Democracy on Trial

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, December 3, 2023 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime, et al)

Our American democracy is on trial. The jury in that trial is we, the people. Our verdict will determine democracy’s future.

Over the past year, much of the political news has been dominated by stories about Donald Trump’s four indictments, the 91 counts against him, and the trials they’ve precipitated.

These trials will have direct consequences for the former president. They will have significant and indirect consequences for our American democracy as well.

There is a myriad of other factors that are putting our democracy on trial during these perilous times. The three major ones we discuss in this blog are: Congressional Chaos; Convoluted Politics; and a Country Divided.

Congressional Chaos

The 112th Congress which was in office from January 3, 2011, to January 3, 2013, may have been the worst Congress in history.

That’s hard to determine objectively. It is easy to determine, however, that the 112th Congress was the least productive Congress ever.

Those were the opening lines of a Chapter titled “Congressional Dysfunction: Beltway Blues” in our book Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, published in 2013.

Fast forward one decade to the 118th Congress which has been in office since January 3, 2023 and will exit office on January 3, 2025. It appears that, due to the performance of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, this current Congress is positioned to be named both the worst and least productive Congress in history.

In terms of productivity, the 112th Congress passed a total of 220 laws. To date, at about its midpoint, according to Legiscan, the 118th Congress has passed a total of 18 laws with 11 coming from the House. At this rate, the 118th Congress might pass as few as 40 laws during its time in office.

It’s not the lack of productivity, however, that would win the 118th Congress the award for being the worst Congress ever. It is the virtually total disarray shown by the Republicans as the majority party in the House of Representatives.

That disarray:

  • Began in January of this year with the 15 ballots required to give the speakership to Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca)
  • Extended for months thereafter, with the minority who blocked his speakership speaking out and exercising control in the positions of power and influence McCarthy gave them to gain the speakership.
  • Moved to McCarthy’s unprecedented ouster as Speaker on October 3 orchestrated by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and 7 of his extreme right Republican associates.
  • Continued for three weeks with no speaker as candidates such as Steve Scalise (R-La), Jim Jordan (R-Oh), and Tom Emmer (R-Mn) not passing muster and getting the necessary votes to become speaker.
  • Culminated on October 25th with the election of the relatively unknown Mike Johnson (R-LA) as the speaker.

Many pundits have referred to the period from January 3 to October 25 as a time of congressional chaos. For a brief moment, there was hope that the chaos might be coming to a close.

That hope began to disappear after more was learned about Speaker Johnson, an evangelical Christian, a staunch MAGA Trump-supporting lawyer who helped organize and lead the election denial efforts against the results of the 2020 elections, an anti-abortion activist, and an opponent of the LGBTQ community and same sex marriage.

The hope further disappeared when, early on October 27, Johnson proclaimed, after the shooting and killing of 18 in Maine, that the problem in mass shootings was not guns or access to them but “the human heart.” And after the House passed a $14.3 billion bill for aid to Israel to be offset by reducing funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which was the first piece of legislation passed under Johnson’s leadership, the hope for an end to congressional chaos disappeared altogether.

That concern abated somewhat when Johnson proposed a two-part “laddered” approach to avoid a government shutdown on November 17 by funding agencies such as Transportation and HUD until January 19, and agencies such as the Departments of State and Defense until February 2.

The bill was passed in the House with a total of 336 votes: 209 Democrats and 127 Republicans. 93 Republicans voted against the bill. This split within the Republican Party is indicative that there could be a cataclysm in the future.

Convoluted Politics

How has the situation in the House and the Republican Party grown so bad, with collegiality, civility, and compromise being seen as dirty words? This is the case because in this 21st century the Republican Party, which was once the party of presidents Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan, is no longer the same party.

Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein focused an early bright spotlight on the party’s downward trajectory in their 2012 bookIt’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the Politics of Extremism, in which they assert:

“Today’s Republican Party … is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.”

That was Mann and Orenstein’s harsh assessment more than a decade ago. In the past ten years, the Republican Party, which was once a bastion of conservative values and fiscal responsibility, no longer exists. That is why, in March of 2021, we published a blog titled “RIP GOP. Hello POT.”

POT stands for Party of Trump. We first called the Republican Party the Party of Trump in 2017, shortly after Trump was elected president. We reiterated that label in 2020, shortly before the national election in that year because of the obvious stranglehold he had on the Republican Party.

As we noted in our 2021 blog, the tragic storming of the Capitol on January 6, inspired by Trump, did nothing to reduce that stranglehold. Nor has any of the unsavory things he has said or done since.

