Is American democracy doomed?

George Packer (bio here), son of Stanford professors and Yale graduate, and therefore unquestionably an erudite and bright guy, writes in The Atlantic (here):

“A year after the insurrection, I’m trying to imagine the death of American democracy.”

And make no mistake, it was an insurrection, a violent attempt to overthrow our system of government and put in power an unelected strongman who’d just been defeated in a fair election, a scenario reminiscent of third-world backwater countries. Packer continues,

“It’s somehow easier to picture the Earth blasted and bleached by global warming, or the human brain overtaken by the tyranny of artificial intelligence, than to foresee the end of our 250-year experiment in self-government.”

I’ve struggled with that myself, trying to imagine what would follow loss of our democracy.

“The usual scenarios are unconvincing. The country is not going to split into two hostile sections and fight a war of secession.”

I don’t see that happening either. We’re just too mixed up these days. In 1860, most slaveowners were south of the Mason-Dixon line, most abolitionists north of it, and the real conflict was between the industrial north and agricultural south. Then, political divisions had clear geographical dividing lines. They don’t today. Packer continues,

“No dictator will send his secret police to round up dissidents in the dead of night.”

I’m not so sure. Conservatives like Ann Coulter have long talked of “rounding up” and “putting in concentration camps” or “executing” people who think and vote like I do. I tend to take people at their word. Now we see rightwing fanatics acting on such sentiments more and more, by brandishing guns in public buildings, slamming cars into racial justice marchers, and threatening the lives of election and public health workers.

Packer almost seems to yearn for a conventional civil war or secret police knocking on doors, simply because we at least have some idea of how to deal with them:

“Analogies like these bring the comfort of at least being familiar.”

Whereas he sees danger in our unfamiliarity with Trumpism:

“Nothing has aided Donald Trump more than Americans’ failure of imagination. … Before January 6, no one — including intelligence professionals — could have conceived of a president provoking his followers to smash up the Capitol. Even the rioters livestreaming in National Statuary Hall seemed stunned by what they were doing. The siege felt like a wild shot that could have been fatal. … The past months have made it clear that the near miss was a warning shot.”

That’s certainly how I felt about it — that it was a near miss, it could’ve gone the other way, there’s a strong element of luck in the fact we’re not now living under an unelected strongman who has no principles and recognizes no legal or moral boundaries.

“If the end comes, it will come through democracy itself.”

This is multi-layered. While you have a few individuals like Michael Flynn and Mike Lindell who see a military coup as the fastest and most direct path to a rightwing authoritarian government (the problem for them is not that most Americans wouldn’t like it, but that our military won’t cooperate with it), it is our democratic election system that’s the real point of vulnerability. Packer explains,

“Here’s one way I imagine it could happen: In 2024, disputed election results in several states lead to tangled proceedings in courtrooms and legislatures. The Republican Party’s long campaign of undermining faith in elections leaves voters on both sides deeply skeptical of any outcome they don’t like. When the next president is finally chosen by the Supreme Court or Congress, half the country explodes in rage. Protests soon turn violent, and the crowds are met with lethal force by the state, while instigators firebomb government buildings. Neighborhoods organize self-defense groups, and law-enforcement officers take sides or go home. Predominantly red or blue counties turn on political minorities. A family with a biden-harris sign [sic] has to abandon home on a rural road and flee to the nearest town. A blue militia sacks Trump National Golf Club Bedminster; a red militia storms Oberlin College. The new president takes power in a state of siege.”

I actually don’t see it happening that way. He’s right about the GOP campaigning to undermine faith in elections, although let’s be clear that it’s only their followers whose trust of elections is being sapped away. The rest of us see this b.s. for what it is. He’s also right that the purpose of this is to keep their followers, and especially Trump’s faithful followers, enraged. (They’re already enraged.) But from there, I think the scenario takes a different path. Rather than provoking violent street protests and attacks on government buildings, 1917 St. Petersburg style, or ala France’s Bastille, I think it’ll provide cover for GOP legislatures to say election results are “disputed” when they’re indisputable, and override the popular vote to elect (Republican) presidents — I really should say anoint a Republican dictator, whether it’s Trump or someone else — themselves.

I’m much less worried about Republican judges, including those appointed by Trump. We’ve already seen, in a reassuring way, that those Republicans have principle, integrity, are (unlike the rest of their party) committed to the rule of law, and there are strong cultural influences (from their legal training, and the mores and traditions of the legal profession) working on them to prevent their cooperation with the kind of scheme Trump had in mind when he appointed three hardcore conservatives to the Supreme Court (he thought they’d throw out the election if he asked them to; they didn’t). This doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Roland Freisler in America’s future history, but such a murderer in judicial robes won’t come from the ranks of today’s Republican judges. He’ll be recruited from the bottom of the rightwing rain barrel, and the rules will be jiggered so he doesn’t have to have been subjected to the restraining influences of formal legal education.

