In the run-up to and immediate wake of the 2020 presidential election a large number of Americans are deeply concerned about the health of our democracy, and while alarmist sentiments often surface in a hotly contested election season most political commentators agree the current anxiety is extraordinary, widespread, and justified. The causes for this striking decline of confidence in our democracy are partly to be found in the unprecedented and disturbing conduct and speech of our outgoing president and his supporters and partly in a number of deeper trends in American society reaching back several decades.
The rise, election and presidency of Donald Trump has been an increasingly disturbing phenomenon for the majority of Americans, most of the nation’s free press, the bulk of its diplomats, and large swaths of its federal agencies and civil service, and has provoked deep and widespread concern and complaint among the nation’s longstanding democratic allies. The substantial complaints against Trump have focused upon speech and conduct threatening or undermining the checks and balances of our democratic structures, the civility of public and political discourse, the civil, political and legal rights of religious and racial minorities, the authority of the judiciary, the credibility and access of the free press, the ability of numerous federal agencies to serve the American people without political bias or interference, the stability of longstanding alliances with other democratic nations, and, most recently, the further undermining of our shared confidence in the electoral process.
First, since his election Trump has made countless spurious accusations about the fairness of our electoral process and the unproven threat of voter suppression, while refusing to acknowledge or address proven foreign interference in the 2016 election. More recently, he has resisted efforts to make voting less dangerous or more accessible in the midst of a pandemic, discouraged, undermined and lied about widespread participation in mail in voting, and made repeated inflammatory statements about his unwillingness to abide by the electoral process. In all of this he undermined voter confidence in the electoral process, weakened the ability of minorities and his opponents to vote, and provided his supporters reasons to ignore or resist unfavourable electoral results. And, indeed in the days and weeks after the election he has launched a barrage of fatuous complaints and lies about the fairness of the voting process and count, and encouraged leaders of his party and disappointed followers to take up this senseless and dangerous rant.
Second, since the opening gambit of his 2016 campaign, Trump has scapegoated, vilified, and withdrawn or violated the rights, legal protections and safety of migrants, refugees and racial and religious minorities. Fuelling racist and xenophobic backlashes against, among other things, the current immigration crisis and the predicted decline of a white majority in the coming decades, Trump has repeated, supported or refused to criticize white supremacist speech or behaviour, even when violent or deadly, while failing to defend people of colour threatened or disturbed by extremist violence or excessive police force, and has organized his campaign and presidency around coded messages signalling a support for white nationalism.
Third, in responding to constitutional checks and balances on his authority and critics of his policies and statements the administration has engaged in systematic campaigns of misinformation on every topic from attendance at his 2017 inauguration to the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US. In a presidency characterized by over 20,000 false statements and committed to fomenting informational chaos through the daily release of a cascade of false, inflammatory and distracting “alternative facts,” the Trump administration has sought to undermine the authority, credibility and influence of the free press, federal oversight and watchdog agencies, the judiciary, his own intelligence community and diplomatic corps, as well as the medical and scientific communities. This steady barrage of falsehoods, insults and slanderous comments weakens citizens’ confidence in the reliability of expert, objective or scientific information, and replaces reasoned argument with namecalling, ridicule and lies, rendering informed discourse and shared decision making impossible.
Fourth, throughout his campaign and presidency Trump has demonstrated an authoritarian disdain for any democratic or constitutional limits on his actions or policies, vilified or punished those who sought to enforce such checks, bragged about his ability to flout the law with impunity, and supported, praised, excused and pardoned persons and groups acting with similar disregard for the rule of law. Meanwhile, on the international scene the President has retreated from or abandoned a series of treaties and alliances, demonstrated a marked disregard for longstanding democratic allies and their leaders, and cozied up to authoritarian rulers even as they acted – sometimes criminally – against US laws and interests or violated the human rights of their people and/or the peace and stability of the region.
