In an earlier post I indicated that I expected the United States to become an autocracy by mid-21st century. I talked about the unaddressed core political crises leading me to that conclusion, but did not specifically identify them. I also promised to offer some hopeful signs and things we could do that might protect and strengthen our democracy. I’m going to talk about all that here. So, let’s start with what I see that will lead us to an authoritarian government by mid-century:
Following are the 5 broad categories of political disfunction that I see as existential threats to our democracy. Whatever you think may need fixing in our nation, these 5 constitute the root causes of virtually every federal governance issue we need to address. In companion posts I will expand my thinking about these issues:
- Fiscal Policy: We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with sooner rather than later.
- Economic Inequality: We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. For long-term stability in our society we must revise economic and tax policy to correct that inequality.
- Money In Politics: Unfortunately, money has taken over our democratic electoral and legislative processes. Until and unless we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democracy.
- Gerrymandering: Through “stacking and packing” strategies our political parties can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. Gerrymandering as a political strategy must be eliminated.
- Systemic Racism: Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in American society. We must step up to that reality and do much better at addressing it than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.
These 5 categories of threat represent an unsustainable political trajectory leading toward autocracy. Untreated, they will further metastasize into terminal cancers in our current governance model; maybe individually, but certainly collectively, they will lead us toward political catastrophe.
“Is there nothing we can do?” you may ask. Well, we are not helpless and it’s not too late, but the clock is ticking; we have to muster the will of the American electorate to change the equation. There are a variety of things we could do to mitigate these 5 core threats but they all take political commitment and courage. We could:
- implement ranked choice voting for all elected federal office holders, effectively eliminating the need for primary elections that limit voters’ real choice of political leaders;
- implement federal legislation that would specify the terms of universal federal voting rights and govern the details of election processes in all elections for federal officeholders;
- provide federal funds to match individual donations to the campaigns of candidates who demonstrate some recognized threshold of political viability for federal elective offices, including making certain that wealthy individuals have no more financial influence than average working Americans;
- make it illegal for corporations and other non-human entities to contribute money in-kind support to specific candidates, parties, and political causes, including influencing employees and contractors to contribute;
- outlaw PACs as well as other dark money political influence vehicles;
- dramatically limit lobbyists’ access to and influence over federal officeholders, including offering ANYTHING of value to such officeholders, even including lunches and dinners;
- require Congressional districts to be drawn and approved by non-partisan or bipartisan commissions;
- implement term limits for federal judges, including the Supreme Court;
- subject confirmation of Supreme Court justices to required endorsement by majority approval of both parties in the Senate;
- regulate media outlets to eliminate distribution of disinformation and lies;
- implement a more progressive income tax and make the same rates apply regardless of source of earnings;
- restructure Social Security tax to apply to all income regardless of source and make SS payments needs-based;
- implement universal healthcare;
- implement a wealth tax, or tax the previously untaxed appreciation of assets transferred through gifts and inheritance;
- and most radical of all, we could call a Constitutional Convention and revise our Constitution to memorialize 21st century norms that better reflect American societal diversity, national realities, and electoral priorities.
If we really want to save our democracy, we will do all or most of the things I list to address our core challenges to healthy democratic governance. If we did them, we could stabilize our democracy in one or two election cycles.
When you consider the immensity of our governance challenges you may feel hopeless and wonder if improvement and recovery is even possible. It certainly is still possible to change our political trajectory, but it is getting late. And there really are some potentially hopeful signs we might be able to build on. It all depends on how committed our national politicians are to saving our democracy. Some of those hopeful signs are:
- President Biden and his Administration are attempting to lead our nation in a fundamentally different, better, much healthier democratic (small d) direction. Rebalancing the governmental priorities more toward social, physical, and economic infrastructure as well as rational foreign policy are long overdue initiatives. Forcing wealthy and corporate interests to step up and contribute a fair share of the burden of societal needs is absolutely a step in the right direction. If Biden is successful in getting enough Congressional support to implement his plans, our democracy will be significantly strengthened. It will go a long way toward leveling the field of opportunity and reducing the political chaos, hate, and tribalism we are living with now. It’s not enough yet, but he seems to be stepping up to address most of the critical issues.
- My greatest hope though is in America’s young people, those finishing high school and college today. In the coming 30 years they will be our political leaders. As a class of Americans, the youth I am exposed to seem to be much more flexible in their thinking and less dogmatic than their parents’ generation, and substantially more humanitarian than mine; they endorse diversity of thought, ethnicity, and culture, don’t suffer from the same depth of racial prejudice as earlier generations, are less religiously extreme, and are just generally more open-minded than older folks. If there is real hope to make our democracy healthy, it will be because younger people decide to break free of their elders’ tribal thinking, engage in social justice, and support physical, social, and economic safety for all Americans. I see hopeful indications in the new generation if it’s not already too late when they take over.
- Another hopeful sign is that in spite of all the rhetoric, it seems a significant majority of Americans don’t buy the tribalism of the Trump Republicans. So far they are mostly a “silent majority” who are just disgusted with the whole sleazy character of politics. As they grow in frustration, hopefully they will become much more vocal and politically active. At some point they may stand up, say enough is enough, and take strong decisive action to re-establish and reinforce political sanity.
- There are also random unpredictable events one might hope could help put the hate mongers back in cages and pull us together as a people. The best most immediate such event would be if the Trump Republican Party lost massively across the board in the 2022 mid-term elections. That would undoubtedly get their attention in a dramatic way and perhaps drive the crazies out of favor. Trump’s influence on the Party would likely implode and probably change the political landscape overnight.
- Another possible game changing event, though much slower, might be if Trump were convicted of, and imprisoned for, inciting the January insurrection or even bank/tax fraud or other business crimes. In that scenario, assuming there is still a core of moderate Republican politicians left, enough of them may feel free to bring their rational conservative credentials to the table and participate in the governance process.
- And though certainly not to be hoped for, some unanticipated apocalyptic event on the international scene could possibly reunite us. Obviously Covid did not do it, but something external that threatened our sovereignty might quell much of the hyper-partisanship and usher in a new dawn of political compromise and cooperation.
To Summarize: I would be ecstatic if a major shift back to rational governance were to occur. But I’m not counting on or expecting that to happen. And hopefulness for possible moderating political events won’t save our democracy. I desperately hope that President Biden finds the legislative partners he needs to change the political trajectory of our nation before it’s too late. However, 4 or 8 years of one rational administration will not be enough. We need a continuum of political leaders, both legislative and executive, who care first and foremost about our country and take their oath of office seriously. We need them soon to save us from ourselves.
The truth is however, I doubt that we will pay nearly enough attention to any of the critical destructive challenges we are facing. Democrats don’t have enough of a legislative majority or internal discipline to overcome the filibuster and Republican obstruction in the next year for any major breakthroughs to occur. And through voter suppression and gerrymandering the Trump Republicans will likely take control of the House and/or Senate in 2022, positioned to undo everything Biden may have been able to accomplish through executive action. The Republican vision and policies as they seem to be describing them now will further strengthen the hands of would-be demagogues. Result: In the near and medium term we won’t do enough to redirect our political trajectory away from authoritarianism.
Meanwhile while we dither, the earth will keep on getting warmer. That will stress all the world’s democracies in coming decades like nothing else can; even if we do everything else I suggest to strengthen our own democracy and don’t adequately address global warming, it is all for naught. Climate change is an existential threat to all civilized society and humanity itself. And we are on track to lose that battle. I will address my thinking on that in a subsequent post.