American Democracy on Slow Boil

Last week I promised a post about investments in job training and apprenticeships as an alternative to protectionism, with plans to draw on the example of Germany. With apologies for delaying that post, this past week’s political events compel me to address the fraught state of American democracy.

bring-to-boil.jpgThe catalyst for this shift was my experience listening to news on my drive home from work this Wednesday evening.

Acutely aware of the disastrous state of American politics, the tenor of an NPR segment clarified for me the urgency of addressing the danger at hand. NPR does a commendable job of pursuing political neutrality in a media environment rife with partisan outlets catering to motivated audiences in a deeply divided polity. But is “political neutrality” appropriate in the face of a sustained assault on democratic institutions? Is it “politically neutral” to treat abnormal politics as a version of normality?

In this instance, the “Week in Politics” segment of All Things Considered was reporting on the relentless staff changes in the administration and the rumors of more to come.

The show has increasingly inclined toward playing clips of the current occupant of the White House and his Press Secretary, allowing those voices to speak for themselves. Fair enough.

But informed listeners know with certainty that in hearing these clips they are listening to falsehoods. What happens next on the show – the response to lies — is therefore of great consequence.

After airing a statement from the Press Secretary that was entirely and obviously evasive in response to a direct question, host Ari Shapiro, a skilled professional whom I admire, asked the guest, Mary Katharine Ham, senior writer at The Federalist, the following: “Mary Katharine, how do you think this turmoil affects President Trump’s agenda?”

The response: “Look; the Trump White House does operate differently just as the Trump Organization operates differently. This is how he likes to manage, and I’m not sure it’s that effective.”

There are two fundamental and worrisome problems raised by this exchange. First, the question Shapiro asks implies that the prime victim of the White House pandemonium is its own policy agenda.

Shouldn’t we instead be asking about the consequences of bedlam for American governance, democracy and institutions? By many accounts, in fact, chaos IS the agenda of this administration.

Second, the response from Mary Katharine Ham – not surprising given The Federalist’s libertarian political leanings – treats mayhem as a legitimate management style, albeit one of questionable effectiveness. Boston Herald reporter Kimberly Atkins added of the chaotic management of the White House occupant, “it is how he enjoys it. I think he is fine with this setup even if the people around him are kind of flailing in this chaos.”

We know that executive appointees serve “at the pleasure of the president;” here we have a perversion of this theme in which the executive branch is for the pleasure of the president.

As for the “Week in Politics” program, in pursuing this discussion, NPR becomes a participant in our national reality show, a sort of Talking Dead of the American political scene; a chatty show about the show. The challenge to democratic institutions is urgent, and we need something more from NPR.

In this instance the program, as with much (certainly not all) of the contemporary media, inadvertently participates in the degradation of American democracy by analyzing the disasters of the current administration from within its internal logic. Once we step into this logic, “It’s what the president likes” and “It’s what he said he would do” become viable analyses of behavior that imposes tremendous damage on national unity, policy coherence and the global standing of the United States.

Only by stepping outside the administration’s aberrant logic can we foster the political accountability required for a thriving democratic society.

In a 2017 article in the journal Political Science Quarterlyauthors Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Doron Taussig offer an analysis of the “rhetorical signature” of the current occupant of the White House. They find that this style includes “seeming spontaneity laced with Manichean, evidence-flouting, accountability-dodging, and institution-disdaining claims.”

Additionally, the signature “dismisses uncongenial evidence from institutionalized custodians of knowledge” and “rejects conventional standards of accountability.” Finally, the rhetorical signature “questions the integrity of democratic institutions, some of which” (electoral system, courts, the media) “can hold a president accountable for abuse of power or misuse of evidence . . .”

If we normalize these rhetorical and management styles, we subvert democratic accountability and institutional integrity.

As Yale historian Tim Snyder reminds us in On Tyrannyhis caution to contemporary democracies from the lessons of history, “Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after another unless each is defended from the beginning.”

Many citizens who are deeply critical of the current administration – and worried about the direction of the American polity – await the November 2018 Congressional elections and express hope that this will be the moment to put American democracy back on course. Is this patience in awaiting the electoral means to check an administration with accelerating authoritarian tendencies an indicator of the strength of American democracy –or of its fragility?

We know that there have been efforts by the current administration to limit democratic participation, such as the recently disbanded electoral commission headed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, which began from the premise that the U.S. electoral system is plagued by voter fraud.

Although faced with numerous legal challenges and harboring claims that have not stood up well to scrutiny in a recent federal court hearing of a challenge to a 2013 Kansas proof of citizenship voting law, the work of the commission may well be picked up by other components of the current administration, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

American democracy is on slow boil; the result may be democratic evaporation.

Raising the alarm in On Tyranny, Tim Snyder points out that Russians who voted in 1990 “did not think that this would be the last free and fair election in their country’s history, which (thus far) it has been. Any election can be the last . . . ”

Indeed, asserting that “it can’t happen here,” Snyder warns regarding the failing of democracy, “is the first step toward disaster.”

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