Jeremy Peters, reporter for the New York Times and a MSNBC contributor, authored a book, Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted, which details how Trump appealed to and mobilized the religious right, social conservatives, and others, such as gun rights activists, to wrest control of the Party from its traditional leadership. When Peters’ book was released in February 2022, both the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law and Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air used the Party of Trump in their headlines for their sessions for discussing that book with Peters.

In summary, the Republican Party is a misnomer. We believe the Party of Trump is a more appropriate and precise term — but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

A Country Divided

That story is that Donald Trump has been able to take the divides in this country and turn them to his political advantage. He did not create those divides, but he has managed to exploit, widen, and deepen them by creating his cult of MAGA followers.

A cult, as we defined it in earlier blogs, is a group of people with extreme dedication to a certain leader and set of beliefs. The important elements of that definition are a “certain leader” and “a set of beliefs.” In this instance, Trump is that certain leader, embodying, magnifying, and legitimating a set of beliefs.

Some of those beliefs are the beliefs of the members. The others are those of Trump himself. There is a reciprocity in this relationship that’s mutually beneficial to the cult specifically, and harmful to society in general. In a phrase, this is a cult of personality and aligned personalities.

Divides in our country are nothing new. They date back to this country’s founding, flow through the Civil War, and continue until today.

As we observed in our 4th of July blog this year, however:

Sadly, in 2023, this nation is more divided than it is united.

This division is not a recent occurrence, but it has intensified over the past several years. As we wrote in blogs published in 2022, we are becoming “The Island States of America.” In those Island States, states’ rights dominate and the country is becoming increasingly balkanized.

The U.S. Constitution provided the basis for the elevation and supremacy of states’ rights. The Trump administration took advantage of this in order to reverse-engineer the nation. After his defeat in 2020, Trump’s persistent insistence that the election was stolen and perpetuation of the Big Lie has caused his supporters and leaders at the state level to take actions to continue to widen the divide.

It’s not just the divide between red states and blue that matters. The divide that will be determinative for the future of our democracy is the “state of mind” of many Americans today. This state of mind, regarding how they define democracy and how well it is working, is greatly affected by which political party one belongs to, where one lives, and whether their party is in charge.

It also results in partisan hostility, borne out of what academics have labeled “affective polarization.” Affective polarization is when peoples’ feeling or attitudes toward those in their own party or group grow more positive, and the feelings or attitudes towards those in the other party or group become more negative.

An August 2022 study by the Pew Research Center “found that majorities of both parties viewed the opposition as immoral, dishonest, close-minded, and unintelligent — judgements that grew even more adverse, by 13 to 28 points from 2016 to 2022.”

“Affective polarization” is not just feelings and attitudes about those in the opposite party, but those in other groups such as those of a different race, religion, or gender. For many Americans, those feelings and attitudes are “hardened beliefs.”

Those beliefs are core values, attitudes, and opinions developed early in life. They are immutable and become the basis for what is referred to as “identity politics,” through which people’s perceptions regarding those different than themselves shape their political and personal agendas and actions. (For more detail and insights on “affective polarization” and “identity politics” refer to our 4th of July blog and an excellent article by Thomas Edsall of the New York Times.)

Problems for Our Democracy

These are perilous times for our American democracy, with serious threats to its future. We and others have written extensively about this since the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009. During that period, the threats have increased and democracy’s future has been put more at risk.

Three books released this year that address the current dire condition of our democracy from different perspectives are: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point; Heather Cox Richardson’s Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America; and Adam Kinzinger’s Renegade: Defending Democracy and Liberty in Our Divided Country.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard University, and the authors of the best-selling How Democracies Die, published in January of 2018. In their new book, they note that in 2016 the United States was on the “brink of a multi-racial democracy…’ but that “…America experienced an authoritarian backlash so bad that it shook the foundations of the republic.”

They go on to state that “…the assault on American democracy was worse than anything we anticipated when we were writing our first book…” They further observe, “Nor did we ever imagine that one of America’s two major parties would turn away from democracy in the twenty-first century.”

Based upon their analysis, Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude, “Part of the problem we face today lies in something many venerate: our Constitution…But flaws in our Constitution now imperil our democracy.” They explain:

Designed in a pre-democratic era, the U.S. Constitution allows partisan minorities to routinely thwart majorities, and sometimes even govern them. Institutions that empower partisan minorities can become instruments of minority rule. And they are especially dangerous when they are in the hands of extremist or anti-democratic partisan minorities.

Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, and author of the best-selling Substack newsletter, Letters from an American, doesn’t trace the roots of democracy’s problem back to the U.S. Constitution. But she does take it back for seventy years to the conservative control of the Republican Party.

In his review of Democracy Awakening for The Guardian, Charles Kaiser notes:

Since the 1950’s, Richardson writes, conservatives have fought to destroy “the active government of the liberal consensus, and since the 1980’s Republican politicians [have] hacked away at it” but still “left much of the government intact.” With Trump’s election in 2016, the nation had finally “put into office a president who would use his office to destroy it.” Republicans fought for 50 years for an “end to business regulation and social services and the taxes they required.” Trump went even further by “making the leap from oligarchy to authoritarianism.”

Former U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) who, along with Liz Cheney (R-WY), was one of the two Republican on the House’ January 6th Select Committee, tells his life story in Renegade, and concentrates on democracy’s current and potential future problems in his commentary in the book.

In the Introduction, Kinzinger writes:

We have just survived the most threatening attack on our democracy since the Civil War. This success, and today’s demonstration of the reality of the dysfunctional reality of a party that has become Donald Trump’s cult of personality, prove that we are stronger than many expected. It is not the crisis that matters, but how we respond. I am arguing for us to prepare for the next one, which without our vigilant opposition, could lead to the breakup of the country.

Protecting Our Democracy

There is much that needs to be done to strengthen our democracy over the long term. (For thoughts and recommendations on this, click here.) In the short term, though, the critical issue is what to do in the upcoming presidential and national election year of 2024 to protect our democracy by preventing the “next crisis.”

The potential for a “next crisis” was highlighted in the findings of New York Times/Siena College “swing states” poll released in early November, and Washington Post reporting examining Donald Trump’s plans and priorities if he is the Republican nominee and wins the presidency.

The “swing states” poll focused on the six states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin which could determine the results of the 2024 election showed that, if the presidential election contest was between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Trump would win the first five states and Biden would only win the state of Wisconsin. This poll also showed that, in general, those people surveyed were more approving of Trump’s accomplishments and candidacy.

Donald Trump’s priorities and plans if he is re-elected appear to be based upon the 3 R’s. For Trump those R’s are not reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic but Revenge, Retaliation and Retribution. On November 5, the Washington Post published an article by Isaac Arnsdorf, Josh Dawsey, and Devlin Barrett, which begins as follows:

Donald Trump and his allies have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term, with the former president naming individuals he wants to investigate or prosecute, and his associates drafting plans to potentially invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.

The individuals on Trump’s hit list include former chief of staff John F. Kelly, former attorney general William P. Barr, and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark A. Milley.

On November 8, the Washington Post published an analysis by Aaron Blake identifying the following five tactics the Trump administration would employ in a second term:

1. Use the Justice Department for political purposes

2. Purge the government and install loyalists

3. Consolidate power in the presidency

4. Pardon January 6 insurrectionists

5. Crack down on immigrants harder, with extraordinary tools

Add all of this up and 2024 could either be a tipping point or a pivot point year for democracy.

A “tipping point” as we defined it in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again, is “a point in which a system is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a state of instability.” A “pivot point” is “an area that must be leveraged and addressed effectively in order to effectuate change and effectuate positive outcomes.”

If Trump runs again and wins, that would definitely make 2024 a tipping point year. If Biden runs again and wins, that would provide the opportunity to make 2024 a pivot point year.

We had hoped Biden’s victory in 2020 would have provided a pivot point. But because of the Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, his re-election candidacy and continuous campaigning, and other factors, such as those identified at the beginning of this blog, that pivot did not occur.

Given this, in 2024 democracy will be on trial. Its future will be in the hands of and determined by the electorate. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book assert, “Our Institutions will not save our democracy. We will have to save it ourselves.”

In his powerful concluding statement as a member of the January 6th Select Committee, Adam Kinzinger expressed a similar sentiment proclaiming:

The militant, intolerant ideologies, the militias, the alienation and disaffection, the weird fantasies, and disinformation, they’re still all out there and ready to go. But if January 6th has reminded us of anything, I pray it reminded us: laws are just words on paper.

They mean nothing without public servants dedicated to the rule of law and who are held accountable by a public that believes oaths matter — oaths matter more than party tribalism or the cheap thrill of scoring political points. We the people must demand more of our politicians and ourselves. Oaths matter.

The future of our American democracy is in our hands as twenty-first century citizens. As good citizens we have both the rights and the responsibilities to ensure that democracy is protected and strengthened so that it can survive through the 21st century and continue to make progress toward becoming the more perfect union envisioned by our founders.