Clawing our way back to functional democracy
As the Republican Party unravels before our very eyes in the run up to Georgia’s Senate runoffs, the entire spectacle serves as a reminder that, although we dodged a bullet in November by electing Joe Biden president, the existential danger that Donald Trump and his supporters represent is far from over.
Sure, there’s at least some satisfaction in watching a political party that has fostered ignorance for decades get eaten alive by the delusional alternate reality its own leadership created. And in the short-term, the resulting chaos could redound to the benefit of Democrats in the Senate runoffs in January. But the pandemonium dogging GOP leaders in Georgia and the growing threat of violence there provides a window into the tightrope the country is currently walking between order and anarchy. And if we fail over the course of the next decades to reengage roughly a third of our citizens in meaningful dialogue and a sense of shared destiny, then we might still lose the republic altogether.
In fact, arguably no single news event in U.S. history has better encapsulated the perils of our societal disengagement than the pandemic currently ravaging the country. In a nation with an extraordinary wealth of resources, efforts to contain spread of the virus have imploded precisely because such a disconcerting portion of country has lost faith in the system, shuns our communal interdependence, and is unimaginably vulnerable to manipulation.
Indeed, two factors emerging as key drivers of fervent support for Trump’s brand of Republicanism are disconnection and isolation, according to a September survey conducted by the American Enterprise Institute. As Daniel Cox, who helped conduct the research, recently wrote for FiveThirtyEight.com:
In our pre-election survey on the strength of Americans’ social networks, we found that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) reported having no one they were close with, marking a 9 percentage point increase from 2013.1 What’s more, we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks. Biden was heavily favored by registered voters with larger social networks (53 percent to 37 percent), but it was Trump who had the edge among voters without any close social contacts (45 percent to 39 percent).
This was particularly true for white voters, noted Cox, with 60% of white voters who lacked a close social network backing Trump—while 46% of white voters with healthy social networks supported him.
Isolation and the disintegration of a social fabric are the time-tested tools of those who abuse, whether they are an abuser of close contacts or systems of government. Anyone who has seen a loved one suffer at the hands of an abuser has likely watched that person grow more distant as their abuser dismantles their social network. Authoritarians exploit a similar type of societal isolation to manipulate masses of people. As political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote, “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience.”
Since people naturally crave connectedness, and indeed need it, that sense of loneliness leaves them looking for answers—for something to believe in that can help order their world.
And with Donald Trump, they bought into a total distrust of the American system as we have known it in modern times. In a recent column, The New York Times‘ David Brooks (I know, but bear with me) framed this as an “epistemological crisis,” in which Trumpists and many Republicans have gone to war with the “marketplace of ideas where we collectively hammer out what’s real.” And that marketplace—filled with academics, clergy of varying religions, teachers, journalists, and others—is particularly important in non-theocracies such as the United States.
That war on the decentralized systems that have traditionally ordered our reality as a country left many on the right in search of something to believe in. Trump managed to become that person by feeding into and capitalizing on their contempt for a system that they believe has left them behind. That war has also left them uniquely susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theories. In fact, this is perhaps the best explanation I have seen for why anyone would believe something as laughably kooky as QAnon. As Brooks writes:
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
It’s this toxic mix of delusional alienation that has bred a whole segment of rabid anti-maskers, who have helped spread the coronavirus at alarming rates. In Georgia, the very same toxicity has turned Trump’s cultists against any Republican who has failed to fully commit themselves to overturning the results of an election they are convinced was riddled with fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary.
And as rancid as the views they espouse seem to most of us, it’s a segment of society we cannot afford to leave in isolation in perpetuity. Frankly, this group of the disconnected has reached enough of a critical mass that it stands a chance of sinking the entire American enterprise.
As historian Jon Meacham told MSNBC Friday, when Biden takes office, he will be contending with something no sitting president has faced in a century or more—”a publicly active malevolent force from his predecessor in a real-time way.”
Meacham called on all of us to marshal our resources for what he framed as “an era for entrepreneurial and engaged citizenship.”
To my mind, that describes exactly what we have been doing ever since the day Trump was elected. Starting with the spontaneous protests that erupted in the days following Trump’s win to the nationwide 2017 Women’s March and beyond, Trump’s tenure ignited an era of civic engagement aimed at rescuing our democracy. The first absolute necessity was taking back the House of Representatives in 2018, an effort that drew tons of new energy to electoral politics from people who had never really engaged in politics. The next imperative was booting Trump from office and winning back the White House, which once again engaged a whole new generation of voters in historic numbers.
Now we’ve got four years of breathing room to try to transform our dysfunctional democracy into something that’s at least semi-functional again and sustainable. How exactly we do that, I do not know. But so far, we have collectively managed to meet the moment every time it counted, and I have to believe we can find a way to do it again.