America on the knife's edge: Will the next year determine the fate of democracy?

Joe Biden and the Democrats finally grasp that major change is necessary to redeem democracy — if it's not too late

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 2, 2021 12:02PM (EDT)

People react to the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial in Brooklyn on April 20, 2021 in New York City. In a trial followed around the world, Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty and has been convicted of murder for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
People react to the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial in Brooklyn on April 20, 2021 in New York City. In a trial followed around the world, Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, was found guilty and has been convicted of murder for killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

It's a debased truism of our decaying two-party system: Every moment of political conflict is an apocalypse waiting to happen. Since at least the beginning of this century, Republicans have depicted every presidential election as the last chance to "save America" from socialism, mandatory gay marriage, emasculating electric cars and re-education camps for white suburbanites. Democrats, of course, have made a structurally similar argument framed in wistful, Springsteenian terms: It's our last chance to fend off the mean-spirited racists and would-be fascists and redeem the American narrative of upward progress inherited from Woody Guthrie, FDR and Martin Luther King Jr.

It's always complete hogwash. Except when it's accidentally true, like a stopped historical clock. Such as right now. 

I don't actually mean that the looming 2022 midterm elections, or even — Goddess help us — the 2024 presidential election, will decide the future of America by themselves. (Those will be truly dire campaigns; I know that much.) I'm inclined to believe that by the time we reach those elections the die will be cast and the decision will have been made, and those elections will simply confirm what we already know. To be truthful, I suspect that when we look back at this moment from the future — assuming the existence of a future, and people to look back from it — we will conclude that America's destiny had been written in the stars some time earlier, and that at this point in the trajectory there was no way to change it.

But we're not in the future, are we? We're right here, at a moment of tremendous dynamism and danger, when the greatest military and economic power in world history, facing a precipitous decline in its global status and plagued by unmanageable internal divisions, stands at the edge of the abyss. May we live in interesting times, right? That curse has descended upon us with a vengeance.

A new president most of us thought would be an ineffective middle-road caretaker is trying to seize the moment and transform the political narrative with a series of bold initiatives, while a defeated ex-president — refusing to acknowledge that he was defeated or is now the ex-president — leads a faction or cult or movement explicitly determined to uprooting America's compromised and problematic democracy by the foundations and replacing it with an authoritarian sham. 

What happens over the course of the next year is critical, and not just because it will determine whether Democrats can somehow cling to power in Washington after 2022. That's a much more significant question than usual, and I say that as someone deeply skeptical of both political parties and the entire creaky architecture that holds them up. But the only way Democrats can change the conventional script on midterm elections — in which the president's party nearly always loses seats — is by persuading a critical mass of Americans, across all the boundaries of race and class and geography and culture that we talk about endlessly, that effective government can play a positive role in ordinary people's lives, and that there's more to the social contract than lower taxes for the rich and ever-cheaper online shopping.  

To put this another way, Joe Biden — or whoever you conclude is driving his agenda behind the scenes — is trying to redeem the promise and possibility of liberal democracy, and trying to do so virtually overnight, and with little political capital. It's an impossible task, perhaps literally so. But at least the Democratic Party appears to have grasped, at long last, that the entire liberal-democratic project is in desperate need of reform. 

On one hand, it's heartening to see so many people who previously would not have known or cared about Joe Manchin's position on the filibuster, let alone the details of Biden's ginormous "infrastructure bill," pay attention to the nitty-gritty of politics. We were all taught in high school that democracy is impossible without an engaged citizenry. One of the greatest crimes of the Clinton-Obama Democratic Party was its mode of bland, professional competence and the anesthetizing message that government was something disengaged from daily life that ran smoothly in the background, like an operating system, and was best left to the nerds.

On the other hand, while the Biden administration's FDR-style self-reinvention is undeniably impressive, it's hard to imagine America extricating itself from our current national dilemma without some reckoning with how we got here. That's not the sort of thing that happens within a year or two, and for a nation as clouded by narcissistic mythology, self-serving lies and massive ignorance as ours, it might not be possible at all.

Of course Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, and by a significant margin. But in a sense, it's not mysterious that his supporters cling so tenaciously to the fiction or delusion that the election was rigged. They are correct to perceive an invisible pattern behind recent American history that includes the disempowerment of ordinary people, even if their preferred explanation of that pattern is dangerous nonsense. They also perceive correctly that the United States in 2020 failed to deliver a clear message — about Trump and Biden and their respective parties, about the pandemic that killed more than a half-million Americans, about the summer of protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor or about much of anything else. 

Yes, Biden defeated Trump. But Trump received far more votes than he had in winning the 2016 election, more than any incumbent president or any Republican nominee in history — which, given the massive incompetence and blatant criminality of his entire administration, is nothing short of astonishing. Democrats blithely assumed they would expand their House majority by 10 to 15 seats, and very nearly lost it. After losing several Senate seats they expected to win (in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, most notably), they appeared doomed in the upper chamber too, but managed a miraculous 50-50 pseudo-majority entirely because Trump's bumbling interference in Georgia poisoned the inept Republican incumbents and drove massive Democratic turnout in the runoff election. (Which occurred, lest we forget, on Jan. 5, a day before something else happened, although it's difficult to say exactly what.)

There are so many paradoxes to America's current state of political dysfunction that no one could possibly list them all. The party that has embraced the task of trying to save democracy at the last moment, however awkwardly and incompletely — and however poisoned by its own internal contradictions — won, but very nearly lost. The party that has gone about 94 percent of the way into white nationalism and primitive fascism lost, primarily because of its contaminated figurehead — but could not possibly have come so close to winning without him. 

As for the massive question of whether liberal democracy can be saved, let's put a pin in that one, as we say these days. As Pankaj Mishra points out repeatedly in his recent collection of essays, "Bland Fanatics," Western-style liberalism had a perhaps-fatal flaw built into it from the beginning: Its expansion of human rights and representative democracy and the "free market" and whatever other noble and purportedly universal principles were always dependent on exploiting less powerful nations elsewhere in the world, first to extract raw materials and human capital, and then to serve as captive export markets. 

At least the British Empire in its heyday made no bones about that fact. We condemn the "white man's burden" rhetoric of that era as irredeemably racist, but it was arguably more honest than the American pretense that our increasingly clumsy and destructive overseas adventures were somehow in service to noble, abstract principles of "human rights" and "freedom," rather than an attempt to create a one-world market by force. 

That fiction became increasingly untenable after the Vietnam War and the social discord of the 1960s and '70s, but that wasn't enough to prevent both political parties — yes, liberals! Both sides! — from buying into the same toxic bullshit all over again and going all-in on the unmitigated disaster of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, the Patriot Act and the massive expansion of the national-security state after 9/11. Biden has signaled some willingness to tiptoe away from that dreadful history, but not nearly fast enough or forcefully enough. Which might not matter much, in historical terms: If it turns out that the entire liberal-democratic project is doomed, that was the moment when it happened.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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