American Democracy in Trouble?

“The free world needs a reliable source.”

On that overwrought, self-referencing monologic note, Brian Stetler concluded his tendentious tenure at CNN. *Moët pop.* Cheers!

I know, I know, every parable in Jesus’s Mount lecture says to never huff the fragrant fumes of schadenfreude. I should offer up Stetler a prayer for a safe occupational landing… but not yet. Please, Lord, just one more whippet of sweet, sweet contemptuous glee.

But enough kicking a porcine plump while he’s down. Stetler’s final performance was drenched in worry about the media’s role in a free world. Not sure what free world he’s referring to—the one where we’re constantly spied upon by government snoops, where digital discourse is heavily circumscribed and sanitized, and where 80,000 new jackbooted tax enforcers will soon be sicced on everyone with a Venmo account?

Yeah, that must be the one. All the same, Stetler has high-minded concerns about a free press’s role in “preserving democracy” or “holding elected officials accountable” or any such hoary platitudes. Yet he’s not alone. Many of his fellow repiners reside outside the Northeast Corridor.

A new NBC poll reports voters name “threats to democracy” as their top concern. “Cost of living” and “jobs and the economy” come up unusually short, ranking in second and third respectively. Overall, public-opinion gauge shows a deep dissatisfaction with the direction of the country—an atrabilious sentiment that seems timeless, or consistent since the salad days of Ike. But this American Maslow pyramid seems counterintuitive: ballots over bread? One-person-one-vote above a-chicken-in-every-pot? First-past-the-pole atop petrol prices?

Really? Surely the poll is askew, right? Who trusts the pollster profession after 2016 anyway? The results reek of liberal bias insinuated within the questionnaire. Who was even surveyed? CNN Plus pre-subscribers? Post-doctorate vacationers in Provincetown during Bear Week? Sunday morning shoppers outside the Whole Foods in Brookline, Mass.?

Starving people are primarily interested in caloric intake, not the intricacies of early mail-in ballot deadlines. Then again, Uncle Sam is plenty nourished, so much so his adipose tissue is stretching the seams of his striped pants. Maybe civic concern is one of those late-capitalist fixations. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt once remarked that poor societies “don’t really care that much about human rights, and gender rights, and all these other sorts of things.” But once a level of affluence is reached, rising generations start “to care more about animal rights, human rights, gay rights, women’s rights.”

Perhaps Americans have had their fill of cheap fast-food and streaming entertainment. (I mean, who wouldn’t be bored of pumpkin spice lattes in August and a Game of Thrones prequel?) We may even be entering that paradisiacal time Marx foretold where we’ll fish and hunt all day then sit down to “criticize” our less-than-perfect democracy in the evening over a fine bottle of Rioja—grown, fermented, and bottled on a worker-owned vineyard.

Or the entire poll is partisan dreck deserving DQing. That was my gut reaction. Like any political observer, I assume any poll that upsets my priors is poorly constructed and deserves no notice. Huffington Post gave Hillary Clinton a 97% chance of quashing Trump, after all. In the age of preference-targeted digital ads, everything’s a push poll anyway. Plus, CBS just dropped a new poll contradicting the “democracy-in-crisis” narrative, putting the “economy” and “inflation” back into top-concern ranking.

But the more I ruminated on the results, the more they made sense. Maybe Americans truly are concerned about the state of democracy. (DISCLAIMER FOR CONSERVATIVE PENDANTS: Yes, we live in a democratic republic, not a pure democracy. But we’re using democracy as shorthand for our election system despite all the historical nuances no voter cares about nor understands. Capeesh? Now go read Federalist No. 13 or whatever.)

The wording of “threats to democracy” is vague enough to appeal to both red and blue.

The left works itself into a civy tizzy every time a president—a Republican, natch—wins a presidential election without the popular vote. Donald Trump has been painted as an authoritarian caudillo seven years running. The caricature is only encouraged by Trump’s inane whinging for a 2020 re-do 24 months after his loss. The media bombards its loyal liberal readers with daily headlines on how, to paraphrase Wolf, the dark night of fascism is descending upon the United States because some states require proof of identity to cast a ballot. Even our cognitive clod of a president clumsily linked Trumpism to “semi-fascism.”

So why shouldn’t the left be shaking in their unisex Zara boots over the future of American democracy?

But the right has equal worry. Progressives don’t exactly hide their frustration with the Constitution. Plenty of Democrats—duly elected, oath-swearing lawmakers, not anon Daily Kos commenters—openly call for the abolition of the Electoral College and equal representation in the Senate. Corporate news outlets give prominent print space to some thesis on the need to rend the country’s founding fabric. “The Constitution Is Broken and Should Not Be Reclaimed” was a recent pule du coeur in the Times by two Ivy League law profs. President Biden just unlawfully slashed ten grand in student debt—a move he and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said doesn’t pass constitutional muster. Over half of Democratic representatives don’t even bother showing up to the Capitol to vote anymore.

Iconoclastic rhetoric over America’s governing foundation? Blatantly ignoring the rule of law? Most congressional votes submitted in absentia? Doesn’t sound like very democracy-respectin’ to me!

“Bothsideism” critics be damned. The right is so worried about the preservation of the American system that they indulge in the sore-loserdom of their former standard bearer. The left appeals to American roots—the party puts demos in its actual name—but wants to fully weed away the Constitution. And the third side, the attention-seeking media, inflames tempers by warning of imminent nationwide collapse with every Facebook blurb.

Here’s my brave, daring, and go-against-the-grain take: American democracy is in better shape than we’re made to believe. The country’s survived setbacks, struggles, and more than a few wars, including a wholly domestic bout. It can hopefully endure the divisive digital agora we find ourselves forever remonstrating in.

The same can’t be said for Brian Stetler’s career. Before you think me too cruel, remember: every time a ratings-chasing sensationalist talking head is canned, an American democratic angel gets its wings.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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