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Can We Stop America’s Free Fall?

The characteristics of our decline.
September 28, 2020
Can We Stop America’s Free Fall?
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

Twenty years ago—the end of the “American Century”—I began arguing that our democracy had embarked on a decline which might prove irreversible.

Friends found this gratuitously gloomy. But, to me, the millennium bristled with the indicia of failure:

A lack of national cohesion and a sense of common citizenship. An economy wherein a prospering stock market disguised growing economic insecurity. Our deteriorating infrastructure and public finances. A widening political polarization.

A corrupt campaign finance system which promoted plutocracy. An increasingly politicized judiciary. The burgeoning fundamentalism which infused a major party with theocratic tendencies and contempt for science.

The anger and misinformation spawned by talk radio. An increasingly narcissistic mass culture which cheapened celebrity and displaced true achievement. All of this, I felt, added up to a dangerous diminution of national virtue.

But our decline over the last two decades has been more comprehensive and precipitous than I foresaw. Our challenge now is to do what no great power has achieved: reverse the tide of history.

That requires an unsparing reckoning of all that we confront.

1. The deterioration of social and economic cohesion.

The heart of our decline is a profound national ennui that no legislation or public policy, of itself, can cure. Our geographic, cultural, and economic sorting quickens, aggravating our toxic societal fissures. Lacking any common experience of national service, military or otherwise, which engages those from different backgrounds in the larger enterprise of America, too many of us believe we owe the country and our fellow Americans nothing more than to satisfy ourselves.

Despite its wonders, the Internet has become an instrument of self-sabotage. Too often Twitter is a wellspring of groundless hysteria. Facebook not only cheapens the concept of friendship, but channels a tsunami of paranoia, mendacity, and electoral subversion which turns Americans against each other.

So does much of contemporary media, talk radio, and cable news. As Robin Wright notes, “When Athens and Sparta went to war . . . the Greek general and historian Thucydides observed, ‘the Greeks did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke the same language.’ In the twenty-first century, the same thing is happening among Americans. Our political discourse has become ‘civil war by other means—we sound as if we do not really want to continue to be members of one country,’ [as] Richard Kreitner wrote.”

The “shareholder capitalism” popularized by Milton Friedman accelerated our atomization. By reducing the obligations of American corporations to just that of shareholder enrichment, this Darwinian dogma empowered business to gut unions, reduce benefits, suffocate antitrust law, hamstring environmental regulation, and create yawning disparities of income and wealth.

Free from the restraining power of government, corporations used the unlimited contributions licensed by Citizens United to co-opt public policy. The “free market” became a synonym for crony capitalism, wherein government insured Wall Street against the consequences of irresponsible speculation that, in 2008, decimated the finances of ordinary people increasingly bereft of security. The shared prosperity which followed World War II had become state-sanctioned economic predation.

2. The comprehensive degeneration of a major political party.

Central to this erosion of national comity was the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican party. Wedded to the economic interests of its donor class, the GOP propitiated its base by abandoning its stated principles in favor of stoking racial animus until, inevitably, white identity politics became an addiction.

One manifestation was the race-based unreason of birtherism; another voter-suppression laws targeting minorities; still another the overt racism stoked by America’s president.

Its companion was a mindless xenophobia which further diminished our global standing. Especially self-enfeebling was hostility to the legal immigration through which America formerly renewed itself by inviting the enterprising and energetic to become part of our national story—from those of humble origins to the gifted professionals who have maintained our lead in science, medicine and innovation.

3. The destruction of governmental competence.

A crippling aversion to government has undermined the ability to address our most urgent problems. It is perfectly reasonable to fear that government slights ordinary people. But the GOP’s pseudo-populism has diminished government’s core competence in a time of converging crises. Writes George Packer:

Trump came to power as the repudiation of the Republican establishment. But the conservative political class and the new leader soon reached an understanding. . . . Republican politicians and donors who wanted government to do as little as possible for the common good could live happily with a regime that barely knew how to govern at all.

As 2020 has shown, the combination of societal fissures and governmental paralysis is a superhighway to the Third World. Packer observes:

This was the American landscape that lay open to the virus: In prosperous cities, a class of globally connected desk workers dependent on a class of precarious and invisible service workers; in the countryside, decaying communities in revolt against the modern world; on social media, mutual hatred and endless vituperation among different camps; in the economy, even with full employment, a large and growing gap between triumphant capital and beleaguered labor; in Washington, an empty government led by a con man and his intellectually bankrupt party; around the country, a mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of a shared identity or future.

Here, Packer could have added: “A nation in retreat from science and expertise.” Over decades the Republican base and/or donor class questioned the teaching of evolution in schools; claimed vaccination causes autism (or worse); rejected climate science; and, confronted with a lethal virus, belittled public health experts. With respect to both climate change and the pandemic, right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity derided science as a smokescreen for a liberal attack on personal autonomy.

