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Columnists

American Democracy in a Downward Spiral?

December 30, 2021

Opinion writers love this time of year. It gives us our best chance to opinionate about the coming year. New Year’s 2022 is no different. This time, however, honesty demands that we admit that claiming certainty about predictions is a fool’s errand. All we can do is note what happened in the last two years and extrapolate forward.

Worryingly, what happened does not forbode well for what might happen. Democracy seems to have lost its luster in many parts of the world, most tragically in the United States. Political emotions have reached heights unseen since the Civil War. A pandemic that seemingly will not go away has taken lives, upset work patterns, and disrupted commerce – exacerbating political viciousness. Somehow the Cold War came back but with three distinct foes, not just one as in the good old days of the USSR. The economy, though recovering rapidly, differs in ways good and bad from the past.

With a high level of confidence, I predict the death in 2022 of the Grand Old Party, the Republican Party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Ike Eisenhower, Reagan, and the elder Bush. Death took a long time coming, beginning as a small undetected cancer when Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy coopted the racist ‘Dixiecrat’ Democrats. The transformed ‘Dixiecans’ brought religious extremism, populist deficit spending, and hate mongering into the GOP. In the end the cancer took over as the Dixiecrats swallowed the GOP. Donald Trump did not create any of this, but he knows how to exploit hatreds and take over the party. The party has become his personal property, driven by a leadership cult and by demonizing enemies. It has no agenda for governance other than grabbing power by any means fair or foul.

At least the Trumplican Party had the decency not to insult our intelligence; it refused to adopt a platform in the 2020 elections. It mobilized its supporters solely with Trump’s name. Believing God had anointed Trump, losing the November 2020 elections traumatized his supporters. He lost, they believe, because ‘evil’ forces intervened. The Trumplicans attempted to seize power by force on January 6. Having failed, Trump has made the claim of being cheated in the elections the foundation of his reelection campaign. Trumplican leadership has built on that lie to change state laws wherever possible to try and stay in power forever. Trumplican controlled state governments have now enabled themselves, without accountability, to overturn election results no matter how the people voted. Left unaddressed this development could well put American democracy into a death spiral.

The Trumplican leadership will spend 2022 building emotions and creating hatreds in anticipation of the November congressional elections. Not content with rigging the election system and politicizing the courts, they have also decided to make the country ungovernable. They believe that suffering and misery will evolve into hatred and hatred will energize their base.

The Trumplican Senate Minority Leader McConnell has just about announced that he will do everything possible to prevent Biden from governing. The occasional GOP Representative or Senator who votes in favor of a Democrat’s bill benefitting his constituents finds himself labeled a traitor. One wonders if the Trumplicans are pursuing their campaign against vaccines, masking, and other health measures in order to increase deaths, spread human suffering, and economic misery that, they reason, will rouse angry voters. Sadly for Trump, the authoritarians have a longer game, a game that will outlive an aging leader. They aim to transform the United States into a one-party government not dissimilar to that of China.

This policy, however, has internal contradictions. Trump himself appears to have moments of conscience or decency. He challenged his own party orthodoxy by urging people to get vaccinated. Tellingly, his true believers booed him. The COVID-induced death toll in pro-Trump congressional districts vastly outpaces that in districts that voted for Biden. Catering to religious fanatics has split communities that might otherwise have supported the Trumplicans. Younger Evangelicals have begun to show discomfort at their elderly leadership. Pope Francis is definitely not reading from the same script as those medieval American Catholic Bishops who seek secular power by bringing down the U.S. President. Fanning racial hatreds, Trumplican activists have tried to seize school boards and ban books in school libraries. They’ve managed to inject culture wars into the mainstream, provoking a reaction that has created a virtual witch’s brew of mutual resentment and hatreds. However, hate mongers often do not realize that building hate and resentment provokes hate and resentment from among those they demonize. Hate and resentment also disturb the mental stability of whole populations. Add in the proliferation of guns – one should not be surprised that murder rates have climbed rapidly while other crimes have stayed steady or even declined. Political extremism leads to more violence and Kyle Rittenhouse will have lots of imitators.

Smart Trumplican politicians know that they run the risk of rallying their opponents while they drum up their base. Hence, they have voted in a plethora of state laws to ensure that they can overturn elections. As before, millions more will vote for Democrats than for Trumplicans. Gerrymandering and voter suppression will ensure Trumplican control of the House, however. The concentration of Democratic voters in a few large states gives the Trumplicans a leg up in grabbing the Senate. Not satisfied with normal advantages, Trumplican-controlled legislatures will overturn any Senatorial election won by a Democrat. Extrapolating further into the future, 2023 and 2024 will prove the most tumultuous in American history with governance paralyzed, leaving us unable to manage the economy while our enemies run riot abroad.

Admittedly, this downward spiral is the darker scenario (though not the darkest), but a perfectly plausible way that events could play out given the recent past. Without a course change, the next three years could see an end to American democracy.

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