If You Can Keep It

A headline from the New York Times:

Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority

That’s the conclusion they drew from their latest poll. They should have said it’s not the highest priority, but headline writers aren’t known for accuracy.

In this poll, they asked registered voters “What do you think is the MOST important problem facing the country today?” Forty-five percent of the registered voters said that either “the economy (including jobs, stock market)” or “inflation or the cost of living” are the biggest problem (26% picked the economy and 19% picked inflation).

It’s not clear why anybody would say the economy is our biggest problem. Job growth has been excellent since the pandemic eased. Average wages have increased. Store shelves aren’t empty. But we don’t know where those voters get their news, so it’s hard to know what myths they accept. Some probably equate the stock market with the economy (like the people who wrote that question for the poll), while others are upset by their portfolios going down (after going up for so long).

It’s true that inflation is a problem (for some people more than others) and it’s in the news a lot, so it makes sense that 1 in 5 registered voters said it’s the country’s biggest concern at the moment. Presumably, when inflation slows down, probably next year, it won’t bother them so much. For context, it’s worth noting that of the world’s 23 leading economies, the U.S. has an inflation rate near the middle (9 countries have higher inflation and 13 have lower). The Federal Reserve is responding to inflation aggressively, but current inflation is a global phenomenon.

So what about democracy being “in peril”? It was the third most popular answer at 9%. Unfortunately, given what’s going on these days, that 9% is less than reassuring. Roughly half of that 9% thought it’s the Democrats who are attacking our democracy. The Big Lie is now gospel for Republicans, including most of them running for office this year (In case you’re wondering, climate change only got 3%.)

Since the state of the economy tends to determine election results and majority parties tend to lose midterm elections, things don’t look good for the Democrats next month unless women, reacting to our renegade Supreme Court, turn out in record numbers.

All of which leads me to ask: how did we get to a place where half the country prefers a party led by an ex-president who tried to overturn the last election — and on top of that is a truly horrible person? And on top of that is dedicated to bringing back the 1950s (except for that decade’s high taxes on the rich), when anybody who wasn’t a white, supposedly Christian man was treated like a second-class citizen?

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times thinks this situation isn’t all that strange:
“The U.S. Thinks It Can’t Happen Here. It Already Has”. After slavery was finally abolished and we’d killed enough American Indians, there was the legalized oppression of Jim Crow

If we date the beginning of Jim Crow to the 1890s — when white Southern politicians began to mandate racial separation and when the Supreme Court affirmed it — then close to three generations of American elites lived with and largely accepted the existence of a political system that made a mockery of American ideals of self-government and the rule of law….

For most of this country’s history, America’s democratic institutions and procedures and ideals existed alongside forms of exclusion, domination and authoritarianism. Although we’ve taken real strides toward making this a less hierarchical country, with a more representative government, there is no iron law of history that says that progress will continue unabated or that the authoritarian tradition in American politics won’t reassert itself.

That’s all true, but I’d look to more recent history to understand when our democracy began to weaken. It was baby-faced provocateur Newt Gingrich who taught his fellow Republicans to demonize Democrats using words like “traitor”, “sick” and “anti-child” (he actually sent them a memo in 1996). Then there was the fervid search for a way to use the legal system to remove Bill Clinton from office. The national media helped in the 2000 campaign by portraying unexceptional George W. Bush as a regular guy and Al Gore as a lying robot, but it was the Republican majority on the Supreme Court who used Bush v. Gore to make sure their side won. Lots of Republicans never accepted Obama as president, believing that somebody like him wasn’t really an American. He won two elections, but Senate Republicans denied him the ability to add a Democrat to the Supreme Court. We then had the farcical 2016 campaign, when the biggest story in America was Hillary Clinton’s email server and the Republican FBI director decided to intervene at the last moment. Enough of us were disgusted by four years of a president with no redeeming qualities to deny him a second term, but a recent poll suggests he’d beat Joe Biden in 2024.

So we’re left with one of our major parties not accepting the results of an election, using a Supreme Court full of ideologues to take away our rights, aching to put a semi-fascist authoritarian back in the White House (assuming, I suppose, that he’s not under house arrest) and planning to make America worse in a number of ways if they get the chance.

If you want to know more about their plans, read “Our Institutions Will Not Save Us From Republican Authoritarianism”, subtitled “If the [Republican Party] wins in 2022 and 2024, here’s how it’ll capture Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to make America into Hungary” or “Kari Lake’s Candidacy [in Arizona] Shows Us How Democracy Self-Destructs”, which includes the following:

Marx used to say that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction…. No—it turns out that it’s actually democracy that contains the seeds of its own destruction. If the people who want a “Christian” nation with no secure voting rights and a weak independent press get 51 percent of the votes, they can impose that and more on the rest of us.

I sometimes think it’s mainly a matter of how people get the news. My main sources of political news are The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times and a few independent journalists. It’s hard to believe that many decent human beings would want today’s Republican Party to be in charge of anything if they knew more. If, for example, they didn’t listen to people who tell them stories like this: schools are installing litter boxes for children who identify as cats. But lots of decent people don’t read The Washington Post. They watch Fox News and listen to talk radio instead.

That’s where we are and where we might be going. It’s like the man supposedly said back in 1789, according to the notes of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Mr. McHenry wrote:

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.