AMERICA ON THE EDGE OF AN INSTITUTIONAL ABYSS
Now that America seems to have stepped back from full institutional implosion, it remains to be seen if the nation can rebuild its political infrastructure to provide for a chance at good governance. The recently completed election cycle replete with its racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant backdrop should serve as fair warning of just how close the nation came to completely losing its way. That some of the human detritus in our midst was elevated to public office or allowed to continue there only serves to heighten that concern.
Then, as a final electoral reminder of how close to the abyss America remains, one of the most unqualified candidates to ever seek a US Senate seat, Herschel Walker, forced a runoff against a decent incumbent Senator in Georgia and then got 48.6% of the vote in that runoff.* So, with the actual mid-term elections now finally over, Republican Party headlights are still flashing in our collective rear view mirror. They are flashing red and remain a continuing threat to obliterate electoral guardrails .
To add to the gravitas of the situation, there is the ongoing spectacle on the international stage of this sanctimonious nation going to great lengths to impose its vision of a more democratic world in faraway places, often at the point of a gun. Meanwhile, corruption, greed and grift has been tolerated in America at levels so high that the very institutions championed elsewhere seem overwhelmed at home.
It would be easy to go on to try to draw some conclusions about the state of “democracy” in America after the recent elections. But a simple focus on gerrymandering, the filibuster, a corrupted Supreme Court, kneecapped regulators, election-denying election officials and the like should be more than enough for most people to draw their own conclusions. Further, even that exercise is unlikely to fully expose the institutional rot and the fundamental human cruelty that it has spawned.
And, of course, there is violence and the threat of violence that is ever-present in the nation’s public arena, public spaces, and behind closed doors. No sooner had some Americans taken a post-election deep breath than our breath was taken away by yet another spate of mindless gun violence, shredding any notion that America is on a better path.
So, leaving aside discussions of an ill-defined “democracy,” what are the useful takeaways from the recent election now that the dust has settled a bit? Of most importance, I share concerns about the sustainability of the Democratic Party achievements in the mid-term elections. Too much about their messaging is confused and reactive to events. Going forward, I would be far more comfortable with a simple vision that embraces diversity, inclusion, and some healthy measure of social and racial justice. And, once the vision is clear, presentation of the policy objectives required to implement that vision.
On the positive side, the results are a well-deserved boost for President Biden who was able to crystalize a message that worked in the moment, even though it was completely underplayed by the media until the very end. Also, there seems to have been some genuine backlash among moderates and independents against Trump, the troglodytes he supported, the message he and they delivered and continue to deliver, and a seemingly corrupt and compromised Supreme Court. But too many Democratic victories were too narrow to convince me that the Republican Party is on the run or in ruin. They, their acolytes and their willfully ignorant supporters will not go away anytime soon.
That brings us to the House of Representatives. Winning the House by a slim margin would have been a disaster for the Democrats. Had that happened, expectations of a legislative capacity to deliver on campaign promises and make America wonderful would have been the ongoing narrative. Meeting such expectations was never going to happen. In the coming two years of the next election cycle, the Democrats would have been able to deliver next to nothing with minimal margins in both houses of Congress, and would have put themselves on the chopping block for that failure.
Now, they can leave it to the Republicans in the House to perform some version of a continued dance with their own demons, devoid of legislative proposals to address real domestic and international issues. Their unifying mantra is to trash the Democrats for everything, even trying and succeeding. Now, the Democrats will have their own unifying mantra that focuses on the governance shit show in the House of Representatives run by the Republicans. And, it will be a shit show.** So, let that show begin - bring on Biden's troubled son, Benghazi, Afghanistan, Dr. Fauci and the covid response, the border “crisis,” and the daily assault on the sensitivities of White Christian children.
Into this contextual mix, it is worth remembering that today’s American political system goes forward with only two viable political parties, each with its own internal divisions. The Republican Party remains corrupted by greed and a quest for power without substance, seems committed to undermining governance every step of the way, and has a huge media footprint that the Democrats cannot match. Further, they have cultivated a committed base of voters that seems beyond redemption and surely will continue to respond to Republican messaging about social issues, diversity, gun violence, immigration, book burning, and phony economic policy alternatives that disadvantage the very people who seem to buy the message.
As for the Democrats, they succeeded only in exceeding a very low bar. The challenge for them is to figure how to raise the bar and then succeed again. That outcome is only possible if the Democrats can collectively commit themselves to the institutional reforms required for good governance to have a chance, and for government itself to meet the policy challenges ahead. Going forward, the party’s strength is that it has a deep bench of committed activists who understand the depth of America’s institutional morass and are willing to seek solutions.
It would be remiss to discuss the mid-term elections without noting that the pollsters, pundits, and news readers got it so wrong again. Unlikely as it seems, maybe this time they will actually learn something and begin to cover issues as news, stop pandering to anonymous sources, upend false equivalencies, and begin to draw clear lines between reporting facts and commenting about them. Continuing to fall short at these basic tasks often leaves the truth in doubt and provides fertile ground for so much collective willful ignorance to thrive. Focusing on content rather than soundbites would be a good place to start. Instead, the media has seamlessly moved to horse race mode with a finish line of 2024.
I managed to get this far in the piece - to the very end - only mentioning the corrupt and crumbling Trump once by name. It seems that for him, his day of accountability for so much corruption, mendacity, and cruelty is finally arriving. He gave the worst in American society a clear path out of their caves and into our conscience and communities. Someday, if America can forcefully step back from the institutional abyss, we may even thank him for this. Maybe we had to see clearly the demons within to exorcise them.
But before we even try to get there, Trump must be paraded through the proverbial streets in shame. I, for one among many, will celebrate that shame amid the hope that it can vanquish the gathering storm.
** It is worth noting in this context that President Clinton's popularity soared as he was going through his own impeachment process because of Republican excess and overreach. See https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/impeachment/clinton-impeachment-and-its-fallout .