Forgiveness and Reckoning: Preserving American Democracy in the 21st Century

On January 6, 2021, a mob of frenzied insurrectionists, fueled by the lies of Donald J. Trump and his allies in the Republican Party, stormed the U.S. Capitol building. Their aim, it has become clear, was to overturn the outcome of a free and open election by force of violence. 

Most of us are still processing what happened. It’s going to take a while—certainly months, quite possibly years. But the path forward, whatever shape it ultimately takes, must begin with a clear and honest accounting of what is actually happening in the United States. 

That reality is ugly. Among its many hideous facets: the fact that millions of Americans willing voted for a would-be autocrat, and that one of only two viable political parties in the United States—the Republican Party—has spent the last few decades displaying what can be most charitably described as an increasingly gleeful indifference to representative governance and the rule of law in the United States.

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In the Land of Infants: Partisan Divides in a World Without Discourse

That’s it. We’re through the looking glass. A reality TV star is now president-elect of the United States. The brutal reality of the situation has been difficult to absorb. Watching the electoral map turn red in favor of a deranged carnival barker was truly astonishing.  Feelings? Yeah, I got ‘em: A yawning chasm of disbelief, filled with a potent, bitter cocktail of dread and resentment and anger.

There’s really no point in offering any half-hearted, pusillanimous gesture of diplomacy. The people who voted for Trump made a decision variously stupid, unsavory, and horrid – by all counts difficult (if not impossible) to justify and worthy of strong repudiation. There is no Trump vote that is not rooted in ignorance, racism, self-serving political opportunism, or some combination thereof.

Despite the galling miasma of naivety and misinformation that forms the basis of their political views, I actually don’t hold the view that most Trump supporters are bad people. Some of them are – there’s no denying that part of his success stems from his open appeals to racism and cultural animosity, and, in the this regard, the sudden uptick in attacks on minorities and open white supremacy following immediately on the heels of Trump’s victory is sickeningly telling. But most, I think, aren’t actually bigots. Instead, they’re people who have a few false and unexamined beliefs – about the economic status of the United States, the dangers of a Clinton presidency, the perceived moral and social decay of the nation, the putative causes thereof, etc. – that led them into an extremely poor political choice. They exercised their electoral franchise, as is their right, but did so foolishly.

Apparently, expressing this view is somehow an expression of hatred. That, in any case, is the sentiment I’ve seen echoed across social media in response to moderate and liberal voters who have dared to express any combination of consternation and disapproval at the success of Trump. But this is nonsense. Keep in mind, 59% of Trump supporters (or, more specifically, people with a favorable view of Trump) think President Obama was not born in the United States. 65% think Obama is a secret Muslim. Many Trump voters are also demonstrably racist, with 52% expressing sympathy for the opinion that black people are less evolved than whites. Certainly many of the people who ultimately wound up voting for Trump don’t share these views, but the fact that they cast their lot in with those who do is itself worthy of rebuke. Presumably, they fall into the segment of the Trump coalition who voted the way they did either to stop Hillary Clinton or stimulate change in Washington. Which is weird, because their vote is an implicit endorsement of the perspective that Hillary Clinton is so awful and the U.S. Federal Government so hopelessly corrupt that it is worth aligning themselves with vile, knuckle-dragging bigots to prevent their political opponent from winning.

To this day, I have yet to encounter an argument that justifies the latter position. And that’s not for lack of trying. Vehement, anti-Clinton partisans point, first and foremost, to the vacancy on the Supreme Court  – one that, were congress not polluted with the ideological fanatics and bought-out shitheels that comprise the modern Republican Party, would already have been filled, per constitutional mandate. They see the appointment of a moderate – never mind liberal – judge as a threat to their well-being on the fear that said judge will limit Second Amendment freedoms and hope that a conservative alternative will aid them in their quest to limit reproductive rights. Both opinions are rooted in their own peculiar breed of ignorance, the latter further skewed by the ever-poisonous influence religious zealotry. And tellingly, these concerns expose a fundamental inconsistency in political agenda of the pro-Trump coalition.

