One of the most dispiriting features of American political discourse is the lack of urgency felt by all participants, the baffling assumption that we live in normal times except for having Donald Trump as President, the failure to see the gravity of the threats facing the human community and the American people as its leading members.
We don’t live in October 10, 2019. The date is December 8, 1941. The Japanese have just attacked Pearl Harbor, and our nation faces total war on two fronts against fearsome enemies. The date is April 13, 1861. The Southern states have seceded from the Union and Fort Sumter has surrendered. The country faces the four bloodiest years of war in its entire history. And yet half the Democratic Party seems to think that all we need accomplish in 2020 is to drive Donald Trump from the White House. No, we live in much more serious, truly historic times.
Climate change alone presents a graver threat to human civilization than even that posed by Adolf Hitler and his war machine. In addition to the damage wrought by increasingly violent weather, one quarter of humanity lives in countries faced with the imminent prospect of running out of fresh drinking water. Also in part because of climate change, the world’s supply of arable land is shrinking and declining in productivity. Paired with excessive population growth, major food shortages threaten human beings across the globe. One consequence of such shortages will be massive increases in migration, which already poses serious political problems within the developed world. As one expert put the matter: “People don’t stay and die where they are. People migrate.”
In the face of climate change, the world desperately needs American leadership. We need a new Paris accord, but one with meaningful enforcement provisions and much more ambitious goals. Probably the world needs nothing less than a climate change Marshall Plan, in which the world’s richest countries – we and our allies in Western Europe and North Asia – provide financial aid and renewable energy technology to developing countries like India, that otherwise will drive their economic growth by burning fossil fuels. This worldwide effort will mean financial sacrifices in the richest countries, but also millions of new, high paying jobs producing wind turbines, solar panels, and nuclear reactors. Only American leadership can make this collective effort by the world’s nations possible. We are the indispensable nation, not only by virtue of the size of our economy, but also because of the position of moral leadership that we have enjoyed, going all the way back to our Civil War, as the birthplace of modern democracy and as the world’s foremost champion of democracy, a nation that has given the lives of over a million young men in wars fought for freedom.
Today the notion of American moral leadership seems at times almost quaint, more a fading memory than a living reality. This is not only because of Donald Trump’s moral depravity and his habit of denigrating our allies and cozying up to dictators. The problem runs much deeper: here in the land of its birth, the democratic form of government is on the ropes. Our political life has become a circus, and our moral authority in the world is rapidly evaporating.
Across the last four decades, a steadily swelling torrent of campaign cash has hollowed out the substance of our democracy from within. The indispensable high-dollar donors determine which candidates for public office can run viable campaigns, and they hold a veto over the policies these candidates may enact once in office, since politicians must return to these donors again and again to get reelected. The American people can still vote, but they don’t have much to vote for, since a tiny minority has already chosen the candidates and their policy programs. Not being stupid, the voters recognize that they have been disenfranchised, even if they don’t understand precisely how this was done to them. This is a large part of how we ended up with a morally depraved buffoon in the White House: in 2016, Trump was the candidate of change, and many Americans took the desperate gamble of change at any price. And the tyranny of big money is only one part of the terrible damage that has been done to our democracy.
Across the last three decades, as they championed policies that don’t benefit most Americans (e.g. tax cuts for the wealthy), the Republican party has turned its back on the democratic values that made this country great, instead seeking victory at any price. Republicans strive to disenfranchise Americans who might vote against them, by partisan gerrymandering and various forms of vote suppression. They rig the political game by choosing biased referees, aggressively packing the courts with conservative ideologues vetted by the Federalist Society. Republican politicians undermine democracy by lying to the voters, most consequentially about climate change, and by repeatedly claiming – against all the evidence – that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves with increased revenue. And now, as the decline and fall of American democracy moves toward its possible endgame, Republican officials slavishly support a president of nakedly authoritarian leanings, who bridles at all restraints on his authority, dangerously politicizes the civil service, flouts the constitutional separation of powers, lies prolifically to the voters almost every day, calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” and invites the interference of foreign powers in our elections, elections that he has openly proposed to disregard if he doesn’t win.
From being the world’s foremost champion of democracy and an inspiration to humanity, we have become a poster child for the ostensible dysfunction of democracy, a warning that autocrats can hold out to their subjects. Not only does our crumbling democracy undermine our claim to lead the human community, but our dysfunctional political system has left us with a backlog of unaddressed problems here at home: decrepit infrastructure; an overly expensive health care system that doesn’t serve all our people; growing economic inequality and declining chances of upward social mobility; and the eruption of white nationalism into the political mainstream. These daunting problems – especially in the face of Republican obstruction and ideological hostility to government social programs – have led Democrats in this election season to focus entirely on second-order issues. Yes, health care and debt free college are indisputably important and deserve extensive discussion, but something far more important is at stake in November 2020: American democracy is now under greater threat than it has been at any time in our history since the Civil War, and only the Democratic Party can save it from big money, Republican sabotage, and a would-be dictator in the White House.
So we live in December 8, 1941, and in April 13, 1861. Why does no one in the political system see the urgency that our past leaders did on those dates? Part of the difference lies of course in the dramatic nature of a war’s outbreak, which focuses everyone’s attention. But I submit that the crux of the problem lies in campaign finance. As a practical matter, to address our domestic problems and to lead the world against climate change, our government will need trillions upon trillions of dollars of new revenue. This money can only come from the people who have it: massive tax increases on the wealthy, levels of taxation that they have not paid since the Eisenhower administration. But as long as these same people finance all our political campaigns, tax increases will remain taboo. Big money in politics has also disenfranchised the voters, and ultraconservative donors have driven Republican politicians into an ideological wilderness and a rejection of democracy. After all, if Republicans want to implement policies which please the Koch brothers, they have to pack the courts, rig elections, and maybe someday get rid of elections altogether.