Democracy in 'America': Our coverage of U.S. politics since the rise of Donald Trump – America Magazine
On June 1, a group of 100 history and political science scholars issued a warning about “the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy” and concluded, “History will judge what we do at this moment.” The warning did not come out of the blue. The strength of democratic political institutions in the United States has come under increasing scrutiny over the past six years—not coincidentally, dating to Donald Trump’s announcement on June 16, 2015, that he was running for president. Mr. Trump’s capture of the Republican Party, followed by his four-year presidency, increased concerns about deepening political polarization, a growing distrust of the news media and a breakdown in civil discourse that has spread across the ideological spectrum. Then, this year brought the unprecedented insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by followers of a president who refused to accept his loss in a fair election.
America has been covering the challenges to the U.S. political system that have so alarmed historians and citizens over the last six years. Here are some of our contributors’ thoughts on what the nation is facing and how it can right its course.
“Donald Trump is a unique threat to the Constitution,” the editors of America, Sept. 16, 2020:
“Trump deserved to be impeached—but our nation’s problems run deeper than one man,” Matt Malone, S.J., Jan. 13, 2021:
“American democracy is in crisis. Do we have what it takes to save it?,” Drew Christiansen, S.J., Dec. 10, 2020:
Franklin and the other framers, schooled in ancient history, were apprehensive of popular democracy, and they designed the Constitution with a variety of checks against the assertion of popular power. A more favorable view of democracy came with the electoral reforms of the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s)—primary elections, referenda, recall, the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage—that rolled back the constraints of the republican model for a more democratic one. Two World Wars fought “in defense of democracy” fostered in the public mind the conviction that the United States of America is a democracy….
Whether a republic or a democracy, the question is, will the American public continue to support it?
“What would Jefferson say about today’s America?”, James T. Keane, Jan. 22, 2017:
“Dante, Trump and the moral cowardice of the G.O.P.,” Charles Sykes, July 21, 2019:
Democracy is fragile because we are all an odd mix of prejudices, vices, virtues, bigotries and aspirations. We can be demons or angels. That’s why moral leadership matters; society can go either way….
This is why what Mr. Trump is doing is so dangerous and destructive. Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” The president has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.
“Three steps for more civil political debate in the Trump era,” Daniel Allott, Aug. 24, 2018:
“We’re all responsible for the toxic discourse that lets Marjorie Taylor Greene and Father Altman thrive,” David Albertson and Jason Blakely, June 8, 2021:
An astounding amount of public discourse today has become an exercise in what might be termed “political theodicy.” Theodicy is a venerable theological exercise that attempts to maintain the absolute goodness of God in light of the world’s various evils…. Political theodicy borrows this rationale but misuses it in the service of something other than God. It locates all of the world’s evils outside one’s own party, movement or leader by permanently attributing them to one’s opponents—a political if not infernal damnation.
“Understanding Trump supporters in an age of winner-take-all politics,” Holly Taylor Coolman, Oct. 15, 2019:
“Is our gun culture compatible with democracy and freedom?” (review of Do Guns Make Us Free?, by Firmin DeBrabander), Zac Davis, June 15, 2016:
“Women hold the keys to making Washington work again,” Cokie Roberts, Jan. 23, 2017:
“Alternative facts and the coming constitutional crisis,” Matt Malone, S.J., Jan. 26, 2017:
Jefferson believed that the pursuit of truth, especially those empirical facts that are the first instance of truth and the foundation of good journalism, is the surest guard against tyranny, so much so that he once said that if he had to choose between newspapers without a government, or a government without newspapers, he preferred the former.
Yet many Americans now find such sentiments quaint or naïve. In our contemporary politics, facts are not stubborn but elastic things: You have your facts, I have my “alternative facts,” statements not subject to painstaking empirical verification, but simple ideological confirmation.
“A road trip through the swing states (before the coronavirus hit),” John W. Miller, April 3, 2020:
Like other politically conservative Catholics I met on the trip, focus group members… said they mainly got their information from Fox News. Few read a newspaper anymore….
Maybe as a result of this breakdown in how people get their news, some were slow to heed the alarm over Covid-19. “The virus, I believe, is being blown out of proportion,” Phil Remke, the former mayor of Moundsville, a West Virginia town down the river, texted me on March 15. “I believe the media is causing the panic.”
