Search articles

Sunday, November 8, 2020

How Close Did We Come?

How close did we come to losing our democracy? In Clackamas County, the answer may be 28,375 votes.

For the past four years, we have been consumed with angst and greater or lesser degrees of paranoia. As Joseph Heller stated in the 1960’s, “Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”

Did we overreact? Did we demonize Trump because of what he represented or because of what he did? Was our democracy actually ever threatened? And, if so, is it still at risk?

We know democracy in any form is fragile. Democracy has died before and continues to die around the world. It is like crystal breaking, shattering into a million pieces as it did one night in Germany in 1938.

A transcript of a trial held in Kronenberg, Germany, on November 9, 1948, regarding the burning of a synagogue by its citizens on November 9, 1938, notes that, “the crime was committed at a time when the leadership of the State would not punish such assaults against unpopular persons or groups or their property and in this sense favored and even urged such assault. In addition, many of the highest officials of the State competed with one another, in the interest of their won political popularity, in the most violent denunciations of such persons or groups, thus arousing the passions of ordinary citizens who look to their public officials for counsel and direction.” (They Thought They Were Free, Milton Mayer, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1955, Pages 292-293.)

This seems an accurate description of our past four years. On a smaller scale we saw it with Ludlow and Smith on our County Commission and will likely re-live it with Smith and Shull. Instead of solutions, we will hear blame. Instead of seeking to resolve problems, we will get the failed concept of “less government is better government.”

This is more than appealing to our worse angels. It is undermining not merely the norms of our institutions, but rather dissolving the glue that holds our very society together. When the apparatus and power of government is aimed at maintaining power for a small group at the expense of another group, we create a situation of which our founders were acutely afraid.   

Our version of democracy has incredible safeguards built in to protect the minority from overreach by the majority. But no founder ever conceptualized protecting the majority from the minority.

In our textbooks we teach that free markets and democracy are natural allies and that they are foundational to each other. History proves otherwise. Unregulated markets create great disparity in wealth. We refer to them as “Gilded Ages.” 

When sizable portions of our citizens, be it because the economy system is rigged, or because systemic racism and sexism condemn them to a life of less, are offered some one or some groups to blame for their plight, we start sliding down the slippery slope to fascism. If unmanaged forests in the Northwest inevitably result in forest fires, so unregulated markets inevitably end in fascism in countries with democratic forms of governance.  

Democracy in any form cannot survive in an economic system where wealth is concentrated disproportionately at the top to such a degree that life expectancy falls, that quality education is denied, and where the next generation must climb a cliff larger than the previous one to merely survive.

FDR and Ronald Reagan both understood this. FDR labeled them “economic royalists” and called for “social justice through social action.” Reagan exploited it to gain the Presidency.  He launched his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by appealing to racists and the poor, not by calling for government social action, but by blaming government for excessive action.  

The resulting forty years have seen the concept of “social justice” demonized and radicalized.  With each erosion of our social safety net comes the destruction of another plank of the institutional infrastructure supporting our democracy. 

There is a straight line of thought and deceit from Reagan to Trump.

How close did we come? The answer is, we are very close. One election may give us breathing room but until we move away from blaming the poor for being poor in an economic system that guarantees that 50% of population will not thrive, until we address our nation’s original sin of slavery and ongoing systematic racism and sexism, and until we’re committed to the role of government based on social justice and not merely economic growth, we will stay at the precipice.

One election may pause our march over the edge, but it requires all of us to recognize and truly understand that an injury to one of us is indeed an injury to all of us; that blaming victims for being victimized is never a way forward, and business success without social success is always risky business.