Reframing American Democracy | The Triangle

Reframing American Democracy

It’s not, alas, true that democracy has “prevailed” wit

Unfortunately, it’s untrue to say that democracy has “prevailed” with the inauguration of President Joe Biden, despite his hopeful — and also self-interested — pronouncement to the country. Democracy has just been given a fighting chance, and the odds against it are long.

To begin with, our highly imperfect party system gave us the imperfect man who is now to be our president: the Joe Biden who opposed school busing, embraced segregationist colleagues, lied about his own academic record, sponsored mass incarceration and an expansion of the death penalty, helped facilitate financial collapse with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, gave us Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court and voted for the Iraq War. Lest we forget, too, the Party establishment that installed him also aborted the primary system that was meant to give a measure of popular choice to the selection of presidential candidates. If that was democracy in action, give me the old smoke-filled room again. At least we wouldn’t have to breathe the cigars.

Oh, I did vote for Biden, but that was not my democratic choice. It was the only choice I had, unless I wished to see democracy expire. It meant four more years without a rational health care system while dealing with a pandemic; ongoing wars that we lost a generation ago; and an electoral system where corporate “citizens” have free speech and actual ones have effectively none.

Mind you, I wish Biden well in whatever he can accomplish, starting with the single priority we all share: getting vaccinations in our arms as quickly as possible. And I grant him his rhetorical excess in what was a decent Inaugural Address. After all, when Franklin D. Roosevelt told the country in the midst of the Great Depression that it had nothing to fear but fear itself, there were in fact a few issues to genuinely worry about (including the survival of the political and economic system).

Part of the problem Biden will be dealing with is that there is now only one major party whose leadership is even notionally committed to democratic process. The fracture and collapse of what remains of the Republican Party is imminent, and if Donald Trump proves the occasion of it, we will have at least that to thank him for.

The Republicans came into existence when the Whig Party failed. It served its purpose in abolishing slavery, and betrayed it by selling out Reconstruction. It became Wall Street’s mouthpiece and has remained that ever since. When Roosevelt said he welcomed the Party’s hatred against his efforts to end the Depression, he gave it exactly what it deserved from everyone but the super-rich. Nothing has changed since except the Party’s determination to cling to political power at all costs, culminating in Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election by baselessly accusing the Democrats of doing it instead.

Nor did the false claim come from Trump alone. Even just hours after the Trump-incited riots against the election results — a goon squad exercise in autocracy that could have eliminated the legislative branch of government at one fell swoop — a sizable majority of Republican House representatives still refused to accept Biden’s victory. No comparable scene had been witnessed in an established republic since Roman consul Sulla’s dictatorial seizure of power more than 2,000 years ago — followed by proscription lists in which the assassination of his political opponents was publicly invited.

In our strange case, however, the principal target was Mike Pence, whose name was on the very same ballot that Trump claimed for his own, on a gallows erected on the Capitol steps.

Representative democracies need organized groups to encompass divergent opinion and function effectively. Responsible conservative parties are part of this spectrum. The present-day Republican Party is neither responsible nor conservative, but a clique devoted to winning and holding power by any means necessary. It is incompatible with democratic government as repeatedly demonstrated, and its submission to Trump over the past four years has assured that it will not reform itself.  Nor is this simply a consequence of Trump himself. Republicans have recognized themselves as a minority party since the New Deal, understanding that their only reliable route to power is by gaming the political system by any means available: gerrymandering electoral districts, stacking the courts and dog-whistling racism.

Democrats have not been above these tactics, but they have depended less on them. Republicans, at this point, cannot exist without them. Now they have crossed the red line between partisanship and chicanery to the embrace of a demagogue who rejected the fundamental tenet of a democratic system: accepting the outcome of a free election. What this means, if Biden and the Democrats expect to deal with the multiple crises confronting the country, is to enforce majority rule by all procedural means at their disposal. This means governing more through a ministerial than a presidential system, in which the majority party enacts its agenda without compromise or concession. Roosevelt was able to do this through large Congressional majorities and by bludgeoning a reactionary Supreme Court when it attempted to oppose him.

The ministerial system, such as that in Canada and Britain, has its own system of checks and balances on an errant executive when necessary.  This is far less the case with us, and, under less pressing circumstances, the last thing I would wish to see is a more powerful and less accountable presidency. But I don’t see much of a choice here, at least under present conditions. An opposition party that continues to question the legitimacy of an elected president and whose guiding principle is obstruction is not a participant in responsible government. In fact, with a Congress now more than three weeks in session, McConnell has not yet yielded Senate committee majorities to the victorious opposition.

If the Democrats expect to govern, they’d better snap to it. I thought the GOP was finished after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, which started with a judicially upended election and finished with two failed wars and the first major depression since the 1930s. So did Republicans, many of whom expected a generation or more in the wilderness.

They clawed their way back, winning the House of Representatives within two years, the Senate in six, and the White House — in another election, like that of Bush, tainted by a minority popular vote — in eight. Then, Vice President Biden was tasked with gaining bipartisan support for Barack Obama’s signature legislative effort, the Affordable Care Act. He spent a year on this, making one concession after another, and failed to win a single Republican vote in either chamber of Congress.

This is the same Joe Biden who thinks he can play ball now with the same Mitch McConnell. Heaven help him (and us) if he seriously thinks that is possible. Biden has been urged in the media to be “Rooseveltian” in the present crisis. That means not only to come up with big ideas to deal with big problems. It means using the powers of his office, emergency ones if necessary, to put them into action.