In all of this the candidate and President has modelled and encouraged a personal and national narcissism disinterested in the checks and balances of democratic institutions, or the value of collaboration or diplomacy, demonstrating instead a will to power, a disregard for truth, and a disdain for critics and opponents. At the same time, this populist leader has found and excited an aggrieved base of largely white Christian nationalists savouring his rancorous approach to politics and exhibiting little desire to restrain his authoritarian tendencies.
Still, the immediate threat this presidency presents to the health of American democracy is connected to larger longstanding patterns within the country, patterns Trump has tapped into or inflamed, not invented.
The first cause of the declining health of US democracy is our exceptional and escalating economic inequality, currently higher than at any point in the previous half century and than any European nation. This extraordinary and increasing gap between America’s rich and poor and the concomitant shrinking of the US middle class is caused in large part by the failure to improve the federal minimum wage, the stagnation of blue-collar wages, and tax policies benefitting the nation’s wealthiest top quintile and (especially) its richest 1%.
The harms of this staggering level of economic inequality to the health of our democracy are numerous. Americans increasingly find themselves in two separate and unequal societies, with different life spans, health outcomes, educational and employment opportunities, and access to the halls of political power. Government policies making it possible to escape poverty or recover from job losses have been withdrawn or weakened, making it more difficult for tens of millions to achieve or sustain the American dream of economic progress. Meanwhile, the nations wealthiest have grown phenomenally richer and gained nearly unlimited access to and influence over its elected officials, tax and spending policies, and regulatory agencies.
Second, centuries of racism have marred the landscape of American democracy. Longstanding government supported practices of segregation and discrimination in housing, education and employment, accompanied by the “New Jim Crow” of over four decades of mass incarceration disproportionately imprisoning and disenfranchising African Americans, and the Supreme Court’s cancellation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act have all contributed to an economic and political disenfranchisement of people of colour. In addition, the disproportionate use of police force against African Americans and other racial minorities has alienated these communities from law enforcement and exposed the racial bias of our criminal justice system.
The taint of racial injustice has been deepened by several decades of a national politics of “white grievance” during which candidates of both parties (but increasingly of one party) have employed coded messages focused on “law and order” and casting minorities and migrants as criminals or illegals to appeal to white voters anxious about a threatened loss of status or dominance. The creation of the world’s largest prison system and disenfranchisement of over six million Americans and the growing hysteria over millions of undocumented laborers picking most of America’s fruits and vegetables are direct results of a cynical political strategy to manipulate the fears of white Christian nationalists and disenfranchise millions of people of colour.
Third, recent decades have seen transformations of the mainstream press and an explosion of the power of social media often weakening our capacity for informed and civil discourse. Not long ago most American got their TV news from one of three or four national mainstream broadcasters, while more than sixty million readers subscribed to a daily newspaper seeking a wide audience. Today most viewers can select a cable or radio news outlet tuned to confirm and intensify their political biases, while over a third of daily newspapers have shuttered and the ranks of reporters and readers have been cut in half. In place of these shared news outlets tens of millions now get their information from social media outlets geared to fuel their confirmation biases and ideological passions without providing comparable protections for objectivity or accuracy.
This atomization of American society into polarized tribes of red and blue voters has been accompanied by a deepening disregard for objective, scientific, or, more recently, medical information about important issues, and a rising conviction that persons are entitled to their own opinions and their own facts. This has meant a growing disdain not only for facts or evidence offered by their opponents or critics but also by those experts with oversight responsibilities, as well as an unwillingness to examine the consistency of their own group’s statements or policies. Such disregard for truth and evidence severely weaken the possibility of achieving democratic consensus on issues or resolution of challenges.
Fourth, something must be said about the contribution of religion to the current malaise of American democracy, particularly the negative impact of white largely evangelical Christianity. For decades the bulk of white conservative Christian Churches and voters have been at the heart of a political movement of “white complaint” reacting to the racial progress of the Civil Rights movement, supporting the wars on crime and drugs behind the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration. This same largely evangelical white Christian community has ignored religious and biblical calls to welcome and love the stranger while supporting xenophobic and racist speech and policies in response to immigration from Mexico and Central America. It has also largely resisted efforts to provide a national health care system or expand Medicare, to set limits on the nation’s uniquely widespread and deadly use of firearms, and to acknowledge or address the climate change crisis threatening the planet.
