Democratic governments rarely collapse with a sudden explosion; they erode – sometimes imperceptibly — as the structure that supports them and the fabric that holds them together slowly weakens until they implode.
The decline in America’s democracy didn’t just start 10 years ago, of course; but it accelerated due to the right-wing reaction when Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president in 2008. No doubt many white Republican men felt threatened by this milestone event; it was an affront to their political dominance. And no doubt their irrational backlash was fueled by the conservative media, conspiracy theorists and Internet bloggers.
The Tea Party movement and the politicians they help elect in 2010 demanded dramatic reductions in government spending but I believe their visceral feelings were more about a black president than deficits. The racial issue, even if subliminal, tainted the discourse on Obama’s policies, making everything he attempted unacceptable.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had his finger in the political wind and assembled his caucus in 2009 for a strategy meeting. The decision was to carefully obstruct everything the popular new president attempted to do. In 2010 McConnell even proclaimed that his sole objective was to make Obama a one-term president. He totally obliterated any hope that the GOP minority would act as the “the loyal opposition” — a concept attributed to the great Republican senator from Illinois, Ev Dirksen. McConnell’s position severely damaged the comity so important for an effective legislative body and stymied compromise with Democrats.
Republicans took control of numerous state governments after the 2010 census and elections. They promptly engaged in a gerrymandering process that is still the subject of litigation. Both parties have engaged in partisan redistricting over the years; but in 2011 Republicans carried it to the extreme. Using racial demographics, they designed ridiculously shaped congressional districts to ensure the election of more Republicans. It worked, but the result was an undemocratic skewing of the election results.
The Supreme Court decision in the 2010 Citizen’s United case stifled democracy like no other in decades. The conservative majority ruled in essence that corporations and unions are people under the free speech clause of the First Amendment and that money is speech. As a result, super PACs and “social welfare” nonprofits were allowed to spend unlimited amounts indirectly supporting candidates for office. This gave wealthy special interests – some of them anonymous – coercive power over candidates for office. Republicans rejoiced; democracy suffered.
McConnell failed with his one-term agenda for Obama but he was very successful in many other ways. He weaponized the filibuster in the Senate to block Obama’s legislative agenda and appointments. In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to bring legislation to the floor for a vote unless it was supported by a majority of his caucus. What ensued was damaging congressional polarization and gridlock. These types of hyper-partisan political maneuvers poison the democratic processes, inviting equally damaging reprisals from Democrats.
In 2012 the conservative majority on the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nine — mostly southern — states would no longer be required to get advanced federal approval to change election laws. Texas, North Carolina and other Republican-controlled states soon enacted strict voter ID laws that shortened early voting days and limited voter registration opportunities. They made it harder for minorities, the elderly and college students to vote. You know, likely Democrats.
These laws have also been the subject of much litigation but the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently dropped a key objection in its case against Texas’ voter ID laws and did a “180” when it switched to supporting Ohio in a case involving an allegedly illegal purging of inactive voters from the rolls. If the DOJ won’t protect citizen’s rights to vote, will the Supreme Court? Well, if Trump and McConnell have their way, the “court of last resort” will have more justices who think like Sessions.
The rapid decline in democracy since 2008 can be attributed in part to the erosion of political “norms.” Harvard professor Steven Levitsky called norms the “soft guardrails for democracy.” They are unwritten rules of conduct, civility and ethics that keep the democratic processes more grounded — on the straight and narrow so to speak.
Many Americans may not be cognizant of these important guidelines that have shaped U.S. democratic governance for decades. Here are a few examples:
· The Justice Department and FBI maintain political independence from the President;
· Presidential candidates disclose their tax returns and are open about their finances;
· The president and government officials relinquish control of their business interests to avoid conflict of interest concerns;
· Politicians don’t suggest that political opponents be jailed.
Historically norms have been effective because officials who violated them were punished by the voters and their peers. Democracy stayed strong. Now, when Trump and Republicans crash through the norm guardrails they are frequently applauded by supporters and ignored by the Republican leadership. This acquiescence creates a pathway to a corrupt, undemocratic government.
Some want to stop the Republican assault on democracy by impeaching Trump. Hopefully, he is forced to resign in disgrace, but I don’t believe impeaching him would be good for the country. It would likely exacerbate the polarization and reprisal politics that can tear a democracy apart.
We need to vote the SOBs out of office. That’s the democratic way.