How America Ends

TitleHow America Ends
AuthorYoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor, The Atlantic

Will democracy survive our current factionalism?

  • Our democracy has long depended on faith that elections are “neither permanent nor intolerable,” that losing one election is mere prelude to next election
  • Democracy is at risk when either party loses faith in their ability to win next election
As Is Situation:
  • Increasingly shrill, apocalyptic political rhetoric stokes fears & validates tribalism
  • Thoughtless tweeting & digital demonization fuels greater political acrimony
  • Increasingly divided political camps (geographically & ideologically)
  • Declining trust in civic institutions, democracy & each other
  • Waning ability of center to absorb extreme ideological movements & impulses
  • Despite recent successes (e.g., Electoral College, Supreme Court & Senate), many GOP leaders fear dramatic demographic changes will end GOP dominance
  • Narrowing GOP base could irrevocably damage two-party system & democracy
Historical trends:
  • US history replete with examples of political over-reaching & worse, e.g.:
    • Federalists passed Alien & Sedition Acts, criminalizing criticism of administration
    • As Northern states abandoned slavery & outgrew South, Southern states lost faith in elections, became more strident & used federal laws to support slavery (e.g., 1850 Fugitive Slave Act)
    • “Redemption era” Democrats stole franchise from black voters
    • Progressive Republicans wrested municipal governance from immigrant voters
    • Reaction to World War I immigrants led to many regrettable events (e.g., Prohibition, Palmer Raids, Ku Klux Klan revival & nativist immigration laws)
  • Democracy ultimately prevailed as electoral losers realized they could build new coalitions & regain their influence in future elections, e.g.:
    • Political parties have continually realigned to accommodate immigrants (e.g., In 1924, Democratic Party nearly destroyed by fight between nativist & anti-nativist forces, but, after losing in 1928, won next 5 national elections with broad ethnic coalition)
    • While immigrants have influenced US culture, most have embraced core American values (e.g., entrepreneurialism & egalitarianism) & become more American
  • Today’s GOP seems to have lost its faith in democracy & immigration:
    • After Romney’s 2012 loss, RNC recommended expanding base to include minorities, women & youth & rebuilding party into organization that could win national majority
    • In 2016 primary, GOP voters abandoned GOP establishment’s calls for inclusion for candidate with disdain for public service, democracy & diversity
    • Instead of expanding base, GOP turning against democratic processes, challenging legitimacy of elections & using other tactics to hold power focusing on suppressing voters (e.g., extreme gerrymandering, polling place cuts, voter suppression & immigrant census count suppression)
Future issues:
  • Demographic – cultural strains from ascendancy of historical political minority
  • Economic – economic stress from global competition & postindustrial economy
  • Informational – growing reliance on smart phones, social media & misinformation
  • Political – waning hope of either political party for future elections increases vulnerability of democratic systems to reckless self-serving demagogues
Next steps:
  • Center-right leaders start rejecting nativism, broadening partisan coalitions & competing more aggressively for new voters in diversifying nation
  • Conservative thought leaders rebuild GOP as party of conservative principles, develop more appealing ideas for diverse constituencies & mount good faith, fact-based challenge to progressivism in free marketplace of ideas
  • GOP must renew its commitment to vibrant democratic institutions & competitive elections, learn to gracefully accept electoral defeats & restore its faith that democratic elections offer a viable, short-term path to victory
Our Take:

Our two-party system is messy, but it has shown a remarkable ability throughout our history to adapt to change. Continually competing for majority support, our parties have assimilated movements, built and rebuilt coalitions and tailored their platforms to those ever-changing coalitions. And they have absorbed and even quashed the assaults of Nativists, Luddites and Know-Nothings and other extremists.

At first glance, the author appears to suggest that it is solely up to the GOP (or center-right) to reform itself and save our nation, a notion that seems simplistic if not unfair. However, after watching the recent impeachment trial in the US Senate, the author’s fears about the GOP seem all too prescient. With the solitary exception of Mitt Romney, GOP Senators appeared almost eager to cast aside long-held conservative principles (starting with public accountability). To many observers, they seemed less a party than a cult slavishly devoted to their “supreme leader.”

Our history gives us hope that American system will prevail, but success will not be attained solely because of the work of one party or the consequences of one election. For our democracy to prosper, we must do more than hope that one party will put the country first. Sure, both parties could benefit from serious reform, but we also must take other steps. We must engage more citizens, reduce the influence of money in politics, improve civic education, make our elections competitive and improve governance. And we must ground these actions in our founding constitutional principles.