Oct 7th 2019

Our Democracy in Crisis?

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute

 

I don't know which metaphor to use to describe the current crisis in our politics because so many come to mind. Are we at a tipping point? The edge of a cliff? Or sitting on a volcano waiting for it to explode? You can choose one or all, because we are in a place we've never been before and it's dangerous.    

The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.  

When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  

They finally settled on Clinton's lying about an embarrassing sexual dalliance as the grounds for impeachment. What was most notable about this entire sordid affair was the total contempt demonstrated by this new breed of Republicans for Clinton. It wasn't political. It was personal. They weren't out to defeat his proposed legislation. They didn’t see him as a legitimate president and sought to destroy him.  

Later, during the months' long standoff that accompanied the 2000 election, culminating in the Supreme Court decision that George Bush should was the winner, my brother John Zogby conducted poll in which he asked Democratic and Republican voters whether or not, should the other side win, would they feel that new president be considered a "legitimate president." The results were disturbing; despite the fact that Al Gore had won the popular vote and the outcome was still being decided, a significant majority of Republicans said they would not accept Gore as a legitimate president. A majority of Democrats, on the other hand, said that should Bush be declared the winner, they would respect the outcome.  

Bush, unlike Clinton, did not face retribution from the Democratic controlled Senate.  They passed his tax cuts, compromised on a series of domestic initiatives, and rallied behind him after 9/11, giving him the authorization to make war and unprecedented powers of intrusive domestic surveillance. It wasn't Democrats who sunk Bush's presidency, it was his failed war in Iraq, his disastrous mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic collapse.  

Within weeks of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Republicans stepped up efforts to obstruct and delegitimize his presidency. The GOP's minority leadership in the House and Senate boldly declared that their intention was not to work with him but "to bring him down" by funding outside and organizing outside groups, like the Tea Party and the "birther movement." Never before had leaders in one major party been engaged in such a campaign to question whether the president was even a legal US citizen. And their efforts took a toll. In polling conducted back then, well over 60% of Republicans stated that they believed the Obama was not born in the US - and therefore was not a legitimate president (the same number also said they believed that Obama was secretly a Muslim, therefore lying about being a Christian). 

While Obama's presidency was above reproach in that he was never charged with any wrongdoing. His first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was hounded by Republican Congressional committees who accusing her of concealing and deleting her private email account hide it from investigators. She was subjected to hours of interrogated by Congressmen who charged that she failed to protect the US Ambassador to Libya, contributing to his death. While one might say that the email inquiry was a legitimate concern – despite the fact that several of Clinton’s predecessors also had such personal accounts – the contempt Congress demonstrated in charging her with contributing to the death of the Ambassador was clearly an effort to harass, humiliate, and degrade her service.     

This lack of respect and civility brought us to the 2016 presidential campaign and the election of Donald Trump.  

During the primary, Trump demeaned his opponents, railed against the media, insulted the courts, preyed on xenophobic fears, and incited his supporters to use violence against protesters. His behavior was so outrageous that pundits declared him to be "unpresidential" and unelectable. They failed to recognize that the political well had been so poisoned that what they found unacceptable was well received by many Republican voters were fed a steady diet of incivility and contempt for "the other" over two decades. The beast spawned by the GOP in the 1990s had come of age and was now devouring them.  

Those who thought that Trump would act presidential upon entering the Oval Office soon found they were in error. He had honed his skills as an entertainer along the lines of an insulting Don Rickles or a derisive Rodney Dangerfield. It served him well on the campaign trail, and he was, therefore, not inclined to change direction. Instead, he became Trump-the-performer on steroids.  

It has been a difficult two and a half years with this president. He delivered the tax cuts, deregulation, and conservative judges the conservative and religious wings craved. And he kept his supporters agitated and entertained. The danger is that, on the fringes of his base, he energized white supremacy movements by inflaming passions of racism and xenophobia. Federal law enforcement now feels that the greatest threat to national security is not from foreign-inspired extremist movements, but domestic extremists.  

At the same time, President Trump has demonstrated contempt for Congress and the rule of law, leading some Democrats to call for his impeachment. His firing of officials who were investigating members of his administration, his refusal to cooperate with legitimate requests from Congress into his behavior in office, the lack of transparency surrounding his businesses’ profits made during his time in office, and violations of congressionally approved budget authorizations to fund his pet projects, have all been subjects of concern.  

In each instance, he has responded with insults, derision, and contempt, questioning the very legitimacy of those who oppose him – Congress, the FBI, the media, or the courts. And he has used Twitter and rallies to make his case and inflame his base. At times, it appeared that President Trump was even goading Democrats into taking steps to impeach him.  

While the base of the Democratic Party was clamoring for impeachment, the leadership hesitated, fearing that it was a trap that Trump wanted them to fall into in order to mobilize his supporters. With the release of a CIA whistleblower’s report claiming that the president sought to suborn Ukraine’s government into investigating the leading Democratic presidential candidate, thereby helping to advance his election prospects, and evidence that he had withheld aid to Ukraine to encourage their support for his request – the tide turned and the Democratic leadership had no choice but to begin impeachment proceedings. All of this has only further inflamed Trump as his intense twitter rants and his shocking performance in the presence of the President of Finland made all too clear.  

When earlier this week, Trump tweeted a comment by a right-wing preacher saying that should he be impeached, it would provoke a civil war – it was a prediction/threat I believe should be taken seriously. President Trump’s behavior has mimicked that of authoritarian leaders. He has demonstrated that he will strike back with fury at opponents. And he has so agitated his base, that I believe there is a real concern for violence. I am even concerned that should he lose the election in 2020, neither he nor many of his most fervent followers will accept the outcome.  