For all these maladies, America paid dearly. Packer observes:

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. With no national plan—no coherent instructions at all—families, schools, and offices were left to decide on their own whether to shut down and take shelter. When test kits, masks, gowns, and ventilators were found to be in desperately short supply, governors pleaded for them from the White House, which stalled, then called on private enterprise, which couldn’t deliver. States and cities were forced into bidding wars that left them prey to price gouging and corporate profiteering. . . . Russia, Taiwan, and the United Nations sent humanitarian aid to the world’s richest power—a beggar nation in utter chaos.

Further, as Neera Tanden details:

The reality of the virus has exposed massive economic and racial inequalities in our society—from who can get a test to who is forced to go out to work through the pandemic. It has exposed the moral distortions of a market system that so little values those who provide vital services to us in a crisis—ensuring that we all have access to food, health care, protection. . . . And as the virus has disproportionately killed people of color, we are bearing witness to the devastating impact of the structural inequalities [they] face.

In short, this has become a nation so vulnerable to rot from within that it needlessly kills its own—200,000 and counting. Yet too many of the survivors hide from this reality and villainize those who speak it, endangering our communal resolve to follow public health measures needed to protect us going forward. Little wonder, when their exemplar is America’s president.

Little wonder, also, that he blames the catastrophic conflagration in the West solely on deficient forest management. Following the precedent of his party, he has derided the science of climate change, censored discussion of its causes within the government, and salted key agencies with quacks and hacks who deny the reality of melting icecaps, receding shorelines, proliferating hurricanes, widening droughts, and record infernos conveniently placed in blue states.

No matter that, in the lifetime of Americans now children, climate change is likely to trigger mass migration and economic dislocation. Trump and his enablers are not serious people, and their sway suggests we are no longer a serious country capable of surmounting the challenges that threaten our future.

Our deficits widen, and for most of the last decade the federal debt has exceeded 100 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. But tax cuts for the wealthy sap revenues needed to combat the pandemic, and threaten to saddle future generations with debilitating levels of debt.

In 2017 America’s association of civil engineers estimated that it would take $4.6 trillion to repair our airports, roads, bridges, railways, power grids, and internet which increasingly evoke the developing world. Since then, our government has done nothing.

Instead of tackling our real problems, Trump seeks re-election by inflaming the incendiary racial hostility which, at its worst, can explode in violence between those who abuse the cause of racial justice and white vigilantes who imagine themselves action figures in Trump’s quasi-fascist alternative theater. One measure of our decline is that he may succeed.

4. The systemic distortions of democracy.

But the election of 2020 also illuminates flaws in our political architecture which erode democracy itself.

Traditionally, gerrymandering was bipartisan. But the GOP has perfected the art of rendering voter preferences in legislative districts near-meaningless by jamming Democratic voters into the fewest districts possible—creating a surplus of Republican legislators.

Take 2012: Even though Democrats received over a million more votes, Republicans claimed a 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives. In Ohio, Republican House candidates got 51 percent of the vote but three quarters of the congressional seats. In Pennsylvania, which elected a Democratic president and senator statewide, the GOP took 13 of 18 congressional races.

Even in 2018, the Democrats’ “blue wave” was diminished by gerrymandered districts which gave the GOP an immense structural advantage. After the GOP garnered half of the popular vote in North Carolina in 2018 but took 10 of 13 congressional seats, a Republican legislator ruefully observed: “I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” This is democracy as sham.

Worse—because it is enshrined in our Constitution—is the Electoral College. Forget debating its origins—in a 50-state America riven by demographic sorting, it is terminally dysfunctional.

Twice in the last five elections it has yielded a president who lost the popular vote. And because most states are clearly blue or red, roughly six—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona—decide the victor.

The intrinsic damage which the Electoral College inflicts on democracy is, of itself, considerable. It gives a handful of unrepresentative states disproportionate power. It slants public policy toward the preferences of swing voters who live there. It disempowers citizens in non-competitive states.

Moreover the gap between the popular and electoral vote is widening: As Nate Silver notes, in 2020 Trump could lose the popular vote by two or three percentage points and the race would still be a tossup. Whatever the Founding Fathers intended in 1787, in 2020 an autocrat seeking to advantage his party beneath a legal veneer of democracy could hardly do better.

But Republicans have perceived something more: The Electoral College has become a roadmap for rigging elections through aggressive voter suppression. The six-state hegemony invites Republicans to diminish Democratic voters through strict ID laws, voter purges, and poll closures—all designed to target minorities. This year—by slowing the mails and making groundless claims of voter fraud—Trump is laying the predicate for throwing out mail-in ballots received after Election Day.

Indeed the prospect of delayed results has led Trump to openly anticipate enlisting the judiciary to give him an Electoral College victory regardless of the ultimate count. After all, it’s happened before.

