The definition of “democracy” means something not very complicated: the rule of the people. The implication is that the people exist in a society sufficiently socially coherent that people can respect one another despite their differences to reach majority-based decisions for the greater good of the greatest number. American democracy hedges on pure majoritarian rule with constitutional rights to protect individuals against the state.
But the history of this country has worked against this social coherence. Western European invaders who settled the lands later organized as the United States annihilated by disease, decimated in warfare, exiled, or segregated on reservations the continent’s indigenous peoples, who were its last residents to be recognized as citizens. These invaders soon brought with them slaves from Africa, who, though freed centuries after their first arrival, remained segregated from whites by law, housing patterns, and employment and educational opportunities. Later immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Germany, and the countries of Eastern Europe predominated in certain states or in enclaves in the larger metropolitan cities. An essentially white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant over-class, concealing these social divisions with the Melting Pot myth, sustained these racial and ethnic structures, and all groups sustained their prejudices.
The good news is that WASPs are losing or have lost their grip. Many differences and divisions have become less pronounced in the past half century. Few organizations with a public face restrict membership on the basis of race, religion, gender, and national origin. Despite protests against political correctness, people of prejudice rarely publicly express their true beliefs and feelings about blacks, Jews, Catholics, or the many ethnic or nationality groups. Derogatory terms—the list is long and ugly—are big-time no-no’s. Prejudice no doubt lurks in some people’s thoughts and feelings about people different from them, but much of it is restrained and losing strength. Old divisions are dying.
The bad news is that the new divide is a political one, between Democrats, frequently “liberal,” and Republicans, increasingly “conservative.” The divide is so sharp that snide or insulting characterizations and associations, not the issues, dominate debate as never before. The most prominent is the Republican self-identification and self-celebration of themselves as “real Americans,” and Republican regard for Democrats as subversive or traitorous anti- or un-Americans, like atheists, elitists, bi-coastals, communists, socialists, fascists, coddlers of terrorists, flag-burners, baby-killers, sympathizers of child-molesters and other sexual perverts, and the like. The worst that I have heard Democrats say of Republicans is that they are dumb and dumber. No one accuses Independents (moderates?) of anything stronger than fence-straddling.
Which causes me to reflect how the Republicans, if they return to power in both the White House and Congress will rule. By making every effort to delegitimize Obama and doing everything possible to disrespect him, and by refusing to engage as a loyal opposition, not simply as the party of “no,” Republicans are setting precedents which will come back to haunt them and hurt all.
A contrast between party behavior in the first months of the Reagan and Obama administration is instructive and worrisome. During the 1980 Republican primaries and the campaign, Reagan pledged to introduce legislation based on supply-side, Laffer-curve, economics which claimed that tax cuts so spurred the economy as to increase government revenues. His rival in the primaries, George H. W. Bush referred to this theory as “voodoo economics.” When Reagan assumed office, the Democrats had long controlled both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, although they regarded Reagan’s tax proposal as absurd, they accepted that the elected president deserved a chance to effect one of his primary campaign planks. The rest is history: Democrats passed the legislation which, as they predicted, dramatically increased federal government debt.
Fast forward. During the 2008 presidential campaign, George W. Bush confronted a recessionary economy diving toward depression. Obama continued his nearly trillion-dollar TARP bailout of the financial industry when he became president. He provided additional support to the financial industry, new support to the collapsing automobile industry, and a stimulus package to encourage employment through public works and other programs. Although Democrats had made gains in the 2006 and 2008 elections and recovered control of Congress in 2008, when Obama won office by a significant majority—proof of widespread public support—Democratic efforts to improve a troubled economy inherited from Bush were vigorously opposed by Republicans. Since then, they have refused to work with Obama or Congressional Democrats, have resisted legislative proposals by threatening filibusters, and thereby set the new standard for passing legislation, not a majority vote of 51, but a supermajority vote of 60. Fine.
Actually, not fine. A Republican president inaugurated in 2013, even with a majority, but not a super-majority, of Republicans in both congressional chambers, cannot expect Democrats to agree to legislation swinging sharply in the other direction on major issues facing the country. If Democrats obstruct a Republican president and small Republican congressional majorities, what argument will they make to the American people? What will they say that Democrats cannot say now—we restored white power?
The political divisions which Republicans have made impossible to bridge by their example will bring democracy as we know it to an end. The details of its demise have yet to be worked out. If Bush’s abuses of Executive Branch agencies are any indication, a future GOP coup to secure political power is not inconceivable.