Back to where I began. I’m don’t know which metaphor is most appropriate to describe the very real crisis facing our democracy, but what I do know is that it is, to be sure, a crisis.

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More Current Affairs

Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."
Aug 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Climate change is real, and it is a problem. According to the IPCC, the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2-2% loss in average income. That’s not the end of the world, but the same as a single economic recession, in a world that is much better off than today.  The risk is that outsized fear will take us down the wrong path in tackling global warming. Concerned activists want the world to abandon fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But it will mean slowing the growth that has lifted billions out of poverty and transformed the planet. That has a very real cost. "
Aug 20th 2019
EXTRACTS: "It is no exaggeration to say that Johnson has lied his way to the top, first in journalism and then in politics. His ascent owes everything to the growing xenophobia and English nationalism that many Conservatives now espouse................Johnson has chosen a government of like-minded anti-European nationalists. His principal adviser, Dominic Cummings, was described by David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2016, as a “career psychopath.” Cummings is, alongside Johnson, the most powerful figure in the new government; he is an unelected wrecker who earlier this year was ruled to be in contempt of parliament. Fittingly, if depressingly, he now is masterminding our departure from the EU with or without parliamentary approval."
Aug 19th 2019
EXTRACTS: "Back in May, a jury found Patrick Syring, a former State Department official, guilty of 14 counts of making threats against my life and my staff at the Arab American Institute. This week, a federal judge sentenced Syring to five years in prison to be followed by three years of court-ordered probation.................It gives me no pleasure to see this man going to jail for a long period, but it does provide us all with a sense of enormous relief. I've been threatened before. My wife, my children, and I have received death threats for the past 50 years – owing to my advocacy for Palestinian rights and the rights of the Arab American community. My office was fire-bombed and an Arab American colleague, whom I hired, was murdered. Two individuals who, in the past, made death threats against me and my children were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. But this case was different."
Aug 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Gaslighting typically refers to intimate relationships. It’s a way of controlling someone by creating false narratives – for example, that they are irrational or crazy. If such lies are repeated constantly, victims may get confused and start believing there really is something wrong with them. Confusion, diversion, distraction and disinformation can similarly be used to gaslight an entire society. So how can you tell if you are being gaslighted, and how do you avoid it in the first place?"
Aug 14th 2019
EXTRACT: "Trump has once again painted himself into a corner. Since the latest massacres, he’s been at pains to present himself as a reasonable fellow who can get behind gun reform (and perhaps mollify suburban women, his most dangerous foes on this issue). But he’s also noticeably (and typically) anxious to maintain the loyalty of the rural voters who form an important part of his base. Trump has also taken the gamble of using racial politics and white supremacy as instruments for winning in 2020. When faced with the dilemma of trying to assuage suburban voters or keeping the base close, time after time his instinct has been to shore up the base. (That didn’t work very well in 2018.)"
Aug 5th 2019
Extracts: "it is impossible to model many of the most important risks. Global warming will produce major changes in hydrological cycles, with both more extreme rainfall and longer more severe droughts. This will have severe adverse effects on agriculture and livelihoods in specific locations, but climate models cannot tell us in advance precisely where regional effects will be most severe. Adverse initial effects in turn could produce self-reinforcing political instability and large-scale attempted migration........Achieving a zero-carbon economy will require a massive increase in global electricity use, from today’s 23,000 TW hours to as much as 90,000 TW hours by mid-century. Delivering this in a zero-carbon fashion will require enormous investments, but as the Energy Transitions Commission has shown, it is technically, physically, and economically feasible......Added up across all economic sectors, however, it’s clear that the total cost of decarbonizing the global economy cannot possibly exceed 1-2% of world GDP. In fact, the actual costs will almost certainly be far lower, because most such estimates cautiously ignore the possibility of fundamental technological breakthroughs, and maintain conservative estimates of how long and how fast cost reductions in key technologies will occur. In 2010, the International Energy Agency projected a 70% fall in solar photovoltaic equipment costs by 2030. It happened by 2017."
Jul 31st 2019
Extract: "I admire the US for its culture, entrepreneurialism, and universities, and I have many American friends. Furthermore, I know how grateful the rest of the world has to be for US leadership after World War II. Never before had a victorious power behaved so generously toward others, including the defeated. We owe so much to US policy in the second half of the twentieth century. But although I am no declinist regarding American economic, intellectual, and military power, the country’s soft power has certainly decreased, and its positive influence around the world has declined. The reason for this is simple: US President Donald Trump is a bad man surrounded by a bad team of incompetent and dangerous ideologues."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "This pattern holds true in every extremist movement I have studied, whether from the past or the present, or the West or the East. This abuse of religion that provides security and certainty to those who are experiencing a loss of control is a universal phenomenon. If merely left there, it would not be a danger. But when it masks a political agenda or when it justifies violence either by groups or state actors, it becomes a danger."
Jul 30th 2019
Extract: "......the day before Mueller testified, the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” And the day after Mueller testified, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that Russia would be involved in the next presidential election, and that countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and China have the capacity to interfere in US elections as well. Despite these warnings, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked Senate consideration of two bills aimed at strengthening US election security,....."
Jul 15th 2019
".....one of the most accurate recession indicators, known as the yield curve, has recently been flashing warning signs. Every postwar recession in the US was preceded by an inversion of the yield curve, meaning that long-term interest rates had fallen below short-term interest rates, some 12 to 18 months before the outset of the economic downturn."