Insofar as anyone voted for Trump because they want to see fundamental change in Washington, appointing another conservative to the Supreme Court is a spectacular way to guarantee that never happens. It was the conservative Supreme Court who gave us the Citizens United and McCutcheon vs. FEC decisions. Given the lay of the modern political landscape, our only hope of ever seeing those decisions overturned is through the action of moderate to left-leaning Supreme Court. To the extent that anyone voted for Trump because they’ve lost faith in the legitimacy of U.S. political institutions, their vote will, in a steely twist of irony, have the effect of hastening our march into plutocracy. That is, they will have done their part in accelerating the capture of legislative and regulatory initiatives by wealthy special interests, thereby making government less responsive to the average voter and, as a result, less legitimate in most voter’s eyes.

The anti-Clinton/liberal Trump voter is also commonly a creature beholden to the discredited principles of free-market fundamentalism. They see in Trump the prospect for much-needed market liberalization and deregulation, in line with the view that an open, uninhibited market is the best recipe for economic and social prosperity. The more people are able to freely pursue their raw economic self-interest, unencumbered by rules and regulations, the better off everyone will be. This is a view perfectly consistent with the principles of neoclassical economics. Consequently, it’s considered convenient – even, perversely, morally laudable – to ignore the fact that many of the core assumptions underlying beliefs about market optimality and the infinite wisdom of the invisible hand – and therefore all policy prescriptions based therein – are false, repeatedly disproven in the lab and in the field. Markets are only sensitive to relatively short-term feedbacks, measured exclusively in profit. Any interest in mitigating harmful environmental or social side-effects of market behavior, particularly those that will be primarily felt by spatially or temporally distant populations – i.e., people living miles away from the polluting factors and generations in the future – can only be satisfied through regulation. Those old enough can remember the pollution and litter of a world before the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the EPA. Provided Trump and the ideological fanatics in congress get their way – and they manage to live another ten or fifteen years – they might be in for a rather unsettling bit of deja vu. Likewise, if you enjoy a forty-hour work week, anything resembling a living wage, and a work environment that is not completely indifferent to your physical well-being, you have government regulation to thank for it.

None of which is to say regulation can’t be ill-conceived and stifling. There is a strong argument to made that the reach of government regulation – the petty micromanaging of business behavior by bloated bureaucracies – hasn’t grown in some ways economically and socially debilitating. But the people Trump supporters elected to fix government overreach are ideological fanatics, many of them financially beholden to special interests that stand to benefit enormously from a wholesale gutting of the government’s regulatory capacity. That might free up some small business from the burden of onerous bureaucratic meddling, but in the long run, it’ll spell social and economic disaster. There’ll be a few short-run winners, profiting enormously from the work of the lunatics and mendacious sycophants they’ve bought in Washington. But in the end, almost everyone else stands to lose.

So yeah, I think the best we can say of the people who voted for Trump is that they made a dangerously ignorant decision. And I make no apologies about expressing that view. In the most optimistic, permissive reading, these men and women sided with racist jackals and gibbering far-right lunatics for the purpose making sure a Democrat didn’t take the White House. Their justifications for doing so are frail, rooted in misinformation and ideological zealotry, tottering on the razor-edge of outright inanity.

And there we have the deeper, darker truth running right through the heart of this sociopolitical clusterfuck. Almost half (47%) of the people who supported Trump in the days following the Republican National Convention said they did so to prevent Hillary Clinton from taking office. And the same numbers held for Clinton: half of her supporters were motivated by what political scientists call negative partisanship. Putting aside how justifiable either view is – I’d rather not waste any more time kicking that rotting horse carcass – this simple fact tells us something incredibly troubling about the state of American democracy.

Critically, it tells us that neither party is doing much of a good job satisfying the interests of their constituents. Instead of voting for candidates that offer exciting policy agendas, the American electorate is locked in a perpetual holding action against their political opponents. For all the reasons I outlined above, I detest the Republican Party. But I detest the Democratic Party only slightly less. They are both beholden to special interests and indifferent to the will of most voters. Indeed, much of the blame for Trump’s victory rests with the Democratic Party, who worked to undermine a popular movement in order to nominate an intensely flawed, deeply compromised candidate. Absent the looming monstrousness of Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats deserved to lose.

