Since the imminent decline and fall of America is on everyone’s mind — with the impending coronation of Donald I, the (presumptive) first Republican emperor — this might be a good moment to reflect on “the meaning of Democracy.”
We are witnessing something remarkable this year, something that hasn’t happened in over 150 years: the death of a major political party. The Republicans didn’t turn into the Whigs overnight. From Nixon’s criminality through Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric to George W. Bush’s astounding incompetence to the current do-nothing, know-nothing, tea-party Congress, the GOP has devolved step by inevitable step down to a presidential nominee who redefines narcissism.
It takes a long time for a major party to implode (though as I’ve always said, this doesn’t mean conservatism itself is dying, just the party that embodies its basic principles).
They brought it on themselves, of course. Over the last 45 years or so, the Republican Party committed the unforgivable sin of making a good portion of the American population stop believing in their own government — in the very concept of good government for that matter. Their demise was guaranteed because they could not overcome their core contradiction: You can’t govern if you don’t believe in government.
The unavoidable result is Donald Trump as the GOP nominee. Republicans this fall will line up and lemmingly vote for a candidate who has no idea how to govern and who will, if elected, complement a Republican Congress that has no intention of governing. Many voters will cast their ballot even though they believe what he’s saying is nuts. That’s telling.
It tells us why Donald Trump represents what’s left of the Republican Party. Therein, oddly, lies the greatness of democracy. It gives us candidates who accurately reflect who we are and what we have become as a nation. Democracy provides an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves and decide whether we like what we see.
On the Republican side, it is not a pretty picture: a collection of embittered government-haters, mostly white, mostly older, mostly angry, who believe a ruthless, insecure, win-at-all-costs bully will give them their country back. But as one observer put it recently, they don’t want him to “Make America Great Again;” they want him to “Make America White Again.”
But they are not the majority. Democracy means, more often than not, that the majority of voters will choose sanity over self-destruction. Unfortunately, it’s not guaranteed with any particular election, and there is always a risk it could go the other way. Democracy means accepting that risk.
It means that old, cranky white people who blame government for all their problems nonetheless have a voice and get to vote like anyone else. It doesn’t matter how misinformed, irrational, beat up, traumatized and easily misled they are. It doesn’t matter how offensive their opinions are. It doesn’t matter how intolerant of others they seem to be. They have a voice and a vote and we take our chances.
This country continues to move forward in spite of the GOP (Grand Obstructionist Party). Democracy works even when our government doesn’t. Americans, no matter how God-awful-slow we might move, eventually make progress toward our national ideal: equality and justice for all.
Democracy challenges us to rise to the occasion, and that’s good for us. If we want to prevent the 1% from taking over this country, we have to do something about it.
That’s how America will become great again.
So bring it on. The Donald will be his most disruptive. He will embarrass us and terrorize us with the possibility that an insufferable ignoramus might head the executive branch of our federal government.
I predict, however, that the American people will choose competence and intelligence and sanity and fairness (and a woman) over the continuing inequality and racism that the dying Republican Party champions and defends.
This is what democracy means to me. But here’s what it meant to E.B. White, one of our finest prose masters, who penned this in 1943 during the darkest hours of World War II — when this country was going through the same kind of national soul-searching we’re doing now:
“We received a letter from the War Board the other day asking for a statement on ‘The meaning of Democracy.’ It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.
“Surely the board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in ‘don’t shove.’ It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles. It is the dent in the high hat.
“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time. It is the feeling of privacy in voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.
“Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee.
“Democracy is a request from the War Board, in the middle of the morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”
Will we meet Democracy’s challenge once again this fall? Will we put a hole in Trump’s stuffed shirt and dent his high hat?
I’m betting we will.
I’m betting on democracy.