Lots of Americans prefer totalitarianism

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s been noted that democracy is on the decline around the world. Venezuela is the most recent example. Unhappy about 2015 election results that gave socialist president Nicolás Maduro an opposition legislature, Maduro refused to let the national assembly meet. Most recently he is pushing for a rewriting the constitution by a new Constituent Assembly, elected by socialists in a widely boycotted election. The so-called assembly is busy rewriting the constitution to ensure no further democracy is possible. Meanwhile, Venezuela continues a long downward slide with the possibility of civil war looming.

Here in the United States there are plenty of people that don’t like democracy. Many would like ours gone altogether. This seems to include our president, who is deeply annoyed that he cannot run the government by fiat. He is trying to keep undesirable voters from voting by empowering a commission to look into the nonexistent issue of voter fraud. Deeply red states are way ahead of Trump, having essentially thrown the 2016 elections with voter suppression. Yet they still continue to look for ways to ensure only those they deem worthy of voting have that privilege. They are hardly covert. The powerful American Legislative Council (ALEC), essentially a wealthy group funded by large corporations and multimillionaires to advance conservative causes, wants to repeal the 17th amendment, which allowed for the direct election of senators by voters of states. States are already highly gerrymandered, much more so in deeply red states.

Feeding the frustration is the feeling that nothing is getting done in Washington. Trump’s election was a statement that a strongman was needed. Fortunately for those interested in democracy, Trump has proven staggeringly inept in following through, but he certainly has put antidemocratic sycophants into key positions of power. As a result we get weird policies like a State Department that wants to stop promoting democracy. Sure, why not? The Trump Administration sure doesn’t believe in it.

In truth, Americans have always been uncomfortable with democracy even though it’s why we are still here 250 years later. Originally in most states only white male landowners could vote. Votes for non-whites, non-property owners and women were given grudgingly, and to black men only as a result of civil war. We might not be a country at all if the founding fathers hadn’t agreed to give southern states disproportionate voting power by allowing a slave to be counted as three fifths of a person for voting purposes. This plus the Electoral College which gives more votes to rural states are still at work subverting democracy. It elected Trump and along with tested voter suppression strategies flipped key states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in 2016.

But why would so many Americans be against democracy in the first place? This was on my brain last night and extended into a weird dream, perhaps inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale recently broadcast on Hulu. (It so depressed me that I only made it through the first episode.) In the dream, I was a new entrant into a country that looked a lot like America, but had been taken over by something like the American Taliban. Everyone (not just women) lived in a police state. Not only that but we all dressed in something resembling burkas, covered head to toe not in a white sheet, but in formless white latex, under which we lived our lives, such as they were. Overhead was the constant presence of police drones. Everyone made surreal happy talk. To survive in this country, you had to blend in and our latex coverings pretty much ensured that. The true elite though didn’t have to cover themselves in white latex, but the rest of us hid all individuality behind two small eye holes. The elite ran things and the rest of us were supposed to not be seen or acknowledged: depersonalized and barely human.

Waking up I realized it was not as surreal as I thought, and potentially a plausible outcome in a decade or two if we don’t reclaim our democracy. Jimmy Carter has already stated that we are living in an oligarchy. Look around at your gerrymandered government. Your politicians overwhelmingly vote in the interests of the rich that funded their campaigns. The only question is whether we can wrest our democracy back or whether we fall further toward totalitarianism.

Plenty of American support totalitarianism provided “their” people are in charge. This is exactly what gerrymandering and voter suppression is all about. They want to make America in their image and squeeze out all dissenting voices. Democracy is supposed to be a messy process that forces imperfect compromises but which in general act in the interest of the majority of the population.

But why are so many, perhaps a majority of us, so uncomfortable with true democracy that we prefer totalitarianism instead? Puzzling this out occupied the majority of my brain between 3 AM and 6 AM this morning. I think it all comes down to fear of change, which is weird. Democracy is supposed to be a way to civilly handle change that is inevitable with time. For many of us though the potentially unknown consequences of change are scarier than an open and democratic process that forces competing ideas to be vetted, argued and reconciled openly. I believe that fear of change is the ultimate motivator for the many totalitarian wannabees among us.

We fear not just the unknown but we fear even more confronting and reconciling our prejudices. To avoid this process we “other” those we perceive not to be enough like us. I grew up in a community easily 98% white. Eventually I moved to the Washington D.C. area where everything was multicultural. I don’t think I was ever overtly racist, but I know I was initially uncomfortable being in a multicultural community because it was new and constantly in my face.

With time I discovered that my fears were silly and misplaced. These weren’t “others”, they were “us”. Over time it became my new normal. Confronting my fears put these fears to rest and made me ashamed I ever felt differently. Over a few decades it became inate: we really are all the same. For the most part our differences are walls we put up between us to keep us from acknowledging this plain truth. Whatever inchoate fears I had of minorities, the poor, the rich, the Muslim, the Sikh, the Arab, the Hindi, the gay, the transgender, even the Republican voter are gone. We magnify our differences and miss that we mostly we are the same.

This happens naturally as communities become more multicultural. There is nothing to fear from integration and much to gain, as I discovered returning to Washington D.C. last month where I ate Cuban food for the first time. (Yum! Fried plantains!) Fear of democracy is such a nothingburger, to use a term that Trump likes to use about the Russian investigation underway. True democracy promotes cohesion and lowers barriers between us. It makes fears ebb and helps us look forward to a promising tomorrow, because we know we are all in it together and we are more alike than dissimilar.