“Western societies can’t ignore the ‘crisis of trust’ we’re experiencing,” Warren von Eschenbach, Feb. 20, 2018:
“Why journalists need to resist the label of ‘the opposition’,” Eileen Markey, March 21, 2017:
These attacks by the Trump administration come as the press is severely weakened by decades of newspaper and magazine closings, a desperate drive to flatter and entertain fickle internet-addled readers, and a dive into punditry, which is cheap to produce but useless for the acquisition of knowledge. Each of these developments has been bad for democracy and has eroded the nation’s ability to engage in critical discourse about public life.
“We’re all at risk of being radicalized by Facebook. Do these 3 things to resist (if you don’t want to delete your account),” Justine Limpitlaw, May 18, 2021:
“I cover politics for NPR. We can do better than this,” Scott Detrow, Sept. 6, 2017:
Social media is increasingly the prime battleground for partisans to fight it out in increasingly personal attacks. This trend was never more clear to me than this June, in the hours after a gunman assaulted Republican lawmakers on a northern Virginia baseball field. Standing in the Capitol hallways, I could see the shock, confusion and fear on the faces of men who earlier that day had to dive for cover from the shots of an assault rifle.
Then, in between interviews, I would check my phone and see Twitter filled with takes that boiled down to this: Because the men on the field opposed gun control or were at the time pushing to scale back Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, somehow the shooting was poetic justice.
“A case against constant provocation,” Nathan Schneider, Aug. 29, 2017:
“Why liberals should stop calling Trump ‘unfit’ to be president,” Margot Patterson, March 14, 2017:
“Politeness, the forgotten virtue,” John Conley, S.J., April 19, 2017:
“Does the truth matter? This is no longer a theoretical question,” Charles Sykes, June 5, 2017:
“Liz Cheney’s ouster from Republican leadership is bigger than politics. It’s a fundamental attack on truth,” Bill McCormick, S.J., May 17, 2021:
The ouster of Ms. Cheney is an affront to the truth at multiple levels. First, Mr. Biden did not steal the 2020 presidential election…. Second, most if not all Republican elites know that he did not steal the election, but are lying because they feel trapped by their own inability to craft a post-Trump Republican Party, and because they have been so successful at deluding much of their base. Most disturbingly, the G.O.P. is clearly spreading falsehoods to justify reserving to itself the option to reverse any future election result it does not like.
“It’s too difficult for ‘ordinary’ people to run for office. The For the People Act can change that,” Matt Keller, March 1, 2021:
“It’s time to rethink the Electoral College,” John D. Feerick, May 8, 2020:
“Many Catholics are disillusioned with both the Republicans and Democrats. Could a third party ever happen?”, Bill McCormick, S.J., May 1, 2020:
“Georgia’s new voting law is an affront to Catholic social teaching,” Kathleen Bonnette, April 20, 2021:
“How to survive Trump: End the cult of the presidency,” Nathan Schneider, May 30, 2018:
…with populist, perpetually viral, personality-driven regimes taking power in country after country, the long-held assumption that liberal democracy is the eventual destination of historical progress can no longer be taken for granted….
The presidency has become a cult, like that of a medieval patron saint, to which we are expected to constantly direct our attention. Other forms of civic duty have been supplanted by the responsibility to keep abreast of presidential gossip. This can be a grating, even violent requirement.
“Around the world, democracy is at risk from the coronavirus,” Bill McCormick, S.J., April 27, 2020:
“The mob at the Capitol was reality’s revenge upon the Republican Party,” Bill McCormick, S.J., Jan. 7, 2021:
The events of Jan. 6, 2021, were the revenge of reality. Words became actions. Grievances became violence. Tweets became flesh….
The future of the Republican Party hinges on a choice: Will it reject the politics of fantasy? If it does not, then the violent theatrics of Jan. 6 will not be an isolated event.
“The racist attack on our nation’s Capitol,” Bryan N. Massingale, Jan. 6, 2021:
“Trump’s false patriots are a disgrace to every soldier and activist who has fought and died for American democracy,” Peter Lucier, Jan. 8, 2021:
“What would St. Thomas More say to Catholic Trump supporters?”, Bill Cain, Jan. 8, 2021:
“The assault on the Capitol was horrific. But occupying a legislature can be a legitimate act of protest,” Nathan Schneider, Jan. 8, 2021:
“Pope Francis calls on Americans to promote reconciliation and protect democracy after the Capitol attack,” Gerard O’Connell, Jan. 10, 2021:
“After the storming of the Capitol: We need accountability, repentance and a reckoning,” the editors of America, Jan. 6, 2021:
Robert David Sullivan is a senior editor at America magazine.
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