The one good thing about 2023 is that it is not 2024.
Philadelphia is about to have its Democratic mayoral primary. That is tantamount to the actual election, since Republicans do not win elections in the city. Single-party systems are not healthy in a democracy, but we are down to a single party in the United States. Principled conservatives have left the political organization that stands now to embrace a former president, dubiously elected in the first place, who seditiously attempted to overturn the 2020 election, and whose crimes are still unaccounted for in the courts.
If that sounds like a banana republic to you, bring on the corn flakes.
Actually, the last good idea the Republican Party had was the abolition of slavery. Since the collapse of Reconstruction, it has been the party of Wall Street: anti-labor, anti-Social Security, anti-national health care, and anti even the things it says it is for, like balanced budgets. (Donald Trump, in four years, added $7.8 trillion to the national deficit in tax cuts for the rich and added obligations, equivalent to a quarter of its current total.)
I can not say much more for the Democrats. Having twice thwarted the most popular candidate running for their presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic establishment put up in successive elections their least popular figure, Hillary Clinton, and then their oldest and dullest, Joe Biden, who in more than three decades had never previously won a presidential primary. Most Democratic voters do not approve of the job he has done, and do not want him to run for reelection.
Biden has actually performed above expectations, given their extraordinarily low level. But he has left too much undone and un-attempted, and in too many ways has been retrograde. The most important challenge the world faces is getting carbon out of its air, without which humanity faces a civilizational crisis already upon us. This means transitioning from a fossil fuel economy as quickly as possible. But Biden has issued more fossil extraction licensing than Trump did, most notably the recently approved Willow Project in the most environmentally sensitive area in the United States, Alaska. With democracy itself under attack and a Democratic majority in Congress, he made no effort to revive the Voting Rights Act, which was all but gutted by a reactionary Supreme Court and the incessant attacks of Republican state legislatures. He has failed to pass significant gun control legislation in the face of an epidemic of mass shootings. He has re-imposed Trump-era border policies that have again separated families, and left an unreckoned number of minors to be exploited by a ruthless child labor market not seen in decades. He has not moved a Justice Department that in more than two years has failed to bring a single federal charge against Trump, leaving him free to rewrite the script of January 6. He has left Ukraine to be bled white without an apparent strategy for enabling it to survive its war.
To be sure, these are all difficult and dangerous challenges. But such a broad record of failure to effectively address them, and even the loss of progression, bespeaks a crisis of democracy itself. It may be that we have not merely gone from two political parties to one. It may be that we are going from one party to none.
A symptom of this is that the less we do, the more we talk about it. That is apparent on the local level. No political primary in Philadelphia has had more debates than the current one. None has been more costly, or, for that reason, more beholden to special interests. None has produced more platitudes without actual result. The same problems that beset other American cities — poverty, violence, inequity — remain for the next election cycle.
Much of the question is structural. Philadelphia has a poverty rate of approximately 25%, the largest of any major American city. Many complex factors figure into this stubborn question: family life, inequitable educational facilities, shifting demographics, long-term deindustrialization, external forces and circumstances. Poor cities suffer disproportionately in general recessions, and disastrously in depressions. They suffer when gerrymandered Congresses and state legislatures refuse cities the right to enact gun control and halt the influx of weapons, or to fund schools properly, or to maintain essential services and infrastructure. Each generation compounds the deficits of the last. A paucity of resources drives up crime and corruption. Each social problem interacts with all the rest. We talk because we fail to act. We fail to act because powerful interests far beyond the borders of impoverished cities prefer it that way.
City mayors are the bottom of the totem pole.
Politicians seldom run out of words, but citizens sometimes do. Then they act, often with individual acts of violence. When this does not suffice, they act communally, by riot. Unless this brings about change, as it rarely does, repression follows. When the social fabric is torn sufficiently, revolutions may follow. This usually takes a long time, unless societies become accustomed to them. By that time, civil discourse is gone. That is the end of democracy.
We are not there yet in America, but more talk with less action is getting us to it. Frustrated talk takes itself out in more and more bitterly contested elections. Elected officials are recalled or impeached, or refused certification in the first place. The latter was the game Donald Trump tried to play on January 6, and almost won. In certain respects, he has won it: a majority of Republican members of the 118th Congress, in the third year of Joe Biden’s administration, have still not recognized him as a lawfully elected president. That is not an election that is going on all the time. It is an election that has no agreed-upon end. A democracy can be defined in many different ways, with few parties or many, with written constitutions or without them. Their fundamental premise, however, is that they provide for the peaceful transfer of power by popular choice. That has not always been the case in America. In 1876 the Republican candidate for president, Rutherford B. Hayes, was installed in a backdoor deal that awarded him the office in return for terminating Reconstruction in the former Confederate states. Even more blatantly, George W. Bush was declared president by a single vote in the U.S. Supreme Court that usurped the proper role of a Florida court in 2000. If democracy does die in America, that day, when the law of the land was set aside by the body supposedly interpreting it, may be recalled as the beginning of its end.
Talk is the currency of democracy. Action is the sale. When the public cannot agree on the latter, or is denied its choice, Lincoln’s government of the people will be no more.