What’s wrong with American democracy? Two books that recently appeared, Power Politics: Trump and the Assault on American Democracy by Darrell M. West, and Divided We Fall by David A. French, are trying to cut through the fog of mutual obfuscation by the opposing factions of democrats and republicans in the aftermath of the Midterm vote.
Most Americans, as Darrell West, director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, notes in in his latest book, “are firmly convinced that their democracy is at risk. But they disagree vehemently on why.” In America, the rise of extremism and a decline of confidence in trusted institutions have created a toxic environment.
The Senate is gridlocked. The very essence of governance, that is, the search of a negotiated non-partisan solution to a real problem, often becomes an impossibility. At federal and state levels, a constructive debate is frequently obstructed by the urge to score political points. The prevailing climate, says West, can only be described as “the perfect storm for illiberalism and authoritarianism to take root.”
Neither the Brookings Institution created in 1916, that was instrumental in drafting the blueprint of the United Nations and helped shape the Marshall Plan, nor professor West, who is an independent academic and serves in the historical Washington think tank as vice president, owe any allegiance to political parties.
Blaming Trump for the sad state of American democracy, says the author of “Power Politics,” is missing the point. Trump, contrary to what the man with his outsize ego would have everyone believe, is not an ideologue or a talented tycoon. He simply exploited the existing cracks built into the foundations of elections, political institutions, and the media ecosystem. But it seems almost a certainty that Trumpism will outlast Donald Trump.
A considerably more negative prognosis on America’s dysfunctional politics, is contained in Divided We Fall by David French. The author, a well-known Christian conservative commentator, believes that while Trump undoubtedly debased America’s democracy and contributed to its crisis, heavy responsibilities must be levelled also on the aggressive militancy of a number of left-wing groups. Radicalization and violent protests, the book concludes, are “leading America on a perilous disunity path.” And it adds a grim warning:
Two decades into the 21st century, the United States is emerging from the Trumpian upheaval and left and right wing protests “less united than at any time in its history since the Civil War.” “The extreme radicalization that afflicts contemporary politics – argues Darrell West, the author of Power Politics – has recast federalism in an entirely different light. States are innovating in more polarized and extreme directions, and criminalizing behavior that is perfectly lawful in other places. Polarization has deeply fractured society. “Red and blue states, secular and religious groups, all have one thing in common: each believes their distinct cultures and liberties are being threatened by an escalating violent opposition”.
Such is the disconcerting pattern with which the current and future generations of Americans will have to live. Federalism, with state and local governments that long have been considered “laboratories of democracies,” is called into question. Several states recently have entered a risky phase, that by pitting blue states and cities against red ones, or vice versa, threaten democracy as a whole or create conflicts among different jurisdictions.
Examples abound. Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida have “resolved” the problem of unwanted migrants from the southern border by shipping them by bus and even charter planes to so-called sanctuary cities like Washington, DC, New York City, and the exclusive sea resort of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where the Kennedys, Obamas and other wealthy families spend their summer holidays.
Why that Texan and Floridian generosity, paid by the respective Governors with funds from their taxpayers? The object is to give the pro-migrant cities and local authorities a taste of their own medicine, disrupting social services and attracting attention at national level, with scant respect shown to innocent people who find themselves in the middle of policy disputes.
Similar issues occur also in states where abortion is now banned and local governments have decided to criminalize not only those seeking an abortion, but even people that provide help. In California, in yet another case, the state has introduced a law allowing anyone to sue people who make or sell assault weapons. The risk, in these and other cases, as Darrell West of the Brookings Institution asserts, is to see federalism entering a new phase of radicalization and intolerance, that may even threaten democracy itself.
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