There is a lot of talk these days about the need for a smoking gun that would demonstrate how Trump coordinated with Putin to win the election. But the crime was committed in broad daylight when Trump went on television and asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, and when following the hacking and the Russian media blitz of fake news stories which contributed to his election, Trump rewarded them by offering to end their sanctions.
If Russia interferes in the next elections in 2018 and 2020, Trump has demonstrated that he is unlikely to censure them and might even reward them again. He has done so by attacking the intelligence agencies that revealed their interference in the election and by appointing the most pro-Russia cabinet and team of advisors ever in American history.
And while many Republicans have supported an inquiry into this subversion of the will of the people by a geopolitical rival, few of his Republican supporters seem to care. And all-too-many Republican leaders have demonstrated their willingness to protect him from an honest and open inquiry. All of this is enough to make you wonder whether Republicans even care whether or not America is a democracy anymore.
Almost nobody is opposed to democracy these days—not even Vladimir Putin, who continues the charade of elections, even after having jailed and exiled most of his rivals and assassinated the journalists of the remaining free press. Nobody is opposed to democracy because everyone knows it is a superior form of government. The hundreds of young people Putin so recently arrested for joining demonstrations know it, and the thousands of propagandists sustaining the ruse that Russia is a democracy know it, as well.
Democracy is a superior form of government because it breaks the stranglehold of elites, who shape institutions to meet their own needs and use the state to siphon off wealth. But democracy is essential to human development, as well. Democracies encourage people to think for themselves and to speak their minds, because doing so makes the state and society stronger and improves the lives of its citizens. Autocracies on the contrary are afraid of free thinking individuals and therefore suppress their autonomy in order to preserve their own rule.
Democracies also foster the moral development of their citizens. For in giving them a say in the shape of their society, their moral scope is broadened to include the whole of their nation. Whereas in autocracies everyone is out to protect their own interests or that of their kin, democratic participation inspires citizens to think of themselves as all in it together—thereby aligning them in a concern for their collective well-being.
That is quite a lot of good, but it is just the start of the good inherent to democratic governance.
Democracies also channel social conflicts into reasoned debate. Whereas in an autocracy everything gets accomplished through force, democratic majorities get their way by convincing enough fence sitters they are right. And through such reasoned debate, citizens and their representatives are more likely to tackle national challenges, like building ports and highways, constructing electrical grids and sewage systems, eradicating diseases and educating the poor. While it is certainly true that wealthier states are more likely to become democratic, stable democratic states are also more likely to sustain economic growth over the course of generations.
Political leaders are more likely to act in the national interest when it is the whole of the nation to which they must answer, after all. And they are more likely try to make the nation function better for everyone when it is their jobs and reputations that are at stake, as they always are in fair and free elections.
But this is unlikely to happen if it is mainly the wealthy who fund their campaigns and most of the nation is too poor to participate. If America is suffering from a lack of many of the goods inherent to the democratic process, it is largely because those processes have already been substantially degraded, and the fault lies mostly with Republicans.
Republicans are virtually unanimous in their support for unregulated bribery through campaign donations. It is fairly obvious that if politicians rely on big donors to remain in office, many will offer them something in return. You cannot make laws for everyone when you are most beholden to someone, after all.
But while all of America’s national leaders are now dependent on the same corporate and oligarchical sources of financing, it is only the Republicans who have been steadfast in refusing to enact campaign finance reform. It was Republican justices alone who ruled in favor of Citizens United, opening campaigns to a flood of cash. And it is Republican leaders who have repeatedly blocked more meaningful campaign finance reform.
This is all a bit ironic, because Republicans like to brag that it is democracy that makes America and the West superior to other cultures. They argue that Islam is inherently inferior at least partly because it is undemocratic, in spite of the fact that the largest Muslim populations living in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria live in at least partially democratic states.
Republicans argue that democracy is essentially a Western form of government that makes us better, in spite of the fact there were no governments in the West that would be recognizable as democracies today until at least 1787 and that most Western states were not democratic until the later part of the 20th century.
Even if Republicans believe their policies will bring greater growth and thus greater economic benefits to everyone, under the best of scenarios their programs will increase economic inequality—and often substantially. But democracy is dependent on equality, for without some measure of it citizens no longer see themselves as in it together, thereby opening themselves to less democratic means of attaining power. Meanwhile, wealth finds a way to usurp power, and the greater the divide between rich and poor, the more likely is a democracy to be transformed into an oligarchy, or rule by the wealthy.
Democracy both depends on and strengthens equality. Democracy makes all people equal in the eyes of the law and provides them equal voting rights. The legal and political equality tend in turn to provide for equality of opportunity, which allows everyone the same chances for work and schooling. When everyone is given the same chances, their living conditions tend, in turn, to become more equal. And the many faces of equality tend to bring people together and to see one another as worthy of equal respect and dignity. This makes them more willing to support the democratic system that has brought them together as one society and people.
It is no accident that the most equal countries—Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Finland, for example—get the highest marks on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, nor that they tend to have the highest taxes and the largest state sectors—and are the happiest and wealthiest countries in the world.
The most equal states are now the most democratic, the wealthiest, and the happiest—but the most unlike what Republicans want for America—and this is where Republicans start to get uncomfortable with democracy. The problem with democracy is that while it tends to improve the quality of life for everyone, it also tends to take elites down a notch.
Democracy also provides the freedom for everyone to live according to their own lights, to speak their minds and associate with whomever they please—and this increases the burden of freedom. Democracy forces upon all citizens a freedom for which many are ill-prepared, and at any point in time there will be many among the poor and socially maladapted who will want to throw off the burden of freedom. In America today, these people have teamed up with wealthy elites, who support legalized bribery and are now willing to seize power through the illegal support of a geopolitical rival like Russia.
It is no coincidence that the most developed states are the most democratic, and once democracies become stable, virtually none revert to autocracy. People want their children to be born into stable democracies, because stable democracies are more likely to meet their needs and protect them from harm. And democratic governments are more likely to protect their citizens and meet their needs because they work for the people. But all of this comes under threat when a substantial portion of the population no longer understands and values their democratic rights and freedoms.
Republicans may still value living in a democracy, in theory, but they are doing everything in their power to tear down its foundations. Their willingness to support a president who probably would not have been elected but for the support of a geopolitical rival only highlights a deeper and more intractable ideological challenge. The biggest threat to democracy is their very way of thinking. Their talk of the will of the people is simply a smokescreen for their usurpation of power.
Hence, saving American democracy requires that we become better able to articulate just what it is about it that is so worthy of our devotion.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May
Supervising Editor 1: Danielle Beutell