The claims this past week that high-level officials are secretly undercutting the president in an effort to restrain a commander in chief they no longer feel is fit for office has left many Americans deeply unsettled. “Just a glance at recent headlines should tell you that this moment really is different,” former President Barack Obama said on Friday. “The stakes really are higher, the consequences of any of us sitting on the sidelines are more dire.” The free press is constantly assailed by the president, pluralism faces the challenge of white nationalism, law-enforcement agencies are attacked by Donald Trump’s supporters, and electoral processes are threatened by foreign governments and their hackers. Increasing numbers of Americans are asking whether their democracy will survive.
The optimists assure us that the system will work. We are told that American democracy is resilient. We have gotten through these moments before, and we can do so again. The former White House ethics czar Norman Eisen, who has been hard-hitting in his criticism of President Trump, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “in every case, sooner or later, every dog gets its day. And sooner or later, democracy is more powerful.”
But this kind of faith is overblown. Unfortunately, American history is filled with periods where our democracy has failed us. The body count is immense.
Start with the Civil War, a failure unlike any other that the country has experienced. The war stemmed from a cancer that was in our democracy from the start—slavery—and then grew out of the inability of Northern politicians to find a way to end this system without the use of military force, and the intransigence of Southern leaders. Legislative debates, half-baked compromises, and incremental changes were unable to bring racial oppression to a peaceful end. The Civil War is a permanent reminder of how American institutions can fall apart.
The Civil War was followed by another catastrophic failure—the drive for racial equality. In the aftermath of the Civil War, some champions of Reconstruction believed that the nation could correct itself by guaranteeing the political and economic rights of African Americans. The first blow to this promise came with the early end of Reconstruction, an unfinished federal effort to achieve racial justice. Reconstruction was followed by the reimposition of racial hierarchies through the establishment of Jim Crow laws in Southern states, as well as through de facto segregation in the North. Legally sanctioned racial inequality lasted for more than half a century until the civil-rights movement finally pressured Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But even these gains were limited. Congress did not address most forms of institutional racism. While the failure of Governor George Wallace’s presidential candidacy in 1968 offered some Americans hope that open racism would not become normalized in partisan warfare, today racist dog whistles have given way to bull horns in mainstream politics, starting at the top. In their trenchant history of the United States in the 20th century, the historians Glenda Gilmore and Thomas Sugrue argue that America has steadily become less equal and more segregated since the 1960s.
The collapse of McCarthyism in 1954 is often held up as a paradigmatic example of self-correction. The system stopped Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and his devastating smear attacks against liberal Americans he accused of being communists, or so the story goes. The climactic moment in this narrative took place in the summer of 1954, when the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, representing the U.S. Army, finally stood up to the rabid senator on television and asked: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Soon after, McCarthy’s career spun out of control.
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The problem is that this story downplays years of support from Republican politicians when it served their political purposes, and the fact that even after McCarthy himself was discredited, his brand of red-baiting never really went out of fashion on either side of the aisle. Some Democratic leaders, including President Lyndon B. Johnson, drew on his tactics by accusing left-wing anti-war protesters and aggrieved urban citizens swept up into the riots of having ties to the Kremlin. And anti-Communist attacks have remained a staple of modern Republican political rhetoric, as if any association with socialism taints people and ideas. Opponents of health-care proposals, from Medicare in 1965 through the Affordable Care Act in 2010, have thrown around the term socialized medicine as the main reason national benefits should be rejected. As a backbencher in the 1980s, Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia made a name for himself by appearing on the C-SPAN network to stick verbal tar and feathers on Democrats like Majority Leader and later Speaker of the House Jim Wright. He said that because Democrats opposed assistance to the Nicaraguan Contras, they were sympathetic to socialism. President George H. W. Bush, under the direction of Lee Atwater, attacked Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign for being a “card-carrying member” of the ACLU, offering an updated version of McCarthyite innuendo. During the 2008 election, long after the Cold War ended, the right-wing television provocateur Glenn Beck liked to ask if Barack Obama was a socialist, and in 2018, Fox News is having a field day with the success of democratic socialists in congressional races.
