Moment Debate | Are We Losing Our Democracy?

Opinion, Summer Issue 2022

DEBATERS

Dahlia Lithwick is legal affairs correspondent for Slate.

Tevi Troy is a presidential historian, former White House aide and director of the Presidential Leadership Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

INTERVIEW WITH DAHLIA LITHWICK

Are We Losing Our Democracy? | Yes

Are we losing our democracy?

Yes. If you enact voter suppression laws, as 19 states did in 2021, and gerrymander districts to avoid competitive elections, and have a Supreme Court that continually makes it harder to vote, it’s insane to suppose the trend will reverse itself. If Black people in Georgia wait in line for days to vote at fewer precincts, while Connecticut enjoys three-minute voting, those are signs that the machinery is broken, maybe by design.

In a sense we’re not losing an actual democracy but an ideal—a mid-20th-century aspiration for a full participatory democracy that would have made every voice heard. We’re reverting to an unfortunate historic norm, because the system was never intended to be representative. Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah in 2020 accused Democrats of wanting “rank democracy,” arguing that democracy isn’t the objective—just liberty, peace and prosperity.

If people hate policies and don’t have any way to change them, maybe the democratic system isn’t working.

If people hate policies and don’t have any way to change them, maybe the democratic system isn’t working. The 70 or 80 percent majorities of people who wanted Roe v. Wade upheld, or want meaningful gun regulation, don’t really have democratic levers to express those preferences anymore. Justice Samuel Alito said in his Roe opinion, in essence, “Take it to the ballot box,” but he also just wrote the opinion in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee that erodes access to the ballot box.

What do you think are the mainstays of our system?

The framers intentionally gave white and agrarian interests greatly disproportionate influence. It works! The Senate is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, although Democratic senators represent at least 41 million more people, and 68 times as many people live in California as in Wyoming. The Electoral College has the same distorting effect.

What are our weak spots or pressure points?

All the minority-majority instruments of government put strain on democracy. Consider the way the filibuster prevents reforms from coming up for discussion in the Senate. The House passed a major voting rights package, the John Lewis Act; the Senate couldn’t even take it up. In a way, the biggest weak spot is the story we tell ourselves about how well U.S. democracy works. Americans look at Hungary and other places with massive erosion of democracy and say, “It’s OK, because we have the best and the purest democracy in the world.” We blind ourselves to a lot of things that are fixable.

Is there anything a system like ours can’t survive?

A lack of accountability for January 6 could end up being a massive failure of democratic systems. Parts of the Justice Department, the White House and state election officials were all conscripted into trying to thwart meaningful elections. That effort failed because a few lawyers at the Justice Department wouldn’t go along with it, including the acting attorney general, and because Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell weren’t persuasive in the courtroom. I don’t think that’s the sign of a robust system that worked great. It almost buckled, and unless we fix it, it could happen in 2024—seeds for that have been planted already in state legislatures and federal courts.

Have other times seemed this bad, or worse?

The Civil War was one period when the system was not capacious enough to resolve democratic conflict. In 1968, it felt as if the country was about to explode, largely over civil rights. In many other historical periods it seemed conflicts would be resolved by street fighting as opposed to democratic means.

Do you think you’d feel differently about this if your politics were different?

When I talk about Supreme Court ethics reform or term limits, people often respond, “You’re just grumpy because you’re not getting what you like from the court.” But as a legal reporter, I try to focus on systems, not outcomes. If justices have lifetime tenure, and the party system has wildly corrupted the confirmation process, and there are no ethics rules for recusal from cases, that’s a systems problem. If a 6-3 majority of the court wanted to protect abortion rights by deciding matters on the shadow docket at 1 a.m., I’d like to think I’d be intellectually honest enough to see the problem. I love institutions, so I take it very seriously when people say, “You support abortion rights, so you’d burn it all down.” No. Burning it all down is bad. It’s bad for women and people of color, and it’s parenthetically so bad for Jews.

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Do Jews play a canary-in-the-mineshaft role for democratic collapse?

I don’t know. Jews here have such outsize access to opportunity, it’s unlike most diaspora stories. But that becomes part of the magical thinking—the system must be working well, because we’re thriving! And then in Charlottesville, actual mobs were marching on our actual streets in 2017 yelling, “Go back to the ovens!” I sometimes joke that finally Jews are on both sides of every issue before the Supreme Court. That shows immense Jewish success, but as long as there are weak points in the system, it will eventually affect the Jews.

INTERVIEW WITH TEVI TROY

Are We Losing Our Democracy? | No

Are we losing our democracy?

No. Every generation faces challenges, and we certainly have our share of them. But this is the best system in the world. I wouldn’t move to any other country, and people still look to America as a beacon of democracy. People are too quick to bemoan the end of civilization when it’s not happening.

