We can do both, and I think our heart is there. But every day that the "Democratic" story is only about a college campus turning back a controversial speaker, or a rejection of pro-life folks who want to make common cause with us on other issues, or a boycott of Wonder Woman because she's played by an Israeli, we lose.

The public is restless. For a generation, it has careened from Reaganism to Clintonism, Bushism, and Obamaism, eventually finding all wanting. In 2016, it threw up its collective hands and decided conventional politics and conventional politicians weren't working, and chose disruption. Democrats who foolishly take comfort in Hillary's popular vote margin miss the point—47% of Americans voted for someone who is just as bad in reality as we expected. And many of those are sticking with him.

What's next? Something has to break—something that makes people take a step back and realize the gravity of the situation. There isn't a Deus ex machina—even if Mueller were to find an entire arsenal of smoking guns, that would only leave you with a compromised Pence.

I would look at three words, irrelevance, isolation and fear. The Democratic Party needs to take its present irrelevance as a call to change—it should remember that the Whig Party went from control of the House and the Presidency to oblivion in less than a decade. But for Republicans, the issue is more complex. Many of them fear Trump's anger, his scorched-Earth media supporters, and his hordes. Being out front on something is an invitation to get hammered.

It may be that this last week has shown harbingers of change. Trump's rambling interview with the New York Times has unnerved many, both emotionally and intellectually. Many Republicans were shocked when Trump, quite forcefully, threw loyalist Jeff Sessions under the bus. Others were disturbed by his implied threats against Mueller. And his increasingly dissociative style of speaking raises genuine concerns about his capacity for the job.

Legislatively, McConnell's failure to move either of his health-care bills may have been the product of an emergent resistance to being bullied. For such a critical-to-the-GOP-DNA bill, there were an unusual number of Republican Senators unwilling to commit publicly. They were saved, first, when conservatives Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas jointly provided the 3rd and 4th no votes on the Repeal and Replace bill, and, then—when McConnell teed up a full, but deferred Repeal without a Replace—by three centrist Republican senators, Susan Collins (Maine), Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who immediately said they would oppose any vote to proceed with immediate repeal without an alternative in place. If McConnell is going move legislation forward (especially now, with the hopefully temporary loss of John McCain) he's either going to need absolute party discipline, or he's going to have to do some reaching out.

But these are, at best, shoots of grass in a historic drought. It still returns us to the basic question, Is Democracy dying? Do we have it in us to reconnect? I think back to how I felt after the Supreme Court decided the 2000 Election—jobbed and excluded. I sent an email to a very conservative editor who, in the past, had been kind enough to print my letters in his newspaper and got back an unusually sensitive response. Paraphrasing, what he said that was that America did not belong to one group or one party, and that we would again choose our own destiny, our basic values intact.

I'm going to go with that for now.