When our founding fathers declared independence, Ben Franklin was famously asked what form of government had been decided upon. “A republic, if you can keep it,” he said. Nearly 250 years later, we have never been so close to losing it. We must fight now for the right to peacefully solve our differences through a democratic process. Otherwise the civil unrest you see now in Venezuela and many other places may take root here, and those latex burkas in my dream may be in our futures.

The Republican unraveling

The Thinker by Rodin

The Senate’s rejection of a “skinny repeal” of the Affordable Care Act last night was a bit of a surprise, but certainly symptomatic of a Republican Party in free fall. It was really a roll of the dice and could have easily gone either way but either way would have been bad for Republicans.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) certainly found a great time to go “mavericky”. Perhaps his brain cancer diagnosis gave him an opportunity to vote his conscience for a change and cement something of a legacy. McCain got most of the attention but Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also bucked considerable party pressure in voting against this bill. In any event it was clear that many Republican senators weren’t actually in favor of the “skinny repeal” bill. Many voted for it only on the condition that the House moves it to a conference committee and create something else. The bill’s failure appears to be a harbinger that the leadership’s ability to ram legislation through by bypassing its committees is nearing an end.

The White House hasn’t gotten the lesson. As usual seems to be doubling down on the stupid. This has the effect of making the White House even more chaotic and paralyzed. It’s like Trump wants to do everything wrong and in the worst possible way. In my last post I advised Americans to buckle their seat belts because the turbulence would only get worse. It has, and dramatically so. I often feel like we are living in a parallel universe because our politics is so chaotic and disordered that it is hard to believe it’s real. The only question is what parts of the aircraft fail first and whether the nation can make something of a safe landing. Consider:

  • On Wednesday Trump tweeted that transgender people will no longer be allowed to serve in the military. He said this decision was made after consulting with his generals, which appears to be a lie. He certainly didn’t consult with his Defense secretary, who was blindsided. It’s unclear if this tweet will become policy. But it has caused a hell of a ruckus, with prominent Republicans coming out against it. It’s not hard to figure out why Trump did this. He’s creating distractions and trying to excite his base, which is only excited when he does hateful things to groups they dislike. Trump says this decision will save money and improve our military. But if carried out it would remove tens of thousands of transgender people from the military who are serving honorably and who the nation has already invested considerable time and money. So aside from the blatant discrimination it makes our military less ready and less ready.
  • New White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is busy trying to act nastier than Donald Trump, if that’s possible. In his amazing, profanity-laden interview with The New Yorker, Scaramucci called the man who is supposedly his boss, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a “fucking paranoid schizophrenic” and suggested Priebus was a leaker. He said of White House adviser Steve Bannon: “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” He says he plans to fire everyone on the White House communications staff. Oh, and he wants to kill all White House leakers.
  • Trump continues trying to figure out a relatively benign way to fire his earliest and biggest supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which he hopes can be done indirectly through his voluntary resignation. So far he hasn’t found the courage to fire him outright. Trump is very upset that Sessions recused himself from the Russian investigation, figuring it was Sessions’ duty to make it go away because of loyalty. He either doesn’t know that the Attorney General is supposed to be independent so the law can be enforced impartially or simply doesn’t care. In any event his true target is Sessions’ deputy, the only person who can fire Special Counsel Mueller. Trump needs a new sycophant Attorney General who will fire Sessions’ deputy, which Sessions can’t do because he’s recused himself. If he can then he has to hope to have the acting deputy fire Mueller. All this is greatly alarming Republicans in Congress because Sessions is seen by them as an excellent conservative hitting all the issues they care about. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), has already said that he won’t hold any hearings for a replacement if Sessions is fired. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) also announced that if Sessions is fired he would pursue legislation to prohibit Trump from firing Mueller.
  • John McCain’s call for the return of regular order in the Senate received applause from senators on both sides, who have had enough of their leadership disempowering them. A revolt against their leadership is likely brewing.

Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have squandered their political capital. Trump feels the need to shake things up and bring in an ever purer, nastier and more loyal staff. He can’t compromise because he sees that as losing face. He’s certain that the way he has always done things will work in a republican system of government that requires compromise.

Feeling the pressure to get things done, both House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell are using insular and high-risk strategies to push through legislation that apparently is only supported by the slimmest of partisan majorities. Their system is breaking down, particularly in the Senate. Senators are immune from gerrymandering because the citizens of each state directly elect them. So the Senate is going to be more moderate than the House, and it’s this way be design, at least since the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913. In short, the institutional pressures and the simple desire for legislators to retain their seats are slowly overriding blind partisanship. We saw it yesterday in the votes of senators McCain, Collins and Murkowski.

Moreover, the executive branch is dissembling. The good news is that we have a competent Secretary of Defense, but it’s unclear if he can trump over a maniacal Donald Trump in a national security crisis. We also have a pissed off Secretary of State reputedly thinking of resigning and whose department is so understaffed that it is pretty much ineffective. We have branches of the executive at war with each other. And we have a president without the political skills to bring order to the mess he created and actually govern. In fact, we have a president that thinks not governing is governing. Thus it’s no surprise that there is massive dysfunction.

Look behind the scenes and it’s clear that institutional forces are marshaling, more significantly on the Republican side. Republicans are beginning to realize that they are better off without Trump. Fortunately, Trump gives them plenty of ammunition. Trump’s narcissism and cognitive dissonance will require him to become crazier and more erratic, which will feed the process. Ultimately, Republicans are going to war with each other, which should eventually render clear boundaries between traditional Republicans and Trump supporters. (Hint: the patriotic ones will eventually be seen as the traditional Republicans.) It’s all unnecessary if Trump would more toward political accommodation and begin governing rationally. It’s clear that he is incapable of doing so.