Early in the new year, President Biden gave a powerful speech near Valley Forge warning of all the ways that democracy could be destroyed if Donald Trump returns to the White House. Yet the decay of democracy runs far deeper than the threat of an authoritarian president. Indeed, an authoritarian president seems less a menace and even an attraction to some voters, because democracy seems increasingly to be a sham.
How? Let us count the ways.
With Supreme Court rulings disallowing any regulation of big money in politics, campaign money has been crowding out the power of the vote. The right to vote itself has been undermined by the Court’s crippling of the Voting Rights Act. Gerrymandering has reached new levels in the rigging of districts, making it almost impossible to dislodge incumbents.
In the federal executive branch, the normal career progression is to work in government for a time and then increase your income manyfold by taking a job as a corporate lobbyist. The revolving door has become the norm. Public servants who emulate the victorious Roman general Cincinnatus, who “went back to the plow” — like Michael Dukakis, who went back to teaching — are the exception.
And the more democracy seems a hoax, the fewer people turn out to vote, making government more of an oligarchy.
Democracy is also essential for holding government accountable. Does Social Security deliver the checks on time? (Yes, though disability is a whole other story.) Is Medicaid a nightmare to navigate? (Also yes.) Is the student loan program fair and well run? (No.) Is the Registry of Motor Vehicles a running joke? (Yes.) To whom is the National Park Service, which appoints the head of the Cape Cod National Seashore, accountable? (God knows.)
But the private sector, especially at the level of giant monopolies, is just as unaccountable. And if competent government doesn’t keep the market honest, the task is far beyond what individual consumers can do.
Here in Massachusetts, as I wrote last month in the American Prospect, the state legislature has rules that allow the leadership to bottle up legislation in committee, not release texts to rank-and-file members, make last-minute deals behind closed doors, and gavel laws through on an up-or-down vote. With so few Republicans in office, we have a nominally blue one-party state, but it’s the wrong shade of blue — too many political hacks in bed with economic elites.
It’s at the local level, however, that we experience democracy up close and personal. Does government deliver the services that voters expect? Is it relatively free of corruption and basically competent? This day-to-day experience of local democracy colors how citizens view democracy nationally.
Although the Outer Cape is thick with civic activity, as readers of the Indie know all too well, some aspects of our town governments are a dysfunctional mess. Wellfleet is home to a lot of smart, well-informed people. Yet the recent history of its government could be a textbook case of what happens when too few people are paying attention and getting involved.
In Wellfleet, with citizen oversight lacking, a severe case of fiscal mismanagement was covered up by an incompetent in-group for far too long. Conspiracy theories, infighting, and toxic public comments have fueled a crisis of overworked and demoralized town employees. That crisis continues in spite of a blunt call to action directed at the select board by department heads and workers. No corrective action has ensued. Instead, Wellfleet suffers from a chronic shortage of citizens willing to volunteer and run for office.
Truro hasn’t had Wellfleet’s financial management woes, but its town officials have also been subjected to ill-informed and unfounded attacks that surely make some townspeople think twice about getting involved.
Face it: democracy takes work. It takes time to be informed, participate in meetings, and be in a position to sort out the sensible from the scoundrels.
The writer and cynic Oscar Wilde famously remarked when some of his Victorian friends were pitching him on the appeals of socialism, “It would take too many evenings.” The same is true of local democracy. But surely it’s worth the trouble.
We either invest time in making sure that the democratic process yields decent government or we all pay the price. And when local democracy fails, national democracy is not far behind.
Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect. He lives in Boston and Truro.