Is America Having a Breakdown or a Reckoning? 7 Arguments for Reckoning
Coming up on the two-year mark of Donald Trump’s audacious attempt at turning America into an autocracy — strongman rule, stoked by white supremacist demagoguery and disdain for the law and democratic norms — at this milepost it’s the thing to take the national temperature. This time we might ask: How are we doing in this strange new world of established liberal democracies turning illiberal?
The commentariat has intensified its examination. The Atlantic devotes its October issue to the question “Is Democracy Dying?” with articles ranging from “Building an Autocracy” to “The Threat of Tribalism” to “A House Still Divided” to “Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come.” A two-year span being a decent runway for book authors, books on democracy’s fragility are coming out pell-mell, with the title of historian Robert Kagan’s new book being illustrative — “The Jungle Grows Back.”
While I don’t disagree with any of the dire diagnosis offered by the commentariat, I wonder if something is missing from the ensuing dire prognosis, which predicts, in brief, imminent national breakdown. In other words, as the Italians say, E vero, ma non troppo — It’s true, but not too true. I wonder if signs of resilience and strength and creativity in the body politic are being overlooked, scanted. America is in deep trouble, yes, but not necessarily doomed.
For I would argue that, amidst all the wild churn in Trump’s America and the fear that things are flying apart, there is also, in many spheres and many profound ways, a grand process of reckoning going on. By reckoning, I mean not just coping or finding ballast; I mean addressing elemental and long-besetting problems head-on, coming to grips with and coming to terms with, at long last — “fronting” them, to use early American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson’s term. And, importantly, much of this reckoning is being forced from below — from the people — not from above. All this reckoning bodes well for a New Day in America, as discussed along the way.
So, in the breakdown vs. reckoning debate, seven arguments for reckoning:
One: RECORD ELECTORAL PARTICIPATION
Both in voting and, even more impressively, running for elective office, participation rates are off the charts, especially among Democrats. A recent Brookings Institution study cites Trump as the direct incentive for greater Democratic enthusiasm about voting: 67%, “the largest share in recent history,” versus 42% at this point in 2010 and, in 2014, just 36%. And record numbers of concerned citizens are running for office — especially women: First they marched, protesting Trump’s misogyny, now they are running in unprecedented numbers for offices national, state, and local, in what Time calls “a grassroots movement that could change America.” Further, civic start-ups like Indivisible and Swing Left that mobilize voters and candidates have taken deep root all across America.
How is this a reckoning? Given that democracy is government by and for the demos — the people — these participation rates show that the American people, the ultimate stakeholders, are mobilized both to defend our embattled democracy and repair the damage done by Trump and the Republicans. The demos is on the case.
Two: REGENERATIVE CIVIC MOVEMENTS
Born out of festering crises, major civic movements have emerged that are more than protest movements, they are regenerative — grappling with historic problems and, finally, pressing for repair. #Black Lives Matter, born in the aftermath of the police killing of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, is forcing a reckoning of our abiding racism, reaching back to America’s “original sin,” slavery. #MeToo, born of women’s revulsion at a critical mass of reported injury by powerful men — alleged sexual assault, trauma, damaged careers — is forcing a reckoning of many accused. #March for Our Lives, galvanized by young people in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, is forcing a reckoning on America’s gun violence (also here). Young people are also galvanizing around climate change.
How a reckoning? Another win for the demos: Finally, America, galvanizing at the grassroots and across ethnicities, is reckoning with long-besetting problems. With better equity between whites and blacks, women and men, and sanity on guns, we will be a better America. Without using moral language, these movements are declaring, powerfully, that racism, sexism, gun violence are wrong. Which leads to:
Three: MORAL REAWAKENING
In the post-World War II period, America relaxed its moral standards. Wishing to be less judgmental than their Greatest Generation parents, the boomers disdained moral language and judgment, which made for lots of personal freedom but also, with the unleashing of pornography, profanity, the anti-hero, and an “anything goes” ethos, a degraded culture. It’s no surprise, then, that ultimately this “Breaking Bad” culture got its amoral president. At the same time, traditional moral bastions like the church, notably the Catholic church with its massive sexual abuse of children, lost sway. But: This doesn’t mean moral questions go away; they must be addressed — or else: Great nations fall because of moral abuse (corruption, decadence). The civic movements cited above, again without using moral language, are treating racism, sexism, and gun violence as moral issues, as wrong. Same with the massive public outcry over Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their families: It’s wrong.
How a reckoning? Unlike a theocracy, a democracy must itself address the rightness and wrongness of things, lest we abuse and destroy our freedoms. This capacity is crucial for a superpower like America. Belatedly, after decades of foreswearing moral judgment, Americans now see the need for it in our civic affairs; it remains to be seen how we wield it in the world, especially the handling of power.