Then there is the abuse of presidential power. When President Richard Nixon resigned from office, in August 1974, optimists boasted that the system worked. After all, Congress took action, with bipartisan support, and pressured the corrupt president into resigning. Congress passed many laws, such as the War Powers Act, that aimed to curb the imperial presidency and the expansion of executive authority that it believed lay at the root of the Watergate scandal. The reforms created new mechanisms to constrain the president. But it has become clear since the 1970s that the imperial presidency is alive and well. After 9/11, the president has exercised considerable autonomy when it comes to sending troops into combat and conducting secret surveillance against citizens. Every president since Nixon has used executive orders and agency rule making to achieve policy goals without congressional consent.
Besides its failures to curb excessive presidential power, the nation could not prevent elected officials from repeating the foreign-policy mistakes of Vietnam. For a brief period, it seemed that the new constraints might work. Two Republican presidents, Nixon and Gerald Ford, committed their political capital to détente with the Soviet Union and China. Without a draft, every president from Ford to Bill Clinton was far more reluctant than Lyndon B. Johnson to enter into a large-scale ground war. Even the hawkish President Ronald Reagan ended up agreeing to a major arms deal with the Soviet Union. Any optimism vanished, however, with the war in Iraq. A year after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush followed his successful military campaign to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by committing U.S. troops to a major military operation to bring down Saddam Hussein. Bush convinced Congress to give him the authority to use force based on false claims that Iraq possessed large caches of weapons of mass destruction and had strong ties to the al-Qaeda terrorists. Congress went along with the request, including Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and the result was almost 5,000 deaths of service members and coalition troops, 30,000 wounded, and terrible instability in the region. Although the troop commitment was never as high as in Vietnam, the war demonstrated that things don’t always move in a better direction.
These five cases in American history highlight how dangerous it is to assume democratic institutions can survive any challenge, and that the American political system will always lurch into to a better place. Too many times, our politics have let us down.
The most reliable source of national improvement has always come from grassroots political movements. The civil-rights movement demonstrated that average citizens, refusing to accept the status quo, have the capacity to change political conditions. While its victories were incomplete, the movement shattered many of the racial structures that shaped the South, providing the impetus for muscular legislation that threw the weight of the federal government behind the principle of equality. Equally impressive were the huge gains of the feminist movement, which in the 1970s and ’80s expanded women’s representation in politics, obtained support for laws that prohibited certain kinds of sexual exploitation and discrimination, and eroded cultural norms that restricted women’s roles in society.
Not all grassroots mobilizations push in a progressive direction. After all, the election of Donald Trump was also driven by a grassroots mobilization that started with Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run in 2008, continued with the emergence of the Tea Party in 2010, and culminated with Trump’s presidency. Unlike civil rights in the 1960s, this was a movement whose leaders supported destroying key elements of American political institutions without any promise of repair and endorsed values, such as nativism, that moved the United States backward in its efforts to rectify its past failures.
Although grassroots mobilizations can be reactionary, they remain the best mechanism for saving the nation from moments of political danger, such as the one we are experiencing right now. “If we don’t step up,” Obama said this weekend, “things are going to get worse.” Americans should not be so foolhardy as to feel confident that somehow all of this will work out in the end. The constitutional system has survived a great deal, but it is a mistake to look at the forest and miss all the fallen trees. The president has already inflicted immense damage to American institutions and, just as important, to its national culture. This is why the midterm elections in November are not about the balance of partisan power in Washington but, rather, about the constitutional balance of power. This is the question on the ticket: whether a voter prioritizes creating a real institutional check on the White House or whether they are willing to continue tolerating the risks incurred from one-party government under Trump.
More than ever, the strength of grassroots efforts that aim to restrain this runaway president and to promote politicians—in both parties—who represent different kinds of values will determine America’s future.