This is Democracy at work….or not

By Mike Koetting October 31, 2021

I am infuriated with the barrage of media comments about Democrats “in disarray” or “being divided”. Hello, boys and girls! This is democracy. People stake out different policy positions, argue about them, and make compromises. It doesn’t happen overnight and hardly anyone winds up totally happy. The issues in the infrastructure package are of mind-boggling complexity and in degree they are all interrelated.

This is what all the people who have been clamoring for “bipartisan” legislation have wanted: debate and measured compromises around policies to make them a better reflection of the varied will and needs of the populace.

Okay, it’s true this is all within what’s nominally one party—although, as the debates have made clear, these poles represent a very large spectrum of American political thought. In that sense, it is the closest to “bipartisan” that America can now get because the Republican Party has simply opted out of policy discussions. They automatically oppose anything that Democrats support and have ceased making policy proposals of their own. Waiting for a meaningful proposal to come from Republicans is waiting to hear the sound of one hand clapping.

Mitch McConnell’s comment that the elements of the Build Back Better proposal are not things Americans are asking for is simply absurd. Family leave, environmental amelioration, infrastructure….how can one say with a straight face these are not things the American people want? Sure, there are differences over details. But that’s what the legislative process should be about—and is what the Democratic Party is doing. Of necessity, by itself.

This is the healthcare debate all over. Republicans never had alternatives to what was being proposed (or, in fact, enacted). As John Boehner later admitted: “In the 25 years that I served in the United States Congress, Republicans never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like. Not once.” But that did not stop them from opposing everything in the Obama proposal—originally a Republican proposal–and then spend years trying to repeal it without any alternative.

Just as it was absurd to argue that American healthcare in 2008 was just fine, it is absurd to pretend, as the Republican Party has done, that America doesn’t need to make substantial infrastructural expenses. But instead of participating in a discussion about the specifics of policy, they have simply opposed everything.

Almost all of the provisions of the Build Back Better proposal have very high levels of popular support, many even among Republicans. But the official Republican position is to excuse themselves from having to have real policy proposals on these issues by simply following Mitch McConnell and rejecting them as valid areas for legislative involvement. It is no accident that the Republicans didn’t even have a policy platform in 2020. That would have required a commitment to something beyond obstructionism.

Media Has the Wrong Story

The media conversation should not be about the disagreements in the Democratic Party. Those disagreements are the appropriate hallmark of people trying to get something done democratically. They look “divided” only in comparison to the lock-step unanimity of Republicans—which is a lot easier to obtain when all you’re doing is rejecting whatever Democrats come up with.

The media should instead be focusing on the unwillingness of the Republican Party to engage in working out the difficult details of policy to make America a better place to live. In fact, the real question the media should be asking is whether, once a party has opted out of participating in the policy process, have they opted out of democracy itself?

We tend to equate democracy with voting. But the mere act of voting is not a measure of democracy. (See Russia, Hungry and many others.) Democracy is when there is a mechanism for people to participate—directly and indirectly—in the determination of polices that impact them. If a political party no longer participates in the give and take of policy formulation, they have opted out of the democratic project.

And that is even before taking account of the work of Republican legislatures in rewriting voting provisions to discourage voting and, more dangerously, to overturn actual election results when they don’t approve of the outcome.

I think it is time to face the fact that the Republican Party is morphing into a fascist party. Many of you may recoil at that term and think I’ve gone too far. Perhaps. But maybe that is because when we hear the term “fascists” we immediately think of jack-booted Nazis, conclude that is not the Republican Party and decide my use of the term is rhetorical excess.

But we are kidding ourselves if we think the Nazis are the only representation of fascism. The textbook definition of fascism is a political movement that embraces far right nationalism and the authoritarian suppression of opposition. It doesn’t require thugs roaming the streets to creep into fascism. The Republicans are backing into “respectable” fascism: all the trimmings of democracy but replacing the messy substance with a ruling party that achieves by fiat and convinces enough people that is what they wanted.

What does the current Republican Party stand for if not this? Maintenance of power through whatever means and agenda—to the extent it has one—to “restore” America to some hazy glory days that never existed, but with which they can cudgel people who are not inclined to support them. Do we really believe the leaders of the Republican Party give a fig about abortion? Or that they think Critical Race Theory, however construed, is a threat to our children, beyond puncturing the illusions of past greatness. Or that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election? Or care what bathrooms transgender people use? (Note that authoritarian governments everywhere are obsessed with homosexuals.)

It seems to me Republicans have given up the pretense of democracy if democracy means participating in the give and take of policy, accepting the results of elections, and not gerrymandering districts to allow a minority to “out vote” the majority.

I have for a long time resisted going this far. The whole premise of this blog is to avoid name calling and try to focus on the nuance of policy. But at some point it becomes dangerous to keep looking for nuance when a steamroller is bearing down on you. “Even handedness” does not require pretending the obvious isn’t happening. I kept thinking there was a point at which either the Republican Party would right itself or there would be enough push back to allow sleep at night. Given the structures of American democracy, I don’t see the former happening and I’m not sure there is enough push back in the right places.

These are really scary times.

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.

One thought on “This is Democracy at work….or not”

  1. Thanks, Mike. I think a lot of us scared. As long as the plutocrats are in control, they will fight phony wars (culture wars at home, and colonial wars around the world) to give their base the illusion that the good people are “winning.” Meanwhile they will continue to despoil the planet until there’s only enough water and air for themselves and their armies of sycophants and security forces.


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