Sunday, February 11, 2018

How democracies die (they are not actually killed by Trump)

The other day I read an article on, a review and analysis of a new book called How Democracies Die (by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.) It flabbergasted me. Partly because of the things it said--and how much they explained--and partly because I got to a certain section and thought "But I've thought this for years." I've thought it for years and never quite dared to say it.

I guess I've never dared to say it (besides the fact that it was only an unsubstantiated notion of mine) because if you start at the wrong end of the explanation, it sounds racist... and if you start at the other end it sounds like you are calling every American racist. And nobody likes that.

Still, I guess it would be best to go with option B.

Here is the thing: I know, or have known, a lot of people from countries that have universal healthcare. Life is easier for them. They would never (the ones I know anyway) trade what they have for a life where health decisions have to take into account the specter of complete financial ruin. They've asked me What's wrong with Americans? Why don't they want this? And I've thought, and haven't said, They don't want to pay for black people's healthcare.

I'm not saying every American who opposes Obamacare has this exact motive in mind. I'm really not. But I'm saying, first, that some do, and second, that--though it's all tangled up with other things too--this feeling quietly, subtly underlies the narrative, the whole narrative about social services in this country--this feeling creates the consensus that makes it seem more normal not to want healthcare security for every American than to want it.

That's just been my sense. See, I grew up in Europe, so I know what the other way is like. I know what it's like to live in a country that (for all its problems!) considers itself a community, considers it normal that we are together and we take care of each other, that within the community "every man for himself" would be inappropriate. And I know that that doesn't come from some sort of innate goodness or humanitarian ideal. French people don't consider themselves community with the entire world. They consider themselves community with other French people.

We have a little problem in this country. Our ancestors forcibly brought in millions of people whom they had no intention of being community with.

So when I read this in the article:

"Our democracy was built atop racism and has been repeatedly shaken in eras of racial progress."

It resonates.

The article's fascinating. I really recommend reading it, because I'm not going to do it justice, but it first makes the case that:

- Nowadays when democracies die, they die quietly, crumbling from within.
- They are killed by people within the system who value their own political goals over the continuation of democracy, and who erode it in small, continual, technically legal ways for the sake of their own agendas.
- This is happening in the U.S.
- It's not about Trump. He's just a symptom.

And then it gets into the race stuff.

"The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion."

It traces a story of stability at odds with equality--of a consensus that America was a community, yes, but only when it was a community that excluded African-Americans. (That sense that the world was safe and kind in the 50s? It was safe and kind--mostly--for the people within the community, which was white people. The memory isn't false--it just has a huge blind spot.) It traces a story in which the U.S. was stable when African-Americans were excluded, and unstable when--during the Civil Right movements, for instance--they increasingly weren't. Because the community of white people was willing to work together only when that one norm wasn't threatened.

And it uses the phrase "original sin."

This explains so much. I've had this sense of such strangeness in the past year--on the one hand Trump, and on the other hand the pulling down of idols--both statues and flesh-and-blood abusers! Two groundswells coming seemingly from nowhere, neither of which I would ever have expected, and completely opposed. But this makes sense of it. Because this is a time when the compromise has collapsed, the people trying for equality have felt themselves free to act. What there was to lose had already been lost, squandered, thrown away.

But it's so depressing. Is equality the enemy of stability always and everywhere? It may be; it's a fallen world. But these guys make an awfully good case that it's so here and now. And instability is awful, as the Iraqis could tell us. And injustice and inequality are awful, as generations of African-Americans can and do tell us. And who am I, really, a little semi-hermit of a fiction writer with no patriotism to speak of--sorry, I just don't have the instinct, it's the truth--to try to put my finger on the truth of this country? Maybe that's why I never spoke my thought aloud. It's not nice to say The foundation is cracked. It's not a smart thing when all you have to back it up is some notions and impressions you've gleaned.

But the authors of How Democracies Die, they can back it up. I mean I haven't read their book. But it sure sounds like they can.

And then they say this:

"The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved."

The implication, of course, is that we're all still tribalists at heart. (And my inner atheist whispers "Monkeys!") That we cling to our community, which must look like us. That even without the horrible history between white and black in this country we couldn't really accept paying for each other's healthcare with grace.

I'm not going with my inner atheist (no offense to atheists everywhere, but see, my inner atheist is an insufferable cynic and a truly scary depressive), and I do believe something more is possible for the human race. I believe it's our duty as Christians to live it. But for America, I don't know what to do. I have only the depressing lessons of someone who has watched a community die.

Here is what I know: it's better to be ready. It really is. And to be ready you have to accept the transience of human things. It helps because it helps you remember that the end of something is not the end of everything. It's better to spend your energy on facing into an unknown future, however scary, than on figuring out whose fault it was. And it's better, if you can, to try and find a way to be kind. To everyone.


  1. I read somewhere that by the time of the next presidential election the Whites will be a minority in the US. That might change things somewhat.

    1. Indeed. And actually that was another part of the Vox article--that the high tension in the U.S. currently is also due to the white electorate feeling very threatened by that...