While the US remains the most religious of post-industrial nations, religion in America has been shaped by a free market approach encouraging members to join or create the Church best reflecting their personal beliefs. Not surprisingly, more Americans belong to local breakaway Churches reflecting their specific beliefs and disinclined to challenge their political or racial biases. Also, not surprisingly, American Churches are highly segregated by race and class, and so a large percentage of white Christians find themselves in Churches where their racial bias remains largely unchallenged. In addition, there is an unseemly fit between populist resistance to uncomfortable facts and the increasingly defended religious right to believe or behave as one chooses or the presumed moral superiority or immunity of religious beliefs as distinct from mere biases or prejudices. All too often Americans unwilling to acknowledge challenging facts about the climate or science or respect the legal rights of others can take cover in religious rights to believe and behave as they wish.
Healing American democracy begins with recognizing and addressing the harms of this nation’s exceptional and burgeoning economic inequality. At the close of the 19th century Catholic Social Teaching called attention to the crippling injustices created by the huge disparity of income and wealth produced by an unregulated approach to the industrial revolution. Nearly a century ago those same teachings warned of a “tyranny of capitalism” that increasingly concentrated economic and political power in the hands of a shrinking oligarchy, while a later pope argued that grotesque economic inequality would inevitably undermine and corrupt democratic political structures. As a remedy for this inequality Catholic Social Teaching called upon the state to improve the wages, working conditions and economic and political participation of laborers, to ensure legal protections for the rights of the poor, and to set limits on the exercise of economic and political power by the rich. Similar remedies are required today if we are to prevent further decay in our democratic structures.
The recovery of our democracy from its current malaise also requires dealing afresh with the cancer of American racism. The reforms of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movements made strides towards a more democratic society, but were followed by regressive movements of white backlash, and in the past four decades the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration, a widespread retreat from the Voting Rights Act, and the ascendancy of a politics of “white complaint” reflects a nation unwilling to acknowledge or repent its enduring structural racism, and indeed occasionally doubling down on this bigotry through the public support of white nationalism. America needs to repent of its “original sin” of racism by emulating democracies like Germany that have publicly confessed and sought to make amends for its racist past and continue to publicly condemn outbreaks of racism in its populace. This national confession requires truthful accounts of both the history of slavery and Jim Crow and the ongoing presence of institutional racism in our political, economic and religious institutions. And it requires – at the very least – the ongoing reform of our electoral processes, and our criminal justice and educational systems. In the present moment our democracy needs to be repaired by removing public symbols celebrating racism and slavery and by giving full throated support to the reform of policing and the criminal justice system in the United States.
The repair of democracy requires a fresh national education in civics and the importance of the Common Good. A people called to “form a more perfect union” have a duty to pull back from polarizing and demonizing speech and to be critical – even self-critical – in their consumption of news. Americans need to seek out accurate and objective information and analysis about the critical issues facing us as a democratic people, to read broadly and deeply on these matters, and to beware of both the bias and inflammatory character of many available news sources. Current research into how our thinking can be manipulated by playing into or inflaming various cognitive biases means we need to take special and intentional care to avoid the influence of populist and authoritarian demagogues and those using social media to derail our informed and deliberate decisions.
Finally, reforming American democracy requires holding up a critical mirror to a large swath of American Christianity captured by a culture of “white complaint” and more interested in defending a white nationalist vision of national security than building a just, peaceful and welcoming society. Religious voices have much to contribute to the revitalization of American democracy, reminding us of the dignity and sanctity of all persons and groups, commanding us to stand in solidarity with and never scapegoat or abandon minorities, strangers and the poor, warning us of the threats tyrants, excessive wealth and avarice pose to the health of the community, and urging us to protect and care for creation. Still, Scripture itself is filled with warnings about dangerous and harmful religious attitudes and practices, and history is replete with stories of religion captured by corrupt ideologies and cultures. Repairing our democracy requires challenging and undoing the cultural capture of white Christianity in this country.