The Threat to Our Democracy

By Mike Koetting

January 25, 2018

My last post raised the issue of achieving the proper balance between individual and collective welfare.  I do think that’s the fundamental problem for any democracy.  But, before that question becomes relevant, there has to be a functioning democracy.  We in America tend to take that for granted.  But right now, I am a bit concerned about how our country is faring.

The authoritarian impulses of Trump are part of these concerns.  However, notwithstanding the long term damage he maybe causing, I am less worried about the Trump administration per se.  He is so far off the American norm, I am relatively confident the institutions that we know will hold him in check until a more suitable replacement is installed.  I, optimistically, see it as a temporary aberration.  I am more worried about the longer-term threats of which Trump is more a symptom than a cause.

Democracy is much more than simply being able to elect leaders.  It requires a sufficiently shared view by a society that elections are not revolutions, but a shift in direction within the common framework.  It is very hard to make a democracy function when the competing visions are so starkly different that any compromise seems like a craven betrayal, and each election offers the possibility of not merely a shift of direction, but a reversal of the most fundamental norms.

Likewise, democracy requires simultaneously accepting that, while the outcome of an election is final, the voice of those who lost is nevertheless important because they are also colleagues in the project of governing.  Without that understanding, each side is tempted to take steps to permanently impair the other side because the alternatives are so stark.

Since at least the 1930’s, America has been able to maintain the largely shared vision of a liberal democracy, liberal in the more classic sense:  commitment not just to a rule of law, but an idea that government is important in both strengthening and managing the forces of capitalism and in preserving, even extending, human rights.  There were differences between Democrats and Republicans on how to accomplish these goals, but the general vision was sufficiently common that the system worked reasonably well.  To be fair, there were always strange undercurrents.  For years, the Democratic Party was a coalition of workers and southerners whose opposition to human rights made progress on that issue difficult, often impossible.

Today this common vision of a liberal democracy feels under attack and the traditional defenders, our political parties, are weakened.  The Democrats are weakened by factions, one of which is insufficiently critical of capitalism and too removed from the politico-emotional needs of their traditional base in the white working class; and the other so wary of capitalism their proposals will be impossible to attract a majority.  The Republicans have even bigger problems.  Their traditional ideas, which oxymoronically can best be described as liberal conservative, are unable to attract more than a fraction of the electorate.  To compensate, they have followed the opportunism of Nixon and have allied with that material portion of the population that is simply against the ideas of liberal democracy and what it implies.  To sustain this marriage of opportunity, Republicans have thrown over many of their traditional values.  (Remember, Republicans were the party of Lincoln and were the standard bearer for human rights for the first 100 years after the Civil War.)  To hold power, they have allied with that part of the population–dispirited by demographic changes, extension of full rights to minorities and increasing economic inequality—that is driven by anger more than a vision of how government could best serve the broader interests of the people.  This group is, in reality, nothing more than an anti-system party.  Harold Myerson, in The American Prospect, called them “neo-Confederates”—”a compendium of the bigoted, sectionalist, xenophobic, patriarchal, anti-paid-labor, anti-empirical, [and] anti-majoritarian….”


At Chicago Women’s March (January 20, 2018)

Incorporation of this part of the population into the Republican party—perhaps more accurately, the apparent conversion of the Republican Party into the Party of Trumpism–has nudged our country into a realm where voting is not choosing between variants of a social democratic vision, but voting to determine if we will have a social democratic vision.

Addressing health care, federal deficits, environmental issues, rebuilding decaying infrastructure, the demonstrably growing gap between the rich and the not rich, immigration, and a host of other issues is essential to governing America in the 21st Century.  The inability to even have meaningful discussions about issues of this magnitude is truly scary.  Our grasp of a functioning democracy seems a bit tenuous.

It is misleading to view the situation through the lenses of historic relationships between the Democrats and Republicans.  Historically, these two parties each had their fringes, but because of the common vision at the center, were able to govern, mostly effectively.  But now the Republicans have been taken over by the fringe.  It is like a company that, worried about security, hired a Mob guy for protection and bit by bit the Mob took over the firm as a legitimate front for shady Mob business.  At least for the time being, the historic Republican Party exists only on paper.  The majority of those using that name is a collection of people who, in truth, have little use for democracy as we know it, financed largely by individuals with extreme ideology who—coincidentally? — have huge economic interests in rolling back the ideas of liberal democracy.  It is more extreme than if in the 1950’s the Democrats had turned over the party lock, stock and barrel to their southern fringe.

We see this in what’s going on in individual states—where Republicans have used their majorities, however narrow, to take gerrymandering to new heights, to pass voter suppression laws, and to prohibit jurisdictions from adopting measures that reflect the majority will of those jurisdictions.  These are measures explicitly aimed at limiting participation in government.  These tactics call into question, notwithstanding any lip-service given on the Fourth of July, the idea that there is a common vision of what democratic government means.

How serious is this?  In its annual report on human rights and democracy, Freedom House summarizes it thusly (

Although U.S. institutions like the press and the judiciary have remained resilient in the face of unprecedented attacks from President Trump, the attacks could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious implications for the health of U.S. democracy and America’s place in the world. Meanwhile, the abdication of the traditional U.S. role as the leading champion of democracy is of deep concern and potential consequence in the ongoing struggle against modern authoritarians and their pernicious ideas.

Countries that have maintained a democracy for a number of years have rarely regressed to “undemocratic.”  Still, we should be concerned.  I don’t think the most full-blown crisis for American democracy is at hand, but it is unquestionable that warning signs are at hand.  We might want to rethink any easy assumption that “it couldn’t happen here”.

It would certainly help if the Democrats were able to bridge their own divisions and offer an alternative that:

  • Realizes that addressing economic issues for all members of the working class requires a more fundamental critique of capitalism without throwing it over
  • Develops a language of human rights that underlines fundamental fairness rather than emphasizing divisions

Both of these are very tall orders.  It is much easier to offer these sound-bite descriptions than to figure out how that translates to specific candidates, campaigns, and policies.  The country is divided and doesn’t seem particularly open to new ideas.  But right now, it seems like the future of American democracy might depend on it.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: