When we talk about maintaining democracy, perhaps that sounds pretty vague. But I think about it simply: can we decide on power peacefully?
The answer for most of our history has been a remarkable “Yes.” That’s been a hallmark of U.S. governance and a trait for the world to follow for many years. Many countries haven’t been able to match us on this simple but all important standard.
But we’re in the middle of a deep social disease. Our society is simply unwell. And the bedrock principle is loose underneath the structure. American democracy is perched on a Florida sinkhole at the moment. Presidential elections feel less like elections these days and more like regularly scheduled social traumas. And next year’s mid-term elections will probably feel the same.
That’s because the back and forth on national policy in our two-party system has absolutely collapsed. Instead, the battle has shifted into something unsustainable, a war over reality itself, which increasingly turns into, “Are you with the good guys or the bad guys?” This is rooted in emotions tied to identity, not policy. Therefore, it is not leading us to a shared well being, but a shared demise.
We can hardly look at another person or hear what they say and not begin a sorting process, placing each other into binary, us/them categories. The moment any of us do this without any inner pause, then we readily jump into a pit and can’t see out. In such a partisan either/or mindset, we eliminate judgment based on a bigger picture — America itself — and want a team win, as if it’s Saturday and we are wearing colors.
In this rolling social war, bad tendencies on one side are feeding off the bad tendencies on the other. The excessive puritanical aspect on the left is a self sabotage politically. There is some unwritten, linguistic moral code that is changing constantly, and people with a middle-of-the-road mindset who are alienated by the excesses of the right are certainly not going to jump on board when they see a gleeful online mob completely certain of itself as it belittles another human who frequently has no ability to provide context. Yes, there are certainly things that need to be called out, but there also seems to be an easy righteousness in eliminating another’s humanity based on any real or perceived misstep. As the right moves more extreme, too many on the left seem to counter with more rigidity on what’s acceptable socially and more ease in applying its moral absolutism with or without context. This is not liberal mindedness. At times, the shut-em-down attitude can be less a virtue than a declaration of in-group/out-group tribalism.
I don’t want to be a part of that.
I don’t want to be a part of what I’m seeing on the right either. It absolutely horrifies me and on a bigger scale.
That’s because I feel more and more that our country, which fought to free itself of a king’s rule, is going to undo the legacy of the Revolutionary War and institute a king. There is absolutely nothing about the Republican Party right now that makes me think otherwise. Trumpism — whether with Trump or someone else — is the move toward a king. That’s the heart of it. Nothing is stopping this wave within the party.
In an anxious time full of uncertainty, it makes sense that people want it simple. Give me one guy, someone to cheer for, someone to lead my good tribe against the bad guys. Humans have done this for thousands of years. Democracy has been an experiment in the opposite of basic human social behavior. It’s a break from that ancient mindset of the most powerful club to the head makes right. Instead, it’s an attempt to give power to a system of governance rooted in the interests of the whole, not the few, with non-violent determinations replacing blood. That was the promise in the founding documents.
But even before Trump, we’ve felt that “the few” are controlling the many. And the frustrations have led to an old want for blood. In one way, Trumpism is one expression of a shared exasperation we all have. Plenty of people are drawn to it because of this deep and legitimate frustration and they want a clear answer. And Trump’s complete rejection of the moral superiority professed by the competing side is gratifying to many Republicans.
But a rejection of something that seems socially pompous shouldn’t give license to dynamiting the basic bedrock of American governance or the forgiveness of all wrongdoing so long as the “good team” does the bad things. The desire to counter the excesses of “political correctness” shouldn’t excuse moral lapses and hatefulness. But for many, it seems to. Anything goes as long as it’s by the king or for the king, this team, not that team. That is not a principled stand. That’s a circus.
Our society has grown a lot coarser over the past five years. Trumpism is an attitude of “screw civility,” because Trump is the man with a club in hand doing exactly that. This attitude is not a strength but a virus. It spreads like a contagion. It isn’t healthy.
The only conclusion I can draw from the ongoing embrace of overtly false and manipulative narratives is that peace is not wanted. War is the goal — a second revolutionary war of sorts, where a king is instituted by force. This was Jan. 6 in a nutshell. It seems destined to be repeated.
I say this because declaring that elections are rigged — but only if you lose — before elections are even held — that’s not the voicing of an electoral concern. No, that’s a strategy. The goal is to soak any unfavorable result in uncertainty. This strategy is also contagious. We just saw a candidate in the California recall profess fraud before the election was held. We will see it moving forward with increasing regularity. Trump opened the door to this bad-faith tactic like no other in American history. It absolutely won’t end there. And don’t be surprised to see it cross the spectrum politically if it is effective.
But please recognize that this strategy is lighter fluid poured all over the straw hut as we sleep. It is arson to a democracy and will lead to untold death and destruction. That is not hyperbole. That’s history. When established rules of national order fall, chaos follows. Is this what we want? Does antipathy for other people validate widescale social arson? No, it doesn’t on the left. It doesn’t on the right. Neither is OK.
We have witnessed a long slide toward a king’s rule well before Trump. The executive branch has grown too powerful as Congress has withered into complete dysfunction. But the Revolutionary War wasn’t fought to re-institute a king at a later date, was it? If you are cheering for exactly that, then I don’t know what to say. Perhaps I’d say that kings change, too. And tribal kingdoms are warring societies as “my king” turns to “your king,” and vice versa, not through elections, but through war.
Democracy in a flawed form is better than a tribal kingdom. That’s why the realm of evidence, not speculation, not conspiracy, must prevail. We absolutely must get better. We have to get over this deep sickness. Election integrity matters and accepting results is part of that integrity, too.
To sabotage the integrity of the electoral system by questioning results without evidence is a chess game concluded by tantrum, with the pieces all swatted on the floor. If we want bullets not ballots determining our way forward, then throwing all the pieces in the air and screaming is the new protocol.
We go to vote. They are counted. We move on. It’s been that way for over two centuries. If we are no longer that nation, then buckle up for a really rough century.
The desire for something to be true isn’t evidence of its truth. And if you have concerns about any election, then take it to the court of law. If we give up on that, we give up on the rule of law. If we give up on the rule of law, then well, what’s left? We all know the crystal clear answer. That’s why we can’t duck the question.
No more arson at election time. Keep the structure. Find a way to fix it.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.