What do you think are the mainstays of our system? We have strong institutions. The separation of powers is crucial, and we have a free press—although there are always concerns about the health of the First Amendment. Then there’s the fact that generations of immigrants have come to America because they want to live in a free society. All these aspects make the society strong. Ronald Reagan in one of his speeches said, “Liberty binds us together.” That’s so powerful. People talk about ethnic identities and red vs. blue states, but the overarching belief in liberty is the central fact. If we can get back to that, it gives us a strong foundation moving forward.

What are our weak spots or pressure points?

One is political polarization. Polls say that about 16 percent of the country are at the political extremes—6 percent on the left and 10 percent on the right. They don’t want compromise and can’t abide any opinion different from their own. Another problem is the amount of power that the big tech companies have over free expression—almost like Orwell’s vision in 1984, but with private sector entities. I’m concerned about that, even though I don’t think tech execs are the rub-your-hands-together evil geniuses sometimes portrayed—they’re just people trying to make the best decisions in hard situations.

People are too quick to bemoan the end of civilization when it’s not happening.

The combination of polarization and the way people now express themselves via Twitter and the like, without seeing their neighbors, is distorting. It makes people seem much crueler to one another than they are to their actual neighbors. But if the 16 percent figure is right, then 84 percent of Americans are not in those categories, and a small minority are driving the negative content. I can’t say what those numbers looked like in 1950, but most Americans just want to live together in freedom and let you believe what you believe, and that gives me optimism.

Is there anything a system like ours can’t survive?

Nuclear attack, or some massive, technologically enhanced form of destruction, whether external or internal. The Roman Empire could only hit the people it actually saw. In the last two centuries we’ve learned to kill so many more people in remote ways—viruses, missiles, cyberattacks. I worry about those much more than about the latest Twitter blowup.

Have other times seemed this bad, or worse?

The 1960s were horribly divisive, with multiple major tragic political assassinations—President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.—and urban riots every summer of LBJ’s presidency. Nixon had also lost a very close race in 1960, with very questionable ballot counting in Illinois and Texas, and chose—to his credit—not to challenge that election. It seemed the wheels were coming off the bus. We recovered because of the inherent strength of the American system, and because of strong leaders on both sides of the aisle. I lived in New York City in the 1970s, which was a complete mess—graffiti, blackouts, bankruptcy—and Ed Koch as mayor started the process of turning New York around. Then Reagan on the national level helped America get its mojo back and win the Cold War. Later, the whole computer technology revolution, despite my gripes, really was a path to further prosperity in America when many thought natural resources had brought us as far as they could. There are always new frontiers in a country that allows for freedom of thought and entrepreneurial spirit.

Do you think you’d feel differently about this if your politics were different?

My politics are determined in part by my optimism and my gratitude. Ben Wattenberg, an LBJ speechwriter who saw those riots up close and who was my mentor, said that in America the most optimistic candidate always wins. I’m grateful for what this country has done for the world and also for the Jewish people. If my ancestors had stayed in Europe, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Now I’m here, my kids are here and we have a shot of continuing this great endeavor. If I didn’t have optimism and gratitude, maybe I’d be bitter and aggrieved, and that would lead to different politics.

Do Jews play a canary-in-the-mineshaft role for democratic collapse?

Oh, absolutely. When societies treat their Jews poorly or drive them away, or are antisemitic, often that’s an indication of some larger societal sickness. Think of Spain in the 1490s, or Czarist Russia in the early 1900s, where almost 700 pogroms were eventually followed by a revolution that led to the death of millions. And many nations that drive away their Jews, as in the Arab world after the creation of Israel, suffer as a result.

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2 thoughts on “Moment Debate | Are We Losing Our Democracy?

  1. hag says:

    I have seen and heard the word used all my life…and yet I am unsure (actually more than unsure) as to what it means… LOTS of slogans.. lots of noise… and everybody claims to have it…
    and yet I still don’t know what it means, I am an 88 year old college graduate, and vet… and all I see is some kind of crazy theocracy coming, with all having their own bible.. I am a reasonable, religious jew, and although I enjoy reading the Bible, I know that it is a set folk tales, carefully chosen and edited … it is not history… And isn’t about time we started thinking for ourselves…isn’t this why the creator of all things gave us a brain
    Actually I am glad that I won’t be around much longer toes the destruction of this great country.

  2. Davida Brown says:

    Dearest Hag, I wish I could wipe out your unbelief concerning the Bible. It is not a fictional novel. We have to be “taught” that. We have to be “taught” that there is no omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent GOD. Children sense His presence and innocently look around at the world of creation and have a “knowing” that GOD is the creator. Have you heard of Akiane?
    She is considered a child prodigy, but if you read her entire story, you will see something supernatural that can never be explained in a worldly context of human logic. Democracy and Liberty are great concepts, but they are still human constructs and there is a GOD who has other, better, ideas for this world of ours. The world as we know it is coming to an end, and sooner than you may think! Read all about it in the only Book the world contains that explains our past, present and future…our beginnings and our ends. Be wise and not unaware!

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