Monday’s Mtg: Could American Democracy Unravel?

Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.

But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?

To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.

The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones.  Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:

  • Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
  • A broken Republican Party.
  • An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
  • Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
  • A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
  • Growing racial and immigration tensions.
  • Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.

Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
  2. IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
  3. MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
  4. ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
  5. HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy?  (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
  6. SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week:  Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?

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