Josh Marshall has a classic Editor’s Brief at Talking Points Memo this morning: Long, rambling, extemporaneous and loose, but also inherently fascinating:
“I’m talking about the global contest between autocracy and authoritarianism on the one hand and democracy and civic, rule-of-law based societies on the other,” he wrote.
“China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, India, the Philippines are part of a post-Cold War alternative autocratic model. A similar contest is playing out within the EU. Some of these countries are structurally autocratic and others like Brazil or India or Turkey may simply be passing through authoritarian phases.
“Regardless they all have common characteristics: authoritarian rule, personality cults, state and party management of domestic economies aimed at supporting the governing party’s hold on power, often the standard authoritarian focus on domestic enemies. Trump is part and parcel of this because the global slide to autocracy is joined at the hip to the rise of oligarchism, secret financial partnerships and extortion.
“Beyond all these particulars a central question around the globe today is whether democracies are better at providing the mix of prosperity, stability and freedom that global populations want.”
I suspect Josh is circling the right topic, but remains wisely hesitant to say the words: Democracy is failing at home and around the globe, and it’s unclear whether an 18th century constitution written before the rise of industrialism and ratified by a nation of less than 4 million inhabitants can long persist in this age of international finance, global capitalism, and instant communications.
I think we can point directly to the moment things started to break: Our Republic has been malfunctioning ever since 1994-95, when Newt Gingrich led a Republican political revolution in Congress. With a Democrat in the White House, Speaker of the House Gingrich recast the unwritten norms of a civil democratic society as weak points to be exploited. That’s been the Republican playbook ever since.
The central promise of any democratic society is that its people have meaningful power in directing the nation’s affairs via the power of majorities or the art of compromise. That’s no longer true in the United States, and the cognitive dissonance between what we SAY we are and what we ACTUALLY are is further eroding public faith in the very institutions that could help us reverse our slump toward authoritarianism.
The outlines of this story are all trackable via public domain documents, databases and reporting. Not Alex Jones conspiracy theory bullshit, but actual facts, documenting the influence of moneyed interests in every aspect of our lives.
But rather than railing against the global forces that have sabotaged our government, people blame the government. Because the government is visible. It’s why people who’ve seen their communities hollowed out by globalism buy pocket copies of the Constitution and carry them around like paperback talismans. The illusion of simplicity and control has a powerful attraction.
Is it any wonder that confused and frustrated Americans conclude that “the system” is the problem, without really understanding what “system” they’re talking about? Mass media is owned by the same conglomerations of amoral global capital that fund our elections. Academia is bloated, recursive and ineffectual. Religion has been corrupted. And don’t get me started on the pundit class.
I don’t know how to solve this crisis, but I do have a piece of advice: When The Very Serious People tell you — as they’ve done throughout my adult life — that we’ve been through worse, that this is nothing unusual, that the voices of alarm are shrill and foolish, consider the possibility that they might be wrong. What if things are actually worse than they look?
If there is a way through this that doesn’t end in tragedy and shame, I suspect it will involve a revival of sorts. Not in the “evangelist in a tent” sense, or the New Age personal epiphany sense, but in response to this question: What is democracy worth?
Because if the only question remains “What can democracy do for me?” then we’re fucked. And deservedly so.