Neal Milner: The 7 Deadly Trends For American Democracy - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeHere are seven facts about the present condition of American democracy. It’s not a pretty picture. Still, there is room for optimism. But only if we recognize the limits of politics to get us out of this frightening mess.

Fact One:  The problems with American democracy are so serious that the country is close to reaching a point of no return.

Michael Macy and his colleagues call this “the tipping point,” where democratic norms and practices have become so fragile and so violated that those national crises that in the past have always unified the country now polarize people instead.

The mathematical model they use to show this does not precisely predict when the country will reach the point of no return, but it clearly shows the country is moving quickly in that direction, enough to clearly worry the paper’s authors.

Fact Two: The polarizing response to Covid-19 is unprecedented.

Not since the Civil War has a national crisis divided the country rather than bringing people together. Think how different 9/11’s response was.

Now look, for example, at Enid, Oklahoma’s fight over mask mandates, which has become a polarizing, friendship-destroying battle over what it means to be an American.

Fact Three: Other things have happened that make the decline even steeper.

These involve elections. Fair elections are democracy’s foundation. Sometimes election results are contested, but for most of our recent history at least, there has been a rough consensus that voting is a right and that election officials rather than political officials certify the vote.

Once they do this, it’s done. Basic tenet: losers accept their loss.

Not anymore.

The Bush-Gore 2000 presidential election was much closer than the one in 2020. The Supreme Court ultimately decided the winner in 2000. There was lots of anger and accusations that the Supreme Court judges were partisan dupes. But in a very short time the country moved on.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the majority of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen.

“Stop the steal” has become “the big steal,” a total worldview and a Republican purity test.

Most Republicans still believe the election was stolen despite evidence to the contrary. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2021

Republican politicians are still calling for voter audits and Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed laws that not only make it harder for people to vote but also make it possible for politicians to overrule election officials.

Republican voters are more likely to see voting as a privilege while Democrats see it as a right. Both have doubled down on their positions.

That’s about as basic a difference over democratic principles as you can get.

Fact Four: Republicans have already crossed the tipping point threshold, and Democratic voters are catching up.

More Republicans than Democrats think that violence may be necessary to save the country, but again a significant number of Democrats think so, too.

I’ve been in the political science business for over 50 years. Through all this there has never been as serious a concern that large numbers of ordinary people would seriously consider the need to use violence.

Fact Five: Polarization and party identification are by far the leading drivers moving people toward the tipping point.

This may seem like old news to you, but a closer look at the research shows just how powerful and imminent these forces against democracy have become.

The political party you identify with has become the main lens through which you view virtually anything important — social, political, or religious.

Democrats and Republicans live in two different, mutually hostile worlds. Quick test: How many times have you used the word “hate” when you talk about the other side?

Democrats and Republicans have very different views about the Jan. 6 attack. These differences are getting greater. Democrats have heightened their view that the attack was an insurrection threatening American democracy. Republicans have increasingly taken a kinder, gentler view of it.

And here’s a reminder that most participants in the attack were not Proud Boys, Oath Keepers or the like but rather ordinary people with decent jobs and lives pretty much like the mainstream. More like “us” then like “the rest of us.”

USA in a nutshell: “How in the hell can you believe this?” “How in the hell can you not?”

It’s a real-life manifestation of James Madison’s prescient Federalist Paper nightmare scenario about how democracy fails.

Fact Six: This is not about a junta.

In his recent Atlantic article, Barton Gellman argues that the Republican post-election actions show that a Trump “coup” has already begun.

It’s very convincing. But an American tipping point will not be anything as dramatic as a junta — no machine guns mounted on beat up Toyota pickups, or China’s tightening chokehold on Hong Kong.

It will be based on the accretion of developments I’ve talked about here as people become more willing to violate democratic norms to, in their minds, save democracy. It will involve the failure or unwillingness of political institutions to stop this spread.

Like what’s happening now.

Fact Seven: The movement toward  democracy’s tipping point shows the limits of politics.

David French calls politics a “false god.”

“I’m not saying politics don’t matter,” he says. “I’m not saying anyone should forsake the public square. But when your neighbors are hurting, understand that so very many are suffering from wounds that politics cannot heal.

“Your most fierce convictions shouldn’t stand in the way of grace, and a lifetime of posting and tweeting is of little consequence compared to the concrete action of reaching out to those who feel so very alone.”

There are wounds that politics cannot heal.

You don’t have to be an evangelical Christian, as French is and I’m not, to benefit from his words. Grace transcends any religious tradition.

Loneliness, dislocation and isolation are significant problems that divide the country. People without college degrees are much more likely to suffer this way.

Any movement to salvage democracy needs to face the fact that the challenge goes deeper than politics. It requires a cultural and moral shift. It requires that people maintain parts of their lives that are outside the realm of politics.

There is no formula for this. It takes time, but in the past that is what it took for major shifts in the ways people viewed commonality between themselves and their rivals.

A democracy needs a vital politics. But it also needs a cultural context that makes good, democratic politics possible. You can’t have one without the other.

There are wounds that politics cannot heal.

Happy New Year. Be resolute. But not the tipping point kind of resolute.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Excellent. Thank you Neal. 

Gary_Hooser · 3 weeks ago

Democracy begins at home - with the demos, or people of the civic body. The 40 comments here at the moment seem to indicate that most people are actually reading the article and each other's comments - a very good start. I am hopeful for Hawaii, which is why I live here. Culture is often more important than legal mechanisms, even in self-governance. If we talk and listen to each other rather than wiggling around like bobbing-head-dolls on the dashboard of social media, that's a start. Personally, I'm concerned that if - as many experts now predict - things really do start to come apart constitutionally in 2024 - the Navy could simply take O'ahu by allowing an 'accident' to destroy the water - essentially turning the island into a kind of Guam (in which the remaining locals are dominated by the military). Ted Cruz already jokes about Texas "getting NASA and the military." If a Trump-style party did decide to shut down blue states, Hawaii might be low on the list, but it would still be on the list.Can we practice a little common sense democracy at home and shore things up against known risks rather than just speculating on various theoretical fine points? Suggestions?

Vic · 3 weeks ago

It is the worsening crisis of capitalism that shreds the veneer of "American Democracy". There is no viable ideology left to sell this sinking ship other than the most obvious divide-and-rule schemes employed by FOX News, the GOP, and the other defenders of the current exploitative system. Please stop the "both sides" narratives.

Bjorn · 3 weeks ago

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