5. The politicization of the federal judiciary.

In 2000, a Republican majority on the Supreme Court anointed George W. Bush by stopping the recount in Florida, a decision so contrived that the Court itself disclaimed it as precedent. But in the succeeding 20 years, the GOP’s conversion of our presumptively independent judiciary into the avatar of its political interests—no matter how threadbare the pretext—has proceeded apace.

A key actor is the Federalist Society, a group lavishly funded by right-wing donors to assure the political and ideological reliability of Republican appointees to the bench—most recently, Amy Coney Barrett. As a group of Democratic senators pointedly noted in August 2019: “The Society counts over eighty-six percent of Trump administration nominees to the circuit courts of appeal and to this Court as active members.”

The result is that in cases of political import the Supreme Court often functions less like an independent branch of government than an organ of the Republican party. The Democratic senators illustrate this partisan subjugation through a comprehensive statistical analysis:

From October Term 2005 through October Term 2017, [the Supreme] Court issued 78 5-4 (or 5-3) opinions in which justices appointed by Republican presidents provided all five votes in the majority. In 73 of these 5-4 decisions, the cases concerned interests important to the big funders, corporate influencers, and political base of the Republican Party. And in each of these 73 cases, those partisan interests prevailed. . . .

With bare partisan majorities, the Court has influenced sensitive areas like voting rights, partisan gerrymandering, dark money, union power, regulation of pollution, corporate liability, and access to federal court, particularly regarding civil rights and discrimination in the workplace. Every single time, the corporate and Republican political interests prevailed.

Particularly telling, the senators noted, was the Court’s intellectual inconsistency in the service of partisan ends: “The pattern of outcomes is striking; and so is the frequency with which these 5-4 majorities disregarded ‘conservative’ judicial principles like judicial restraint, originalism, stare decisis, and even federalism.”

Three examples of this results-oriented jurisprudence suffice—all involving Chief Justice John Roberts. In Citizens United v. FEC (2010), Roberts so assiduously maneuvered to open the floodgates to corporate money in politics that Justice Stevens, himself a Republican appointee, accused Roberts of violating the Court’s own procedures.

In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act by ignoring the inescapable evidence that the result would be GOP-authored voter ID laws which discriminated against minorities inclined to vote for Democrats, making the disingenuous assertion that racial progress in America had ameliorated the need to scrutinize such laws.

In Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), Roberts ruled that curbing partisan gerrymandering was beyond the capacity of federal courts, arguing that voters should seek redress through the same political process that Republican gerrymandering had corrupted—presumably from the same officials who corrupted it.

The only consistency in these 5-4 decisions is that they advanced the political interests of the GOP. When Citizens United required judicial activism, Roberts supplied it; when Shelby County required faux naïveté, he supplied it; when Rucho required judicial modesty, he supplied it. Should the November election require the Roberts court to intervene on behalf of the free and fair election Trump plans to subvert, there is little chance that it will.

6. The expansion of lawless and autocratic executive power.

The erosion of judicial independence is emblematic of a larger malady: the unbridled expansion of executive power beyond its intended bounds, abetted by partisan legislators who enable a rogue president to eviscerate the rule of law.

This arrogation of authority is not Trump’s singular invention. It proceeds from the executive expansionism which marks America’s modern history. Too late, we see the danger in licensing any president to exceed his constitutional writ.

Article I reposes primacy in Congress—including the power to declare war. But for last seventy years presidents have initiated de facto wars based on, at most, elastic congressional authorizations. The many thousands of soldiers lost are no less dead for lack of a congressional declaration.

Nor is our problem simply that Trump abused our military by dispatching it to Lafayette Square as part of his authoritarian tableau. Our Constitution grants Congress the power to pass laws, craft budgets, confirm or reject key executive appointments, and remove the chief executive. Here, again, Trump has built on the abuse of executive orders by prior presidents to comprehensively flout congressional oversight and erase constitutional boundaries.

The blame lies not only with Trump. As Senator Mike Lee wrote in National Review: “What Congress wants today is to be weak . . . for fear of the political consequences.” But Lee is too kind to himself and his fellow Republicans who cower in fear of Trump.

Unconstrained, Trump substitutes presidential fiat for legislation; reallocates monies appropriated by Congress; and relies on acting appointees not subject to confirmation. He purges inspectors general charged with policing his administration; and subverts government agencies to serve his re-election. He ignores congressional subpoenas; bars congressional testimony by government officials; and commits impeachable offenses with the craven acquiescence of his party.

The principal theoretician of presidential autocracy is Attorney General William Barr. Under the Constitution, Barr argued—in a 2018 memo, which helped land him the attorney general appointment—that there is “no limit on the President’s authority to act on matters which concern him or his own conduct.” Therefore, “Congress could not make it a crime for the President to exercise supervisory authority over cases in which his own conduct might be at issue.”

