Many Democrats believe that the most important issue in the 2020 Presidential election is to ensure that Trump is removed from the White House. This electoral sound bite overlooks a much more important problem, social inequities and institutional corruption, which if not remediated will ultimately cause America to devolve into an illiberal democracy or an authoritarian state. Unfortunately, fixing these problems will be more complicated than a sound bite.
Wealth Inequities as a Driver for Extreme Social Discord
Fiscal inequities in America are at an all-time high. One percent of Americans control 32% of America’s wealth, leaving the bottom 50% of America owning 1% of her wealth. Worse still, these inequities adversely impact some socioeconomic groups to a much greater extent than others.
The wealthy have used their largesse to accumulate more wealth, which further exacerbates financial inequities. Their wealth allows them to disproportionately influence our political processes and institutions in ways that are impossible for all other citizens and this fundamental distorts the functioning of governmental and private institutions. Extreme wealth makes a mockery of the concept “one person, one vote,” and was a prime concern of the founding fathers Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Jackson, who were worried that great wealth would change and “corrupt” America’s character.
For many Americans, the American Dream is now a myth, as an individual’s socioeconomic destiny can largely be predicted by their birth zip code. The advantages that an individual will obtain from our political, judicial, educational, financial and medical institutions are now, to some extent, inversely proportional to their socioeconomic status. Thus, it is not a surprise that many Americans have concluded: “I am unable to get ahead because the system is rigged against people like me.”
Social scientists have concluded that social inequities are a cause for social discord and social discord is a major threat to a functioning democracy. Our population is fractured down the middle of the most important issues facing our nation. In response, America has been divided into the red tribe and the blue tribe, from which individuals seek solace and security. Each tribe believing the ‘other’ tribe is the enemy, as opposed to a political adversary. The characterization of the ‘other’ tribe is an enemy allows some individuals to conclude that the ‘other’ tribe has no legitimate right to control the reigns of power and they are thus justified in using any means, legal, morally dubious and illegal (1, 2, 3, 4) to ensure the ‘other’ tribe does not control the political system. Clearly, extreme social discord is incompatible with a functioning democracy.
Inequities in America has resulted in sufficient societal discord that the very future of democracy in America is no longer guaranteed, as documented by polling data which found that 20-30% of Americans would be willing to jettison democracy and 32% of Americans believe that having a “strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress or elections was either good or very good.”
Politicians Respond to Extreme Social Discord
America’s political stability is in part a result of our politicians’ willingness to abide by the legal rules and historic norms of political behavior.
In his book The People vs Democracy, Mounk writes that the following three conditions are a prerequisite to a functioning democracy:
- Most citizens would have to be strongly committed to liberal democracy.
- Most citizens would have to reject authoritarian alternatives to democracy.
- Political parties and movements with real power would have to agree on the importance of basic democratic rules and norms.
An example of a “historic norm of political behavior” is when a politician loses an election, he (or she) would concede defeat and the victor would take the reins of power. The defeated candidate allowed the victor to govern while they plotted their return to power.
Today’s Republican Party has demonstrated a willingness to commit election fraud and ignore historic norms of political behavior. For example, between the time the incumbent Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker lost to his Democrat challenger, and the swearing-in of the new Democrat Governor, the Republican controlled legislature altered Wisconsin’s laws to prevent the incoming Democrat Governor from fulfilling his campaign promises. In North Carolina, Republicans gerrymandered their political districts to ensure the Republicans control of Federal and State offices despite the fact that during some elections the total number of votes cast for the Democrat candidates exceed than Republican candidates. And Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell violated Senate tradition by refusing to allow President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court from even having a hearing in the Senate.
The Future of Democracy in America
I have tried to prove that societal inequities and institutional corruption are having a pernicious effect on America’s democracy and there is good reason to be concerned whether America will remain a democracy. Thus, the most important issue facing Americans in the 2020 presidential election is to ensure we elect a President who’s most important priority is to end societal inequities and institutional corruption.
Conventional wisdom is that the Democratic Party should nominate a political centrist who promises to return America to the state of affairs which predates Trump’s accession to the Presidency. This would be a mistake as the inequity problem was created over the last 3-4 decades precisely because the prior centrist Democrat Presidents were unwilling to risk political capital to end inequity in America. What’s past is prologue; history tells us that the next centrist Democrat President will not solve America’s inequity problem.
What Will Happen if Trump is Replaced by a Centrist Democrat President?
If a centrist Democrat President assumes the Presidency in January 2021, there is every reason to believe that Republicans will, as they have done during all the recent Democrat Presidencies, make it their first priority to ensure the Democrat President is a failure, even if that means that America must fail as well.
Unlike former Presidents, it is inconceivable that Donald Trump will withdraw from public life simply because he lost the 2020 election. As he has retained the support of all federal Republican politicians and the vast majority of the Republican base, it is highly probable that from 2021-2024 he will spend his time on Fox TV or Trump TV condemning the Democrat President, inflaming and dividing America, and laying the groundwork for taking the White House in 2024.
Because a centrist Democrat President will not solve America’s inequity problem, and hindered by Republican political anti-democratic antics, it is overwhelmingly likely that America’s inequity problems will have gotten worse prior to the 2024 election; and Americans will be even more divided, distrustful and disillusioned.
This is a recipe to ensure a Trump (or a personally selected underling) will return to the White House in 2024. And when Trump or his stand-in takes the reins of the Presidency from the failed centrist Democrat President in January 2025, we can be certain that they will finish Donald Trump’s mission of creating a US Government who’s first priority is to ensure that the Trump team remains in power indefinitely.
And thus ends America’s great experiment in democracy.
In the last few decades, we have seen more than 2 dozen countries devolve from democracies into various stages of illiberal democracies and authoritarian states. This occurs after a populist politician promises to rectify all the injustices and economic problems of their citizens. Once in power, they use the resources of their office to serially marginalize the press, debase their political opponents, reconfigure the function of the judiciary and legislative branches of government to serve the interests of the new head of state and then alter laws to ensure they remain in power indefinitely.
There is no objective reason to believe that America is immune from the anti-democracy virus which has infected the rest of the world.
Choose the Road Less Travelled
The only way to ensure we continue to have a democracy in America is to reconfigure the rules of society so that our government and institutions prioritize the re-creation of an egalitarian society and eliminate the societal inequities and institutional corruption which is the primary source of discord in America. This will require a President who is willing to alienate powerful people and institutions as she (or he) utilizes the tools and authority of the Presidency to shift wealth and power from the few to the many.
History has shown that a centrist Democrat President will not implement the requisite policies. The only option for America is to elect an egalitarian Democrat Presidential.
If this egalitarian Democrat President is successful at creating an egalitarian society, all boats will rise and there will emerge (hopefully) a new societal consensus that it is in the best interests of all Americans to adhere to political norms of behavior, reaffirm the wisdom of the US Constitution, the benefits of a tripartite government and the benefits which flow from a free and objective press. Americans will no longer fear for their future and will desist from sequestering themselves into tribes, politicians who promote regime cleavage will be ostracized and authoritarianism will crawl back under the rock from which it recently emerged.
And then, maybe, America will again become the shining light on the hill, a beacon of freedom and morality for all.
There is only a single political path that has the potential to enshrine democracy in America. A centrist Democratic Presidential nominee is not on that path.
The People vs. Democracy, Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Yascha Mounk, 2018
America, Compromised, Lawrence Lessig, 2018
Political Animals, Rick Shenkman, 2016