America’s Democracy is at a Crossroad

Over the Memorial Day weekend I spent a lot of time contemplating the history and future of our country. Reflecting on the current reality left me feeling very uneasy. The world order seems to be breaking down. Radical populists are gaining strength on both extremes but especially on the right side of the political spectrum. And just when American leadership is needed most, the US is withdrawing from the stabilizing role it has played since World War II.

As in younger democracies like Poland and Hungary, extreme political partisanship in the US has intensified significantly in recent years, especially so under Trump’s slash and burn political behavior. The influence of unlimited money in politics, computer enhanced gerrymandering, unregulated social media, and more recently, infection of the political process from foreign state actors, is successfully adding fuel to a tribal me-versus-them mentality among American citizens. Enthusiasm for compromise and consensus building in Congress has substantially evaporated, but compromise is the cornerstone of any healthy liberal democracy.

Adding to that chaos we now have an authoritarian in the White House who regularly shows contempt for the rule of law and even the very concept of three co-equal branches of government with associated constitutional checks and balances. At the same time we have Republican politicians interested in preserving Party power but not solving national problems or advancing broader American interests. With very rare exceptions Republicans are willing to support whatever President Trump wants or decides to do regardless of whether it is constitutional, legal, or even rational.

Now we are gearing up for likely the most consequential presidential election at least since 1860. The stakes are enormous. The questions are fundamental:  Will we remain a liberal democracy anchored in constitutional government and the rule of law? Or will we move closer to an imperial presidency with the power of Congress yielded to the Executive branch similar to the Russian model? That is where we seem to be headed now.

If Donald Trump wins re-election and Republicans continue to hold the Senate, I doubt we will recognize the political character of our country by the end of his second term. I am uncertain that our democracy can even recover from that scenario. Since before he took office Trump has amplified and exploited division within the electorate, attacked the free press, challenged the independence of the judiciary, and undermined the credibility of public institutions. That is the dictator’s playbook and Trump is executing it nearly perfectly. Democracies die that way.

Even if Trump loses re-election, the coming decade will be a pivotal time in world history and an especially tough period for middle class Americans. In just the past 2 and a half years this administration has alienated most of our allies, abandoned, withdrew from, or weakened international institutions and good faith agreements. The US is now an unreliable international partner.

Here at home Trump and his Republican surrogates successfully reversed a declining annual federal deficit and replaced it with an explosively expanding one likely to exceed $1Trillion next year. Further he has replaced experienced and respected Cabinet members and career professional government employees with loyalists and/or incompetents, politicized the Justice Department, and redefined our environmental and technology regulation to be more in keeping with 19th century goals, objectives, and standards. Though not yet successful, he is trying to politicize the Federal Reserve as well.

Even if a Democratic president is elected and takes office, things are not suddenly going to get better. She/he will face intractable strategic governance challenges. Virtually none of the necessary solutions will be popular. First, we have to do something about the ever increasing annual deficits. And then there is our crumbling domestic infrastructure, allies moving on toward non-US focused multilateral trading and other economic relationships (even the dollar is being challenged as the world’s reserve currency), rising tensions in the Middle-East, and a deeply divided American electorate increasingly manipulated by foreign powers through social media, as well as immigration and healthcare systems in crisis.

Probably the worst problem a new president will face is that the world economy is moving toward recession. I predict it will be deep and lasting. The drivers have been set in motion by the erratic and irrational diplomatic, military, and economic behavior of the current administration. World order is disrupted by uncertainty and foreign nations (even allies) have become uncertain about the United States. It takes a while for that to ripple through the international economy but those seeds have already been sown. The fruits of that insanity will haunt us in 2020 and later regardless of who is elected president.

If there is hope for the future of our Republic, it probably depends on the Democratic Party taking control of the Presidency and both Houses of Congress in 2020. That may over time allow recovery of the key elements of rational governance, repair of international relations, and advance of forward thinking policies that have been scrapped in the past couple of years by the current administration and its Republican enablers. Even in that scenario I don’t expect significant improvement in the near term. The recovery process will be rocky, slow, and painful. I fear that American voters may not have the patience to put up with a realistic rate of improvement. I want to be hopeful but I am also a realist. Things don’t look good for us this Memorial Day.

P.S. – Some closing words about Democrats versus Republicans in charge of government starting in 2020: The first order of business for the vast majority of politicians is to be re-elected. Most can be bought or intimidated by money. Gerrymandering insulates them from their constituents and encourages them to adopt extreme political positions in efforts to ward off primary challengers. In those regards there is no difference in the two Parties.

What makes Democrats a better choice to govern in my opinion is that they tend to be individualists. Unlike Republicans, Democrats normally are not well disciplined so they typically don’t suffer from “group think”. Mostly they also are not nearly as dogmatic and ideological. Since the advent of Trumpism, they have demonstrated more willingness to compromise and seek common ground on critical issues than Republicans have. We have already seen that when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered to give Trump the $25 billion for his wall in exchange for solving the “dreamer” immigration case. Neither of them nor their caucuses thought the wall was necessary or prudent. But they realized that to make any progress compromise was necessary. Of course we saw that the President supported by Republicans was unwilling to accept yes for an answer.

We need the freedom of thought, flexibility, and willingness to meet in the middle that Democrats bring to the table. Otherwise we probably can’t repair the damage the Trump presidency and his Republican lapdogs in Congress have done to American credibility both abroad and here at home.

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