American Democracy’s in a Downward Spiral
Is It Terminal?
Freedom House is a Washington-based think tank with an illustrious pedigree dating back to the age of bi-partisan cooperation in the US government. Created in 1941 with the mission of battling isolationism in America and fascism around the world, its two honorary chairs were the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Wendell Willkie, who was the Republican presidential candidate in 1940, before losing to Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband, Franklin. Over the years, Freedom House has studied a broad spectrum of threats to freedom, from McCarthyism to Soviet oppression. Since 1973, it has published “Freedom in the World,” an annual country-by-country report that has been called the “Michelin Guide to democracy’s development.”
This single high-court decision is responsible for converting the US Congress from a truly representative legislative body into a brothel in which most of its members are available in exchange for fees sufficient to reassure their re-election. That sounds crude, but it’s cruder than it sounds.
The 2020 edition recorded the fourteenth straight year of deteriorating freedom around the world; sixty-four countries have lost liberties in the past year, while only thirty-seven registered improvements. Its assessment of the United States is also disturbing. In 2009, the U.S. had a score of ninety-four out of a hundred, which ranked it near the top, just behind Germany, Switzerland, and Estonia. In the decade since, it has slipped eight points; it now ranks behind Greece, Slovakia, and Mauritius. Looking at the United States, Freedom House analysts note the trends that they usually assign to fragile corners of the globe: “pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption. Fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself.” (Source: FreedomHouse.org)
Sinister Political Theatre
President Donald Trump’s latest and most sinister act of political theatre was the deployment of camouflage-clad troops on the streets of Portland, Oregon the other day. There they began grabbing demonstrators and dumping them into unmarked white bread vans. The press rushed to dub them “federal troops,” but the truth is that at this writing we don’t yet know whose troops they are. Do they belong to the Regular Army, the National Guard, the CIA or other clandestine forces, or are they mercenaries? What was their mission? Are they crowd-control specialists? Who commands them? What is their chain of command? Do they respect the Uniform Code of Military Justice? Meanwhile, all we know is that they were nattily dressed, were kidnapping people and smelled like the dress rehearsal for a fascist takeover.
The Economics Behind American Democracy’s Demise
The essential economic explanation of the decline of American democracy over the past 20 years can be seen in the “elephant chart,” one of the past decade’s most famous economic graphs, one that aims to summarize the state of the world–and especially the American–economy in the post-Cold War era:
Using World Bank data from researchers Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic, the chart shows how each part of the world’s income distribution fared from 1988 to 2008. There are two big winners: the rapidly-rising middle classes in East Asia (especially China) and South Asia (especially India); and the ultrarich, who are concentrated in affluent countries of Europe and North America. Not surprisingly, the meteoric ascent of the incomes of the rich coincides with what Freedom House refers to as the “slipping” of democratic standards around the world and, especially, the United States. (Source: Vox.com)
“Poderoso Señor es Don Dinero”–Money Talks
The end of this destabilizing economic trend is not in sight. The more money accumulates in the hands of the super rich, the more resources they can marshall to keep the big wheel turning. A Spanish proverb says, “Mr. Money is a powerful gentleman,” and that’s a universal truth. The extent to which big money is devouring democracy in the US since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision legitimized big business contributions–and ending legal limits–to election campaigns, is astonishing. This single high-court decision is responsible for converting the US Congress from a truly representative legislative body into a brothel in which most of its members are available in exchange for fees sufficient to reassure their re-election. That sounds crude, but it’s cruder than it sounds.
The LA Times, said this about the Citizens United decision:
The biggest effect of the ruling has been to engage and empower the very wealthiest Americans, across the political spectrum. The top 100 individual donors contributed $339 million in the 2012 presidential campaign year. That figure leaped to $768 million in the next presidential campaign year, 2016.
Spending on presidential elections grew 66% from the 2000 campaign between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore to the 2016 campaign between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. At the same time, spending on congressional campaigns grew 143%.
Legend has it that he was one of the models for the character of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and also gave Kubrick the idea for the Doomsday Machine.
According to Bassin, the most significant public protest in the name of democracy was on the first day of Donald Trump’s Presidency. Since then many Americans have become inured to Trump’s abuses and retro-advances. First, they started ignoring the tweets. Then they passed on his rallies, his lies, and random acts of transgression. American legal activists working against the slide documented by Freedom House consider that, since Trump was acquitted in his impeachment trial, he has entered a bolder phase. In its latest squeezing of the press, the Trump campaign has sued The Times, the Washington Post and CNN for libel.
America’s Hit Bottom, Now What?
At the beginning of the sixties Herman Kahn was a brilliant 40-year-old defense analyst at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California. Legend has it that he was one of the models for the character of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and also gave Kubrick the idea for the Doomsday Machine. At the beginning of his career Kahn wrote two influential books: On Thermonuclear War in 1960 and Thinking about the Unthinkable in 1962. In these books Kahn elaborated on what the whole country was concerned about in those days: nuclear war with Russia. From that time until a few months ago that was the inexorable “unthinkable” threat to America. The bomb.
This Trump family clown show plays out while the country–leaderless–is immersed in the most dangerous depths of of the coronavirus pandemic.
As we know, “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” (William Cowper, 1773.) The United States has just been blindsided by the perfect unimaginable threat, and it’s not the bomb. It’s the coronavirus pandemic, a menace that proves to become an order of magnitude larger than World War II, the country’s last existential threat.
There is, however, a deciding difference between America’s plight at the outset of World War II in 1941 and the spot it finds itself in today: leadership. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a competent honest man and, equally important, a president determined to look out for all the citizens of his country. He guided the United States sanely and skillfully through the war in Europe and the Pacific and left his country the undeniable world leader before dying an untimely and deeply lamented death.
The Man Responsible
President Donald J. Trump is the man is responsible for guiding the United States safely through today’s potentially much bigger crisis. The virus is playing unrelenting hardball and, even to attenuate it, requires a leader with high-level qualities. He or she must be magnanimous and absolutely disinterested, concentrated fully on the present and future wellbeing of his people–all of them. He must be intelligent, mentally agile and with high degrees of conviction and valor. He must be physically, mentally and morally strong. It is essential that he be backed up by a team of loyal-to -the-Constitution, competent professionals. Above all else he must be capable of instilling confidence in the vast majority of his citizens, and those of the rest of the world, who look traditionally to the United States for leadership. His last priority must be his own wellbeing and prosperity.
Unfortunately, based on his performance during his presidency thus far, President Trump is so manifestly deficient on all these counts that there is little hope for the future of his country. And the future is bearing down like an implacable freight train.
Underlying all the President’s deficiencies is a cheap, simplistic ideology essentially limited to removing all barriers to predatory laissez faire capitalism, lowering taxes, eliminating essential social programs for the citizenry, and letting the uber-rich run the country through a marionette Congress. Not only is this meager political philosophy not working. It is impoverishing his country and turning it literally into an international laughing stock.
This situation is growing graver by the day. It’s almost as if the President were mentally and morally handicapped. Whenever he’s caught out, instead of rectifying, he doubles down. Just the other day, after his daughter, a federal employee, is called out for endorsing a brand of beans, the President himself appears in the media sitting in the oval office behind his desk, which displays an assortment of goods from the same manufacturer, who had, coincidentally, publically praised the President a couple of days previously. Did he also make a generous contribution to Trump’s re-election campaign?