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Can our democracy survive?

Can our democracy survive?

It’s clear from numerous reports out of Congress that most, if not all, Republicans think Donald Trump is a buffoon and an idiot. A few have said this in public (e.g., Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney, and Adam Kinzinger).

Some have said he’s unfit for office. In an Atlantic magazine article about Mitt Romney by McKay Coppins (excerpts from his book, “Romney: A Reckoning”), he says that Romney’s most surprising discovery upon entering the Senate was that “Almost without exception, they shared my (unfavorable) view of the president.” In public they supported Trump, but in private they rolled their eyes at his antics. One senior Republican senator frankly admitted, “He has none of the qualifies you would want in a president, and all of the qualities you wouldn’t.”

Romney was ostracized by his Republican colleagues because he had the temerity to call out the abuses of Trump when fellow senators held their tongues. In private they would confess to him that, “I sure wish I could do what you do.” Or, “Gosh, I wish I had the constituency you have.” Romney’s patience grew thin after too many of these private confessions and he came up with a go-to response: “There are worse things than losing an election. Take it from someone who knows.” 

It’s noteworthy that Romney has been isolated in the Republican Party just a decade after he was his party’s presidential nominee. Has Romney changed his positions on critical issues (i.e., taxes, immigration, the deficit, small government, national defense, unions, etc.)? No. The Republican Party has changed. It’s clear Republicans have resorted to supporting a populist leader irrespective of the issues. They support the Party of Trump, at least publicly. This is the foundation of a cult following that feeds on unquestioned loyalty to ‘fearless leader’ no matter what he espouses. This is the antithesis of a democracy.

The legal foundations of our country are being tested as they haven’t since the Civil War. The framers of the Constitution didn’t spell out every possible permutation of governance relying on the separation of powers that, theoretically, would moderate any power play by a demagogue. They expected that the more moderate influences in power would block these efforts, too. But we now have a situation where fear (of losing elections, or even of personal or family harm) is driving the behavior of many, if not most, Republicans in Congress. When the majority is held hostage to the minority (of one in Trump’s case), democracy is imperiled. When a fair and accurate election is rejected by a sizable minority after countless legal challenges, this bedrock of democracy is in question. When Romney has to hire security at $5,000 a day to protect his family, we have to wonder if constitutional democracy will hold up.

This situation is not all that unusual in world history. It’s hard to maintain a healthy, functioning democracy since it runs so counter to human nature. Otherwise, we’d have seen many more of them by now. In “Tyranny of the Minority,” Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore how 20th century democracies have succeeded or failed based on an analysis of their governing styles. From Spain in the 1920s, to France and Germany in the 1930s, they distill how politicians exploit ambiguities and loopholes in laws that distort or subvert the very purpose for which the laws were written. They identify four ways this can happen: Exploiting gaps, excessive or undue use of the law, selective enforcement, and lawfare (laws that target opponents). They also identify “semi-loyal” democrats (the democracy type, not party Democrats) who pay lip service to the rules of law, but quietly assault them. “So when democracies die, their fingerprints are rarely found on the murder weapon. But make no mistake, semi-loyal politicians play a vital, if hidden, role in democratic collapse.” Romney clearly recognizes many of these “anti-democrats” in his party.

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A large 1931 Rand McNally “histomap” hangs in Romney’s Senate office. The histomap attempts to chart the rise and fall of the world’s most powerful civilizations through 4,000 years of human history. What struck Romney most about the map, according to McKay, was how thoroughly it was dominated by tyrants of some kind — pharaohs, emperors, kaisers, kings. “A man gets some people around him and begins to oppress and dominate others. It’s a testosterone-related phenomenon, perhaps. I don’t know. But in the history of the world, that’s what happens.” 

He told McKay “This (democracy) is a very fragile thing. Authoritarianism is like a gargoyle lurking over the cathedral, ready to pounce.” For the first time in his life, McKay says, Romney was not sure if the cathedral would hold.  

(Glenn Duerr lives in Waynesville.)

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