The perfect imperfect conception of democracy | MinnPost
Every day we are told breathlessly of unprecedented polarization, extremist political rhetoric, even impending civil war. There is a self-fulfilling destructive prophecy in all these catastrophic sayings, because democracy only works if people believe it.
But let’s look at some recent data points. If we step away from the trees for a moment and assess the state of the forest, we can see that our system of liberal democracy is actually holding up very well. (I’m not talking about the partisan term “liberal” but the classic term.)
We are the beneficiaries of the centuries of thought, energy and struggle it took to create the political structures necessary for liberal democracy: representative institutions, rule of law, human rights, independent judiciary. Liberal democracy has produced the most prosperous, pluralistic and free societies in history.
Yes, liberalism was also responsible for slavery, genocide and colonization. But, tragically, these are perpetual human conditions and liberalism has provided the means to finally transcend them. The alternatives to liberalism – theocracy, strongman rule, revolutionary utopia – have been disasters.
The good news begins with the January 6 Committee hearings. Their strongest message was not the anti-democratic intrigues of Donald Trump, but the continued vigor of our system.
Recklessly wielding every lever of presidential power, Trump has beaten every link in the chain that binds our democracy together — the courts, state legislatures and election officials, the Justice Department, the vice president. Every link held firm.
The latest major political events highlight the sleek design of our system. James Madison, perhaps the greatest practical psychologist in history, built our quintessentially American version of liberal democracy out of a frustrating array of competing branches and levels of government. The system is skewed towards inaction rather than impetuous action and demands compromise on small steps of perpetual improvement.
For example, there is a growing consensus in America that climate change is real and needs to be addressed. But the original Build Back Better bill was a progressive wishlist whose initial $3.5 trillion price tag alarmed much of the public. The hard work of legislating has put the new Inflation Reduction Act on a more sustainable Democratic footing by cutting three-quarters of the cost and focusing more on climate change – a classic liberal half-loaf.
Then there is federalism. There has long been widespread support in this country for the right to abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and some restrictions later. But the Supreme Court groped the question of abortion badly by going back and forth. Now, at the state level, the referendum process, starting with Kansas, can better legitimize abortion law by letting voters, rather than judges or political supporters, decide the issue for themselves. .
The FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago confirms that the rule of law excludes no one. The White House was not even aware of the search, and even if it had orchestrated it, the warrant had to be approved by an independent judicial officer. And the Justice Department is still powerless against the former president, or any citizen, unless it can convince 12 citizen sworn guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In his book defending liberalism, “A Thousand Small Sanities,” New York essayist Adam Gopnik warns that one of the problems with liberalism is that it cannot be reduced to a slogan.
On the other hand, alternatives to liberalism, which usually involve some variety of us/them tribalism, have thrived on slogans. “For God, King and Country!” “Power to the people!” But simplistic slogans invariably run into complex problems that can only be solved by small liberal steps.
A bookend to the recent achievements of our liberal democracy is the disappearance of a group of tribal slogans in favor of these small steps.
The “good guys with guns”, and the uniforms too, didn’t stop the bad guys with a gun in Uvalde for 77 minutes. So, for the first time in 30 years, a group of Republicans helped pass modest and flawed gun violence legislation.
“Police defunding” waned as murder rates rose and downtown streets became depopulated and dangerous. And so, the nation’s most progressive city fired its public defender-turned-district attorney.
“Stop Theft” doesn’t sound so cool anymore since the January 6 Committee conclusively showed that Donald Trump ripped off a lot of good Americans. Thus, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a limited reform of the law on the electoral count.
Despite the torrent of extreme opinion that rocks us, most Americans cling to liberal ideals of reasoned debate and incremental progress.
The latest Gallup poll shows that 41% of Americans now consider themselves independents, 13 points higher than Republicans or Democrats. And only about 20% are ideologues.
Survey data on Americans’ attitudes reveals not only moderation, but also thoroughly practical views on even the most controversial issues. For example, large majorities of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but they also see political correctness as a problem. Large majorities think America should accept refugees, but two-thirds also think the selection process should be more rigorous.
A large majority of Americans agree that issues of racism are at least somewhat serious and that white supremacists are a growing threat. On the other hand, more than two-thirds of Americans say many people are too sensitive about things related to race.
The political influence of these practical American moderates is likely to grow. The share of unaffiliated voters is higher among young people. And as more states join the 22 that now open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, primary voters will better reflect the broader electorate.
Undoubtedly, liberalism is undergoing a severe stress test. But, God willing, reports of his disappearance have been greatly exaggerated.
Bruce Peterson, a senior district judge who teaches a course on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.