As I begin this commentary, there is an insurrection taking place at the U.S. Capitol. A riot has ensued following a speech by President Trump. He has urged his armed and surly supporters gathered in front of the White House to take matters into their own hands. The doors of the Capitol have been breached as tear gas fills the building. Guns have been drawn and blood has been spilled. The important, constitutionally mandated deliberations of Congress to certify Joe Biden as our next president have been interrupted by violence.
Civil order will be reestablished and the Biden inauguration will proceed on Jan. 20. Nonetheless, American democracy has suffered its most disgraceful attack, both figuratively and literally, since the Civil War.
At this point, it is not helpful to simply express anger against Trump, a very troubled individual, or even to place all blame on the self-serving sycophants who surround him, including some Republican members of Congress. To condemn Trump and his supporters and then turn the page is to ignore the problem. The broader question is how did the beacon of light shining on American democracy come to such a dark moment?
Among the hundreds of books written to explain the recent turn toward illiberal and nativist tendencies in American politics, one stands out in offering an explanation. The authors, Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman, indirectly predicted these shocking events of Jan. 6. in their excellent analysis, “Four Threats: The Recurring Crisis of American Democracy.” They make the strong case that only by understanding the four threats and taking measures to address them will democracy be restored to its proper balance.
The authors label political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality and excessive executive power as what I would label the “four horseman of the democracy apocalypse.” They determined it is the confluence of these factors, rather than the disruptive Trump presidency alone, that has brought on our present crisis. Moreover, the pandemic and the economic fallout it has precipitated deepened all four of the threats to democracy.
Horseman one: Political Polarization. The authors give us the observation that in the 1950s polled Americans did not care whether their child married a member of the opposing political party. In 2016 a majority of parents expressed a preference for a partisan son- or daughter-in law. As polarization gets worse, the “other” party becomes an existential threat to perceived core values. Violations of voting rights, civil rights and civil liberties become acceptable to preserve the “right” version of society. As we have seen this day (Jan. 6), the ultimate political polarization becomes the willingness to ignore democratic processes and stage a coup to upset an unpopular election.
Horseman two: Conflict Over Who Belongs in the Political Community. This threat has always been present in some form in our pluralistic nation with deep divisions along lines of race, gender religion and ethnicity. What is different in recent years has been the willingness of Republicans and the president to openly inflame these differences as a political strategy to unite a political coalition. On the left there has developed a counter mobilization of citizens who see no hope of compromise or consensus building.
The result is a divided political society where actors on both sides become convinced that to pursue their goals, the preservation of civility and democracy is not possible. This is most evident among Trump supporters where citizens trust their insular communities that are the same and familiar and distrust diversity.
Horseman three: High and Growing Economic Inequality. The authors point out that “among the wealthy democracies in the world today, the United States is the most economically unequal.” Since the 1970s the middle class has lost opportunities and wage growth. Conversely, the well-off have experienced exploding income and wealth. To the detriment of democracy, the wealthy have organized politically and, thanks to the Supreme Court, poured billions into political campaigns and causes to protect their interests.
Horseman four: Excessive Executive Power. This final threat has been developing over the course of the last 50 years, only to be exploited to its fullest during the Trump presidency. At every turn, prior presidents have taken steps to expand their executive power relative to Congress and the courts. Trump was able to worsen this trend by using the vast power of the executive branch to attack his enemies, ignore the rule of law, roll back regulations and drive a deeper wedge into partisan America. Moreover, Congress has failed to act as a proper check and balance on the powers of the presidency.
A careful review of American history led the authors to conclude that the United States has never faced all four threats at the same time. They conclude that while our democracy has always been fragile, we have never faced a test of this magnitude. They are optimistic that while deep structural changes to our democracy are difficult when all four threats are present, nothing stands in the way of our political leaders and citizens from making a concerted effort to preserve and restore democracy.
It is my view that the destabilizing events of Jan. 6 may be the catalyst to return the ship of state to a positive course. We may not get another wake-up call before it is too late.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.