On the eve of Independence Day I find myself more grateful for my freedom than ever before. That’s because I no longer take it for granted.
It wasn’t so long ago that I thought that blood and soil nationalists and ivory tower Marxists were only to be found on the fringes of American life and politics and that China was just the source of virtually everything sold on Amazon.
But after the experience of the last five years, I feel like American democracy is under real threat and that the next decade or so could determine whether liberal democracy or Chinese-style authoritarianism will be ascendant.
Here are the three biggest threats to democracy as I see them, ranked in order of the threat.
The Republican Party. It’s like an Allen Drury novel. If this were 1965 we would think that the USSR had infiltrated the party and taken it over. But this isn’t fiction. This isn’t a nightmare that we’ll wake up from. Step back and think about this. One of the two most powerful political forces in America has divorced itself from what had been the American consensus around classical liberal values and fundamental fair play. In the panoply of American evil you can place Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell right along with Aaron Burr and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
I don’t have room here — and I shouldn’t have the need anywhere — to document everything the Republicans have done to undermine our democracy. The violent January 6th insurrection speaks for itself. But almost as significant is Mitch McConnell’s treatment of the Supreme Court. He blocked Pres. Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland without justification. Then he forced through Pres. Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett in an act of blatant hypocrisy. Now, there is no doubt that if Justice Stephen Breyer refuses to retire before the Democrats lose their Senate majority, and then retires or dies when McConnell is back as Senate leader, he will block any Biden nominee for up to two years if he has to. This is what happens in two-bit dictatorships and a two-bit party hack is exactly what McConnell is.
The net result is a Supreme Court that is far more conservative than the American public as a whole and, given the young ages of the conservative justices, is likely to remain so for decades to come. When the will of the majority is routinely frustrated that sets up a backlash on the left that could contribute even more to erosion of liberal values.
China. Pres. Joe Biden recognizes the threat posed by Xi Jinping’s China. That country has become much more aggressive as it becomes more wealthy, pushing its influence all over the world. One of the saving graces of the the old Communist China under Mao or the Soviet Union was that they were so bad at providing the creature comforts. But Xi has figured out how to provide Western-style prosperity within authoritarian government. Xi’s crackdown on freedom in Hong Kong is now almost complete — and in violation of the agreement China made under the so-called “one country, two systems” policy.
And he’s providing a template for Trump-style nationalists should they take over again here. Xi is using a bogus “national security” law as the source of all of his stifling of free speech and protections for the accused on the mainland and in Hong Kong. For all of Trump’s bashing of China, he could easily look to Xi for the road map on how to take away our freedoms under the guise of national security should he regain office.
And, by the way, this is one reason that Democrats might want to think twice before they do away with the filibuster, though in truth, I think it’s a fair bet that if they don’t do it, McConnell will as soon as he regains power. McConnell has demonstrated again and again that he has no principles, just a lust for power.
It’s not that I fear a hot war with China. Rather, I’m concerned that the Chinese system of brutal efficiency and order will look appealing as opposed to the inherent inefficiency and messiness of democracy. Joe Biden gets this and it’s what motivates much of his domestic policy. Biden has said clearly that the stakes in passage of his infrastructure bill go well beyond fixing roads and bridges. It’s about showing that American democracy can still accomplish big, tangible things.
I have to believe that thoughtful Republicans, like Mitt Romney and Rob Portman, see this as well and will make sure that there are 10 Republican votes for the infrastructure package. That would be a big step in the right direction.
The American Hard-Left. I write about this threat more than I do about the other two, mostly because there is no lack of liberal writers who are sounding the alarm about Trump and the Republicans. It’s far more rare for a left-center commentator like me to take on the hard-left. That’s because there’s a certain amount of terror of being labelled a racist.
But we just have to openly confront this view on the hard-left that things like free speech and the presumption of innocence are just “tools of the oppressors.” It is, literally, a Marxist analysis where the role of individuals is reduced and history is seen as a struggle between groups of oppressors and the oppressed. And, so, it’s vitally important that people like me speak out strongly against this.
The latest development is for the left to dismiss concerns about Critical Race Theory. They are aided and abetted in this by the Republicans and outlets like Fox News. The more that hard-right conservatives attack CRT, the more left-center writers like me want to refrain from attacking it. The last thing I want to do is to be in league with the likes of Tucker Carlson.
But, in fact, CRT is a great threat. At its worst, as in the 1619 Project, it seeks to redefine the American narrative and to define our country, not by its founding in classical liberal values, but in slavery. This is factually wrong, deeply offensive and very dangerous.
Moreover, CRT is the philosophy behind blatant discrimination in the name of correcting past racial injustices. To his discredit, even the moderate Biden has felt the need to bow to some of this. The provisions in his COVID relief bill that deny benefits to white, male restaurant owners and which, nonsensically, forgive the debts of Black farmers — whether or not the farmer is in any need of the help — start us down a dangerous path. It’s a good thing that the Wisconsin-based Institute for Law & Liberty (whose legal maneuvers I routinely deplore in other cases) has so far successfully fought these measures.
What’s the answer to these three threats? Well, it’s right here, folks: moderation. Despite his stumble on a couple elements of COVID relief, Joe Biden is exactly the right man to lead the country right now. And we can hope that the 10 or more Republican Senators who may vote for the infrastructure bill might make it routine to break with McConnell and cut other deals with Democrats. Most importantly, they should buck McConnell if he tries to block another Democratic president’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
In the end, I’m somewhat optimistic about the future, though far from confident. But all of this tumult has produced at least one good result in me. I no longer take my freedoms for granted.
Welcome to the 137th consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!