Recently a friend who reads my literature asked me if the United States was going to survive. I have been agonizing over our political situation myself since Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. I have also frequently engaged in conversations with others about what our national future holds. The consensus among the folks I know seems to be generally pessimistic about our trajectory and fear that our political institutions and governance systems are not up to the challenge of dealing with our current democratic decline. I believe there is reason to be concerned, even fearful.
As I think about it, asking if the US will survive is actually the wrong question. I don’t see a scenario where the United States disintegrates or breaks up into smaller national entities in the near or medium term – say the coming 30 years – like the Soviet Union did in the early 1990s. It will take longer than that for our existing national structure to collapse. A more pertinent question in my mind is: what will the political, social, and economic fabric of the US be in that timeframe – around mid-21st century?
In answering that question I would say: if we do not fundamentally overhaul our political party structure and behavior soon, we will likely become an effective autocracy by mid-century. We will have a super-powerful President, a subservient Congress, and a federal Judiciary providing legal cover in support of the strategy, tactics, and personal wishes of the President; essentially we will have a milder version of the current Russian political model. And in the process we will have surrendered our leadership in the international community. That by itself will create a whole new world order.
We have been moving in the direction of autocracy for several years with Congress ceding more and more of its own power to the President, and in our more recent hyper-partisan climate the federal judiciary has partially morphed into a political tool of the President who chooses the Justices; currently it seems to be the judicial arm of the Trump Republican Party. The autocratic scenario I describe is certainly not healthy but I expect it to continue and deepen in coming decades.
Why do I paint such a pessimistic picture, you might ask? I would actually call the picture realistic. We are facing several growing strategic crises in our national governance that threaten to metastasize into terminal cancer if we don’t act. Even as I write this …… a) we have growing fiery electoral division fanned by Trump and his sycophants; b) growing anti-Semitic violence; c) increasingly bold and open white supremacist and xenophobic activism; d) new state laws designed to suppress the vote of minority Americans; e) the Supreme Court endorsing discrimination by the Catholic Church against gay couples as well as upholding election laws that are demonstrably discriminatory against people of color; f) Republican legislators voting against bipartisan efforts to even investigate what caused an insurrection on January 6th; g) and Republican leaders threatening discipline against any member who supports or participates in such investigation. These are all happening in real time and are serious departures from democratic norms; that does not bode well for a future democratic nation.
We desperately need honest national dialogue and hard decision-making on these and a multitude of other fronts if we hope to remain a viable liberal democracy. The danger signs of decline resulting from political disfunction are clear to anyone who cares, but they are generally being ignored. We just don’t have the collective political will to make the necessary hard choices and compromises, or even admit that we are in crisis.
And while we are suffering political paralysis here at home, democracy as a form of governance is declining around the world; nationalistic autocracy is on the up-swing. If you doubt that, just study the journey of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey as examples of the trend. The United States is also not immune; in some ways our American Democracy is more fragile than many. While we take great pride in our Constitution, that document is only a broad framework for national democratic government. And its 18th century societal context as well as the onerous process required to amend it prevents it from staying relevant in times of rapidly changing political, social, and economic reality. In fact on the core democratic crises threatening us today, the Constitution is silent on all of them.
Real strategic governance decisions are made by political parties promoting competing ideas, debating relative merits of alternate strategies within the broad framework of the Constitution, and ultimately compromising on some common ground that moves us toward solving our social, political, and economic problems. That requires multiple responsible political parties willing to deal with our national diversity and all the serious challenges we face in a fair and equitable way. Our success or failure as a liberal democracy literally depends almost entirely on that healthy political party structure and its associated rational behavior.
So, the single most critical sign that we are headed for serious trouble is that there is a fundamental breakdown in our political party structure. Today that stable foundation has been virtually destroyed along with the balance it brought to governance. We no longer have two fully functional political parties. The Republican Party has been hijacked by Trump, the would-be demagogue, and no longer represents a reliable negotiating partner with which Democrats can do the nation’s business.That is a crisis of epic proportions for any democracy and is playing out badly for us right now.
At this point the Democratic Party seem to remain healthy with a reasonable balance of legitimate views on national governance. Its most liberal ideological wing energetically advances social programs especially important to working poor and middle class people. At the same time there is a moderate liberal core of the Party, led by President Biden, that recognizes the need for progressive initiatives, but also understands what is politically practical and knows that compromise with moderate conservatives is critical for healthy democratic governance. Under Biden, the Democrats seem to be making a serious effort to find that common ground on which to build bipartisanship and move critical national policy and legislation forward. So far there is no significant moderate conservative core with which to negotiate, let alone implement governance plans and strategies.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Trump Republican Party has abandoned any rational or moderate element in favor of a purely reactionary tribal mentality that sees cooperation and compromise as weakness. While the Republican Party has been drifting toward that extreme since the Reagan era, it has accelerated dramatically under Trump’s control, and today seems totally subservient to his personal mission of hate, division, and destruction of democratic values.
Trump has proven a brilliantly effective manipulator of Republican politicians as well as social media and his electoral base. He continues to promote the “big lie” about the 2020 election; hardly any Republican office holder is willing to challenge him on that, and most of his base seems to still believe it. It is not clear how many of the party politicians are actually obsequious sycophants versus how many are simply afraid to cross him for fear of losing their next election. But in the end it does not matter. The result is the same – further erosion of our democracy.
Under Trump’s thumb Republicans are successful obstructionists. Because of archaic legislative rules (not in the Constitution by the way) they can and do effectively block any serious attempt to address the critical governance issues we must deal with. That is a trip toward destruction and we are a long way down that path. If the landscape does not significantly change soon, continuing decline of democracy is virtually guaranteed. Eventually, ongoing failure of those political party institutions combined with growing division, frustration, and unrest in the electorate will lead to another Trump-like political figure being elected. There are several already waiting in the wings. They have learned the rules of the dictators’ playbook from Trump and are honing their skills at dishonesty, deceit, and electoral manipulation.
Again, the democratic crisis in the United States today is centered around the absence of two or more rational political parties. The result is that several core areas of national governance which are critical to our survival and in desperate need of attention are being ignored. In my view that will end our liberal democracy by mid-century.
Is there no hope? Is there nothing we can do? There is always hope; and yes, there are things we could do to change our political course and strengthen our democracy. In a separate post I will discuss some of them as well as those core areas of crisis in our current governance system that must be addressed. But the changes necessary will affect every facet of American society and require buy-in of a large majority of the electorate. In this age of big data, social media, disinformation campaigns, and computer algorithms that help corrupt politicians distort or deny facts, blur truth, and reinforce electoral prejudices, I just don’t think we will endorse the necessary new order, at least not in time.
Our future does not have to be the way I describe, and we can’t know with certainty how our national political character will play out in coming years, but autocracy is what I expect. At mid-century I won’t be around, so if I am wrong you can laugh at how stupid I was. But if nothing structural is done quickly to change our national trajectory you will probably have to say: “why didn’t we listen to that guy?”