In effect Barr asserts that, as president, Trump is above the law—and, further, can protect his enablers from the consequences of their own illegal actions. This brings us, inexorably, to the 2016 campaign—and Trump’s fealty to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

7. The subordination of American sovereignty to an inimical foreign power.

Barr intervened in Russia-related federal prosecutions to exonerate Michael Flynn after he pleaded guilty to obstruction, and to reduce the post-conviction sentencing of Roger Stone for perjury. He grossly misrepresented Robert Mueller’s report regarding Russian interference on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 election. More recently, he has been pushing a blatantly political investigation of the FBI and CIA officials whose scrutiny of Russia’s relationship to Trump’s campaign established the predicate for Mueller’s inquiry.

There are few things more important to American democracy than assuring the integrity of our elections. But the sole concern of America’s chief law enforcement officer is, quite clearly, to protect Trump from exposure of his ties to a malign autocracy which jails and murders its opponents.

Our intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that Russia had intervened to help elect Trump in 2016 as, more recently, did the Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump has denigrated those findings; embraced Putin’s literally incredible denials; declined to protest Russia’s attempted murder of Victor Navalny or its placement of bounties on American troops; and argued for Russia’s readmission to the G-7 despite the unanimous objection of allies. So strange is Trump’s subservience that, Bob Woodward reports, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats “continued to harbor the secret belief . . . that Putin had something on Trump.”

Both the FBI and CIA have stated that Russia is conducting operations aimed at defeating Joe Biden in 2020. Trump attacks those assessments, while his new director of national intelligence has cut off oral briefings to Congress on Russia’s electoral interference.

In part because of Trump’s evasions, we cannot know whether Coats is right. But no self-respecting democracy should countenance a leader who facilitates foreign sabotage of our elections.

8. The diminishing bipartisan commitment to democratic institutions.

Trump also means to help himself. Like the caudillo of a banana republic, America’s president expects our highest Court—including his appointee to succeed Justice Ginsburg—to short-circuit democracy by terminating the tabulation of mail-in ballots. “We’re going to have a victory on November 3,” he crowed at a rally. “Now we’re counting on the federal court system to make it so we can actually have an evening where we know who wins, not where the votes are going to be counted a week later or two weeks later.”

There are numerous scenarios in which Trump and his party could rig the Electoral College. According to Barton Gellman’s blockbuster Atlantic article last week, Republican officials in some key states are discussing how to do just that. Believe it: Time and again, Trump and his party have demonstrated who they are.

It is quite telling that when Trump talks about throwing out ballots, or refuses to commit to a peaceful transitional power, elected Republicans remain silent. No doubt they believe, correctly, that their base is more attached to Trump than to democracy.

All the professorial pieties about guardrails holding and the strength of our institutions are increasingly self-delusional. The Constitution is not self-executing; absent a critical mass of politicians and citizens determined to uphold it, it is simply another piece of paper.

As the institutions of democracy fail, so does the popular understanding of what democracy is—and the means or will to protect it. Too few Americans venerate the Bill of Rights or understand the separation of powers. Too many long for a strongman to control the political other.

In modern America, the sensibility of our Founders wanes; the venomous spirit which brought us Donald Trump waxes. Any student of history has seen this trajectory before, and knows too well where it ends. Unless we can reverse it—and soon—we will find ourselves living in a rump democracy until, all at once, it descends to autocracy cum plutocracy.

The daunting path to renewal.

The indispensable prerequisite for restoration is the defeat of Donald Trump. Only then can we give ordinary Americans the security that undergirds a stable democracy: quality healthcare; economic and racial justice; universal childcare; decent public schools; affordable higher education; internet access; and fair wages.

Further, we need a lasting commitment to combating climate change; protecting the environment; renewing our infrastructure; and crafting an immigration system which reflects our better self. “For change to endure,” George Packer writes, “for national shame to become pride, we need a radical agenda with a patriotic spirit. We have to revive the one thing that has ever held together this sprawling, multiplicitous country: democratic faith.”

That requires sweeping reform of our sclerotic institutions, and the popular will to do it. But a majority of Americans generally believe that we need significant changes in how our government functions.

Here are some essentials: Protecting voting rights. Achieving a multistate compact to conform the Electoral College to the popular will. Establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices. Abrogating the filibuster. Instituting bipartisan commissions to design legislative districts. Curbing money in politics. Passing strict ethics requirements for public officials.

That is daunting, perhaps impossible, agenda. But it’s the only way our failing democracy can hope to reclaim our collective faith. Writes Packer: “The experience of a competent, active government bringing opportunity and justice to Americans left behind by globalization would inject an antivenom into the country’s bloodstream.”

For too long, American exceptionalism has been a synonym for smugness and myopia. But if we can return America to what it can be at its best, defying history, we will have truly proven ourselves exceptional.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.