It Isn’t Just Trump: The Roots Of Democracy’s Crisis Are Many and Deep

Tiny American flag in crowd at political rally

[Also published at Huffington Post.] I’ll soon be taking part in a panel discussion on the crisis of democracy.

In preparation, I started a list of answers to the question, “How did we get here?”

I was amazed at how fast that list grew.

Many see Donald Trump as an expression of that crisis — though some look at him and see the problem and others, the solution. But, as my list showed me so clearly, Trump doesn’t come close to being the explanation. And we need one — or more likely, many — as we try to figure out not just how we got here, but where we’re going.

So I’d like to share my list — no doubt still incomplete — and invite your thoughts. Here are some of the reasons I think democracy is in crisis.

The fight, from the founding, over what democracy is. Should the federal government be strong, as Alexander Hamilton argued, or weak, as Thomas Jefferson did? Which is more important, the freedom of the group, or of the individual? How do we balance respecting the will of the people with protecting against demagoguery and mob rule?

… And over what America is. Is the essence of America its democratic creed — as Jefferson asserted — or is it an ethnic homeland, as Andrew Jackson saw it? Under the present administration, the issue is very much alive.

Slavery and its aftermath. Although the Civil War ended in 1865, America only started to become a full democracy a century later, when African-Americans were first able to exercise the franchise in full. To this day, we live with the lingering effects of racial injustice and its twins, shame, and denial. As one example among many…

Voter suppression, supposedly justified by insignificant levels of voter fraud.

The backlash to increasing social equality. Experiments show that people value relative social status more than money. Those close to the bottom are especially afraid of letting others climb past them — one explanation for why poor people sometimes vote against their own economic interest. Others are cultural anxiety — fear of losing one’s traditional culture, independent of active prejudice against others — and outright bigotry.

The backlash to economic inequality, as wealth gains have flowed to the top while wages for the middle while working classes have stagnated. Researchers disagree, though, about how much this drove the recent election results, as compared with ethnic and cultural tensions.

The culture war, especially since the 1960’s, over moral and religious values. Although the Constitution says there can’t be an official religion in the United States, there used to be one by default — church and state only really got separated recently. And for all that liberals saw the 60’s as a time of progress, especially with the advancement of women, minorities and gay people, conservatives saw the beginning of a national decline into chaos. That bolstered their support for law and order, and, potentially, more authoritarian leadership.

The hyper-politicization of the judiciary. FDR may have started it by trying to pack the Supreme Court, but it was 1973’s Roe vs. Wade decision that made politics a litmus test for every new justice thereafter. When one side sees abortion as a civil right and the other sees it as murder, democratic compromise is hard to achieve. So people turn to alternatives, like the courts.

Terrorism, which has scared many of us into compromising democratic values in favor of security.

The abandonment of the Enlightenment and its focus on reason: on the left as well as the right, we increasingly prefer emotion and intuition, whether because of religion, new age spirituality, the self-help industry, Hollywood, or other causes. A related phenomenon is The Death of Expertise as described by author Tom Nichols: on the right and the left, we find people who seem to believe all opinions are equally valid, no matter how ill-informed.

Religious extremism, by which some claim that God’s law should outweigh any that humans create — and that they know exactly how God would vote. It has a long history in the U.S., and grew stronger through the use of media, starting with radio pioneers like Father Coughlin and continuing on TV and the internet.

Illiberal liberalism. The right has its moral absolutists, but the left does, too. Let me be clear, I don’t think it’s “political correctness run amok” to object to hateful speech. But we’ve seen some cases of speakers being silenced simply because others strongly disagreed with them. There’s a reason the First Amendment comes first: to protect democracy, we have to tolerate a lot of disagreement before shutting people down.

The weakening of institutions, including education and journalism, the two pillars that make government by an informed citizenry viable, as our founders well knew.

Uninvolved citizens, with low interest in politics, and low propensity to vote, whether because of loss of faith in the process, or lack of civics education, or…

Entertainment and consumption as opiates of the masses. We seem to be Amusing Ourselves to Death, as author Neil Postman predicted: choosing to surrender our rights and duties as citizens in exchange for endless diversion.

Entertainment industry clichés about politics and government. In movies and TV shows, it’s all corruption, full of shadowy conspiracies, and only the heroic individual can beat it. People who have worked in public service know this is far from true, but many, many Americans are sure that it is.

Scientific marketing of candidates and causes, leading to ever more partisan and divisive campaigns, which are based on pushing psychological buttons instead of making coherent policy arguments. After the birth of modern propaganda in the 1920’s, this trend really got going in the 60’s with the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns, got a big boost from Karl Rove and his data-driven targeting, went hyperbolic in the 90’s with psychologist Frank Luntz’s toxic messaging strategy for Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution, and is now exploiting all the tools that marketing, psychology, and technology have to offer.

Negative branding of government as a political tactic, especially starting with Reagan’s message of “government is the problem, not the solution” message.

Pork barrel politics — as well as less pork barrel politics. Pork barrel spending by Congress causes people to lose faith in the system of checks and balances. But reducing pork, say by banning earmarks, may have the unanticipated side-effect of making Congressional deal-making harder, and recalcitrance easier, by reducing the leverage leaders have over rank and file members.

Gerrymandering, which reduces incentives for compromise.

The removal of restrictions on campaign finance, along with the growth of lobbying, and the new role of billionaires as power brokers to rival the parties. These are also destructive to voters’ faith in the system.

The end of the Fairness Doctrine, making it legal to present opinion and provocation as news, and thereby possible to make huge amounts of money — a segment of media and politics became a highly profitable outrage industry.

The rise of talk radio, digital cable TV, and the internet, leading to the fragmentation of world views, the growth of the outrage industry, and greater reach for extremists.

Urbanization, which has made the rural/urban divide, now much more extreme than it was at the founding — and it was very divisive then, as the hostility between Jefferson and Hamilton showed.

The Big Sort of Americans into like-minded communities, as described by author Bill Bishop, enabled by technologies like electricity, air conditioning, and highways.

Web and social media algorithms that exacerbate the Big Sort by showing people only content that they’re likely to agree with.

Anxiety over the increasing complexity of the world, giving rise to a longing for simple solutions, and making authoritarianism more attractive.

Fake news via scam websites, social media, and organized campaigns, enabled by the near-zero cost of producing and distributing counterfeit information, and the difficulty many of us have detecting it.

Postmodern philosophy going mainstream, migrating from the academic theory to playbook. We now see some political operatives explicitly arguing that reality is whatever we say it is.

What else?

This post was prepared in preparation for the panel discussion “Is There Hope for Democracy?” at the Irvine Auditorium in Monterey, California, on May 17, 2017.

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