Four: INSTITUTIONAL STRENGTH
Granted, institutional strength is the weakest argument for reckoning (and could as easily be cited as breakdown). And yet, and yet: On the legislative side, while the Congress is rightfully reviled as near-dysfunctional, still, as noted above, witness the record numbers running for seats there. In the coming midterms Democrats, who unlike Republicans actually believe in government, are likely to retake the House. Also cheering: the enhanced role of states and cities, who on various fronts — immigration, climate change — have stepped up where the federal government has folded. As for the executive: If Trump achieves little else, he’s shown the presidency still retains huge sway at home and in the world. And the judiciary: The courts — and, vitally, and despite Trump’s disdain for it, the law — still function (see: the ongoing investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, conviction of Trump fixer Paul Manafort, guilty plea of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, charging of white supremacists in the Charlottesville showdown).
How a reckoning? Instead of collapse, our institutional infrastructure continues to meet its minimum basic requirement, as bulwark. Ongoing test: the Senate confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, where #MeToo meets male privilege, a revolutionary spectacle the whole nation is raptly tracking. Another test: Congress has yet to reckon with Russia’s meddling in our elections.
Five: ROBUST ECONOMY
Fortunately, this is the gift that keeps on producing: an economy that the Federal Reserve chair calls almost “too good to be true” — record low unemployment, wages finally inching up, stock market that won’t quit, little sign of inflation. The American economy remains a behemoth — a testament to corporate strength, entrepreneurial success, Americans’ hard work. And so far Trump’s tariff wars have not impacted American trade. Yet serious imbalances remain: the ever-widening income gap, Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut to the rich (with another cut promised), the growing role of money in politics. And those “hard-working Americans”?: Too many work two jobs just to survive. The growing gig economy provides workers few benefits and no job security. Given that globalization is here to stay, better responses than Trump’s demonization of immigrants must be found to enable American workers to compete.
Here, a reckoning needs to happen: Fortunately, the economy is so robust that these serious imbalances could be recalibrated. It requires the will — a moral reckoning — to launch. It didn’t happen after the 2008 crash (as I wrote in my 2009 commentary, “Recovery Without a Reckoning”); will it now? And note: The lack of reckoning in ’09 could still hurt us: If Republicans in their deregulating zeal allow Wall Street to revert to its wildly risky ways, and if Wall Street crashes the world economy again, as it did in ’08, the world will not forgive us, nor should it. The world will reckon with America. Where is our Wall Street visionary?
Six: A GOLDEN AGE FOR NEWS MEDIA
Autocrats always attempt to shut down the media, so as to exercise power without scrutiny. Since Trump cannot legally shut us down, he devalues us, denigrates us as “fake” and “the enemy of the American people.” But: Recognizing the reputational stakes in play — “existential threat” truly applies here — American media by and large has not only buckled up, it has upped its game. Day-to-day reporting and analysis of Trump’s hodgepodge policymaking and financial chicanery must be exceedingly challenging — Trump can contradict himself within minutes — but the media has produced. Especially noteworthy, and necessary: investigative reporting, with its in-depth look, often taking months of reporting, examining everything from Russian election meddling, to alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, to documenting the sexual misconduct driving #MeToo, and more. Standouts are The New York Times, The Washington Post, ProPublica, and PBS’ NewsHour and Frontline.
How a reckoning? Thomas Jefferson got it wrong when he said, if pressed whether he’d have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he’d take the latter. We need both, of course. In a democracy, the model of self-governance, the demos must be informed. Under existential threat, American media is proving itself the best ally American democracy has (while Trump is the enemy). And, under existential threat, some of the demos have come to love truth even more.
Seven: COMPARED TO THE ROMAN EMPIRE….
Contrast is often made between America in its present chaos and the Roman Empire, the decline and fall of. Awareness of this peril for America has penetrated throughout the public; the demos is worried, anxious. As history’s longest-running democracy, we are still writing our script, working our way through crisis. But can ancient Rome, while never a democracy, instruct? Two takeaways from Cambridge classics scholar Mary Beard’s new book — “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” — offer insight:
One, a moral note: Once Rome had conquered its neighbors and lost an enemy, the seeds of collapse were planted. As the poet Virgil wrote, without significant external threat, “the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption.” Today’s analogy: America, after vanquishing its nemesis the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War, felt unconstrained to accelerate its “anything goes” ethos. But, morally speaking, not everything should go, as we are belatedly recognizing.
Two, a civic note: Early on, when Rome was a Republic, the plebeians, the citizens (males only), demanded recognition of their free status, their right to vote, and their right to representation: One of the two governing consuls, they insisted, must be plebeian. After all, as Beard writes, “Why fight in Rome’s wars….when all the profits of their service lined patrician pockets?” This state of affairs — “one of the most radical and coherent manifestos of popular power and liberty” in the ancient world — endured until Rome became an empire, when increasingly powerful emperors ruled for life, civil wars became constant, violence became an accepted political tool. It was not a good sign when Emperor Augustus turned voting halls into gladiatorial spaces. In this devolution, the plebs could not maintain their rights.
American plebs will see the analogy. Happily, we are in a far stronger position than our Roman counterparts. Reckoning is in our own hands: Vote! Run for office! Hold that line! And beware the autocrat in our midst.