But here’s the rub: when I say I detest the Republican Party, I mean just that: the private organization that works to pave the way for corporate feudalism in service to rabid greed and unhinged ideological fanaticism. I’m frequently disappointed and frustrated by the people who vote them into office, keeping that vile organization afloat election cycle after election cycle, and I make no bones about expressing that view. But when I say a decision to vote for Trump could be permissibly described as ignorant, that is not a whole-cloth dismissal of individual voters, much less an expression of hatred. That people think otherwise is, ironically, an expression of ignorance over what it means to be ignorant. Most people are ignorant about most things, because nobody has the time to develop expertise – or even rounded familiarity – in more than a few subjects. That means they will be knowledge about a few things and ignorant about most others. True of me just as much as a Trump voter.

Social media has been filled with venom and rancor these past few days, diluted by callow calls for love and unity. This misses the point entirely. Now is the time for vociferous criticism and debate. Our widespread unwillingness or inability to engage in these things is surely partial cause to the ideological insularity that fosters such deep partisan antipathy. When someone says your view on a subject reeks of ignorance, don’t respond with some tepid plea that they stop attacking your view or, worse still, the milquetoast inanity that “everyone’s entitled to their own opinions”. Answer them back. Explain how and why your view or choice was well-informed. Do so sternly and directly, but avoid personal attacks and name-calling. Until the citizens of the United States learn how to not only tolerate, but actively celebrate, difficult, uncomfortable conversations about cherished beliefs and political opinions, we can only expect our partisan divides to worsen.

When I write these blogs, it’s always in the ultimately vain, pitifully naive hope that they will encourage a serious conversation with someone who disagrees with me. Yet I post them on social, media, and this is the response I get:

childrenIs it really a surprise that I eventually begin to nurture a bit of antipathy towards these people. I read books and thoughtful analyses from reputable sources while working to eschew overtly partisan outlets. I fact-check and source and verify, then I synthesize all of that information into a political opinion. The people who disagree with me typically respond in a way that could generously described as extremely childish. I imagine the same is true of conservatives who post thoughtful essays – greeted by vitriol and insults and a barrage of vapid political memes. (By the way, if your political commentary consists primarily of shared-memes, your political commentary is, at best, worthless – more likely, it’s outright damaging, serving only to reinforce and exacerbate partisan divides.)

Of course, I am capable of reasoning beyond my emotional responses. As embarrassing and counterproductive as these people’s political discourse is, I don’t for a second believe I can extrapolate from it to a complete picture of who they are as individuals. Some of them probably help strangers stranded on the side of road, or lend their neighbors a hand during tough times. All of them probably think their family is important, value loyalty among friends, prize hard work and self-reliance, and really only want what’s best for themselves, their family, and their country. The same is true of almost everyone in the United States, regardless of political persuasion.

The trick we’ve all got to master is this: remembering how much most of us share – regardless of heritage, sexual preference, religion, or political affiliation – while taking the bold plunge into a world filled with hard conversations. It is critical that we all learn to talk with one another and recognize that sometimes unpleasant political discourse is part of the price for living in a free and open society under the rule of a representative government. Debate and persuasion are at the core of the democratic experiment. It will, without doubt, fail if we reduce our friends and neighbors and political opponents to tribal abstractions, vilifying those who disagree with us from within the cloistered halls of an ideological echo chamber. Match your hopes for America with a willingness to do something difficult. That means weaning yourself off insipid appeals to unity and instead talking with someone you disagree with. If you can do this without raising your voice or calling the other person a name, you’ll have achieved a real victory – both for yourself and for American democracy.

American Plutocracy and the Restoration of Representive Government

Functionally speaking, the United Sates is now as much a plutocracy as it is a republic. This is not a rhetorical statement – it is well supported by the available evidence. Sure, in any given election, the voters decide among an array of options. But the set of viable candidates is dictated by the exigencies of funding. Following the Citizens United ruling, more of this funding than ever comes from a small minority of extraordinarily wealthy individuals. Consequently, congressional representatives must consider their appeal to these donors as much as their appeal to ordinary citizens. In that sense, much (probably most) of the national political agenda is sculpted to match the interests of less than 0.05% of Americans.

Below, Lawrence Lessig not only points out that this is the most important problem facing the United States – the problem that must be solved before any other matter of social, environmental, economic, or political importance can be meaningfully addressed – he also suggests some potential solutions.