Looking at where America currently stands in terms of adherence to its democratic norms, I feel like Vito Corleone in The Godfather, when he asked rhetorically at a meeting with the other heads of the Mafia families, “How did things get so far?”
Two respected scholars in the field of democracy, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their new book, How Democracies Die, offer critical insight to my largely rhetorical question.
The American electorate has selectively legitimized undemocratic behavior. Selectively, because our tolerance only possesses bandwidth for the political side that we align.
We are caught in the vortex of harmful quid pro quo behaviors that have created a “new normal” within our democratic traditions. And no, in case you’re wondering, the blame cannot be placed solely at the feet of President Donald Trump.
As Levitsky and Ziblatt cite, Republicans in the 90s led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, unleashed this most recent assault on our democratic norms with the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton and the government shutdown. Because of the cyclical nature of politics, Democrats led by Senator Harry Reid became obstructionists during the second term of President George W. Bush.
During the presidency of Barack Obama, the Republican leadership in Congress, almost from day one, made clear they had no intention of working with him. Obama responded by weaponizing the use of the executive order. In our current climate, should anyone be surprised the current president has utilized similar methodologies?
I’m not certain Newton’s Third Law, for every action there is a reaction, applies to violations of democratic norms. Enshrinement of behaviors that are beyond democratic guardrails is determined by the reaction to the initial act.
This harmful quid pro quo was on display at the recent State of the Union address. Many Democrats refused to stand when the president entered the chamber. Like their Republican colleagues during the Obama presidency, they mistakenly conflated the individual with the office. The collective result: the office of president is further devalued.
Like moths, these behaviors eat away at the fabric of our democracy. However justified one may feel in the moment, there comes a point where we can justify our way into oblivion.
When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decided not to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, he was not in violation of the Constitution, but he was in my view, in violation of the spirit of our democracy. His stated rationale was that a president with less than a year remaining in office should not put forth a Supreme Court nominee.
Supposing momentarily Democrats regain the majority in the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, could they not arbitrarily decide that two years remaining on a president’s term is too short to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should one become available?
The Democratic faithful would most likely support efforts to stonewall any additional Trump nominations to the Court, while Republicans would develop talking points demonstrating how this scenario was “different”.
The problem lies not in the reflexive behavior of elected officials but our collective reaction to it. We embrace the behavior of the side we align while bemoaning the opposition, thereby becoming complicit in the demise of democratic norms. Using the mantra made famous by former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “Just win baby,” we see only virtuous outcomes for the side we support no matter how far they stand beyond the democratic guardrails.
According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, North Carolina has become a microcosm of our deep partisan divide nationally. A diverse, purple state, with a world-class university system, on a trajectory to become the “Silicon Valley of the East.” But the “Bathroom bill” and racially engineered gerrymandering, along with other policies created an ethos of politics defined by a zero-sum game.
When the polarities are radicalized, governing, which is already a challenging enterprise, becomes more restrictive. The point being, when hyper-partisanship becomes dominant, the institutions become tools to that end rather than serving as the guardrails that were originally intended.
As long as we view the opposition as something to dread rather than Americans with different perspectives, nothing will change. When democratic norms are at stake, to merely opine the ends justify the means; are we not systematically cheapening those standards that hold our democratic-republic together?
The failure to recalibrate our commitment to well established democratic norms, we will have no other choice than to ask the clarifying question I saw several years ago on a bumper sticker: “Where are we going; and why am I in this hand basket?”
Rev. Byron Williams is one of the leading public theologians in the nation. He is a columnist, author, and adjunct professor at Wake Forest University. He is also host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, and the forthcoming The Radical Declaration: An Enlightened Ideal Learn more >