Packer continues,

“Few people would choose this path,”

which is beside the point, because dictators aren’t elected, and dictatorships make a point of thwarting popular will and imposing their own. In our own country, Trump’s dedicated followers are a minority (the 2020 election proved that), like the Nazis and Bolsheviks were, which didn’t stop them from taking over. And no king in history ever worried about whether the serfs would choose to live under monarchy; he had an army and they didn’t, which settled the question.

Packer continues,

“It’s the kind of calamity into which fragile societies stumble when their leaders are reckless, selfish, and shortsighted.”

I’m not so sure our society or democratic way of life is as fragile as he makes out. Both our society and democracy have had shortcomings, but they stumbled through a Civil War, a Great Depression, two World Wars, slavery and black oppression, Native American genocides, and countless lesser travails and challenges to human decency, and came out the other side with both society and democracy still in one piece.

Packer continues,

“But some Americans actually long for an armed showdown.”

Yes, but we can deal with that, if we have the will. And for now, it appears we do; hundreds of Capitol insurrectionists are being prosecuted, and while many are getting a slap on the wrist, they’ll have records, and by all appearances the most serious perps are looking at prison time. The Charlottesville car attacker is doing life without parole. So are several synagogue attackers. And most of the psychos shooting up schools and other public places aren’t surviving to be prosecuted.

Packer continues,

“In an article for the Claremont Review of Books …”

Look, anything with the Claremont name on it is fascist. If you have the time, do a word search on this blog’s Front Page for “Claremont.” I’ve written about them before. I’ll skip what the article says (a Texan positing an armed conflict between Texas and California, and purporting to predict the outcome), and jump to Packer’s imagining of a more plausible and serious threat:

“Another, likelier scenario is widespread cynicism. Following the election crisis, protests burn out. Americans lapse into acquiescence, believing that all leaders lie, all voting is rigged, all media are bought, corruption is normal, and any appeal to higher values such as freedom and equality is either fraudulent or naive. The loss of democracy turns out not to matter all that much.”

This may describe Republicans in general, and Trumpers in particular, but I think the GOP’s anti-democracy belligerence is having the opposite effect on the rest of us: It’s putting us on high alert.

Packer continues,

“The hollowed core of civic life brings a kind of relief. Citizens indulge themselves in self-care and the metaverse, where politics turns into a private game and algorithms drive Americans into ever more extreme views that have little relation to reality or relevance to those in power. There’s enough wealth to keep the population content.”

I don’t see this happening, either. Young people, often accused of self-indulgence and thought to be too glued to their iPhones to care about the power pole they’re about to drive into, in fact appear to be very engaged with politics, climate change, and all the other moral failures the older generations are dumping on them. (My generation was politically active and despised their parents, too, but the issue then was Vietnam War conscription). As for wealth, it’s mostly in a few hands, and so little is being distributed to the broad population that we’re now witnessing a phenomenon dubbed the Great Resignation (aka “take this job and shove it”). Tens of millions of Americans aren’t quitting their jobs because they can afford to; they’re quitting because the pay is so low they can’t afford not to.

Packer continues,

“We know what’s driving us toward this cataclysm: not simply Trump, but the Republican Party.”

That’s true, as far as it goes, but not the whole story. What’s driving Trump and the Republican Party is the mental immaturity and juvenile behavior of grassroots Republicans, who are throwing toddler tantrums when they don’t get their way. This makes them ripe for exploitation by demagogues, liars, and fascist revolutionaries. These stooges “believe that the last election was stolen and that the next one likely will be too,” a belief that defies all logic.

Packer continues,

“Some have come to embrace the insurrection as a sacred cause.”

I don’t think that describes the average Republican, or even a significant number of Republican senators and congressman. You have Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) giving the rebels a pumped-fist salute, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) whitewashing the violent mob that assaulted cops, smashed windows, and went looking for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi with zip-tie handcuffs as “tourists,” but even these despicable panderers haven’t endorsed the insurrection in such blatantly approving terms. They’ve limited themselves to despicable pandering, not to incite rebellion, but to get votes.

Packer says,

“Ashli Babbitt, the invader killed by a Capitol Police officer, has become a martyr.”

I haven’t seen much of that. Most of my neighbors probably would react to mention of her name with a blank stare, and have to be reminded of who she was. Of course, she’s not a martyr; she’s either a handful of scattered ashes or a dessicated mummy inside a satin-lined crate within a concrete vault of undisclosed location who was killed by police while committing a violent crime. (I’m inclined to go with scattered ashes on this one.)

Packer continues,

“Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers around the country have spent the year stacking state election offices with partisans who can be counted on to do Trump’s bidding next time.”

I’m not disputing that, but I’m not entirely sure this will work out the way Packer thinks it will. While many Republican lawmakers and some GOP election officials trafficked in election lies and conspiracy theories, none of them did Trump’s bidding. It seems that’s a bridge too far, even for them. And there’s a conundrum here: For a Republican election official to assert the election she or he superintended was corrupt is to imply they themselves are either corrupt or ineffective. It’s very hard to get people to paint themselves in such a light. They’re far more likely to say the election they ran had no serious problems, especially when it didn’t, which will be the case nearly every time.

Packer continues,

“[Republican-controlled] legislatures have tried, in many cases successfully, to pass laws that will make it easier to manipulate or overturn election results and intimidate nonpartisan officials by criminalizing minor infractions. In state after state, Republicans have tried to make it harder for Americans, especially Democratic constituencies, to vote.”

This, unlike many of the other bleak scenarios Packer paints, is a real problem. And I don’t have a good answer for it. The best one I can come up with is hoping the Democrats succeed in electing two more senators, so they don’t need Sinema’s and Manchin’s votes — which they’re not going to get — to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights. Some people hope Sinema gets primaried, and she might, which might or might not culminate in a Republican winning her seat in the general election, but that by itself doesn’t solve the problem. There’s zero chance of replacing Manchin with a more cooperative Democrat. You have to go to another state to solve the Manchin problem.

Concern that Republicans might retake the House in 2022 is legitimate, but it’s not the House elected in 2022 that will possess the power to reject legitimately won electoral votes or engineer a House election of a defeated Republican (Trump?) candidate. The House elected in 2024 will be seated before Congress meets in January 2025 to certify a winner. Historically, the party in power tends to lose the midterms, and I’m assuming that will happen this time, but even if Democrats lose the House in 2022 a perception among the electorate that the survival of our democracy is at as much risk in 2024 as it was in 2020 could drive turnout that returns House control to them — and might even erode Republican power further, as the GOP goes farther and farther down the rabbit hole of authoritarianism.

Packer continues,

“In a sense, the Republican Party now functions like an insurgency. It has a legal, legitimate wing that conducts politics as usual and an underground wing that threatens violence.”

I think this is accurate. I also think it a problem, insofar as people keep voting for such a party, but it’s not a problem if they refuse to do so. I’m 100% positive that in many places, like Seattle where I live, Republican candidates still get votes from people who still believe the GOP is still a legitimate party pursuing policies they believe in, and not an incipient violent insurgency seeking to replace our democracy with an authoritarian fascist regime. The problem is they’re deluding themselves; the Republican Party they’re familiar and supported in the past with largely doesn’t exist anymore. At some point they may realize this, and also realize the efforts of “moderate” Republicans to “reclaim” their party will go nowhere. The Trump mob is firmly in control. In any case, those “moderate” Republicans are jellyfish on a par with the worst spineless Democrats. As Packer points out, “Not even Senator Mitt Romney will take a single step that could save democracy.” And Senator Collins is as useless as a rusty nail in a rotting board. Whatever she fancies she’s holding together fell apart long ago, and she doesn’t even know it.

Packer then goes into Democratic failings, including their own lack of imagination — focusing too narrowly, failing to identify the pivotal issues. For details, read the article (linked at the start of this post). He wants “a civic movement to save democracy,” linking to his own essay here. That’s all warm and fuzzy, but I want federal legislation that will prevent partisan — and unprincipled, not to mention stupid — legislatures from overriding the popular vote in their states (a constitutional amendment to that effect being unattainable). Even better, enough states joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (details here) to elect presidents with a national popular vote, instead of 50 piecemeal state popular votes subject to local subversion.

I say stupid, because if Republicans think they can do it, then Democrats can do it, too. And should do it back to them, in states they control. What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander. Fight fire with fire. I don’t want it to come to that. I want a more principled and orderly democracy — independent of which party wins — than that. But I’ll settle for a punching match before complaisant acquiescence in a fascist dictatorship, if someone can somehow get Democrats to punch back.

Poster’s note: I’ve chopped up Packer’s article so much as to make it hard to read. Fair use rules militate against copy-and-paste, but in any case, my purpose in doing so is not to evade those rules but to insert my own commentary and, at points, disagree with Mr. Packer. If The Atlantic thinks I exceeded the bounds of fair use and takes offense, and I get a cease-and-desist letter from their lawyer, I’ll comply and take this posting down. While I judge that possibility to be remote, I don’t entirely rule it out, so you’d better read this posting now instead of waiting until it might not be here. Meanwhile, if wading through this chopped-up version of Mr. Packer’s article is too tedious for you, by all means read the original here. Even better, subscribe to The Atlantic here. Then you can read all their articles without smacking into a paywall, and you’ll be financially supporting their journalism, which now more than ever depends on subscription fees, the advertising-supported model of journalism having imploded.

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