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Democracy Amid Crises: Further Thoughts.


There’s a nice, little town on Route 22 in New York State’s Dutchess County named Millerton, which has several gourmet coffee-bakeries, a couple of consignment shops and happens to be the hometown of Eddie Collins, who may have been the best 2nd-baseman ever to play in the major leagues.

The town also has a very nice, independent bookstore where I like to browse.

When you enter the store, you’re immediately confronted with a display which contains books that reflect the current political tilt. When Obama was President, there were a bunch of books about how he wasn’t born in America, or how he was undermining the Constitution, or how the whole county was in the grip of something called the Deep State.

These books were all replaced in 2017 when Obama was replaced by Trump, and now the books displayed in the Millerton bookshop were mostly about how Trump was ruining things. Trump was a racist, a Fascist or worse. And to this collection were then added books about how American democracy was going to hell in a handbasket after the Capitol riot on January 6th, 2021.

Now we have yet another book about how our democracy may be on its last legs, a study of how political attitudes and voting behavior put together by the Annenberg IOD Collaborative, IOD standing for Institutions of Democracy, which is what this group of scholars connected through the Annenberg Center at Penn believe may be under grave threat, if not on its way to a dead end.

The name of the book is Democracy Amid Crises, which I have been reviewing chapter by chapter over the last several weeks. This is the first scholarly treatment which attempts to understand how people receive and process political information in the digital age. In that respect, the book should be required reading for everyone and anyone who thinks about politics for more than a couple of days before they go to vote.

At the same time, now that I have finished the whole text and had a few moments to reflect about the entire work pari passu (a fancy way of saying that every word is equal in importance to every other word,) I find myself wishing that the authors of this important book had held off putting their thoughts into print for at least another couple of months.

Why? Because the book is a study about how three periods of crisis – the Pandemic, the BLM protests and the economic nosedive – influenced how people decided to vote in 2020, except that using that data along with the shock of the January 6th riot creates what is for me an incomplete argument about the future of democratic behavior and institutions in American life.

And what makes the argument frustratingly incomplete is the fact that the very first test of America’s democratic infrastructure after those crises was the election of 2022. And what virtually everyone is saying about last year’s election is that it not only demonstrated a remarkable stability and staying power for the division between the two parties on Capitol Hill, but was, according to all observers, perhaps the single most peaceful and least disruptive election of all time!

Here’s a sum-up from the Christian Science Monitor: “Outcomes around the midterm elections in the U.S. seem to indicate a return to uneventful voting. Election deniers conceded peacefully and voter intimidation at the polls never happened.”

This last midterm election and exercise in democratic behavior took place just 22 months after the riot on January 6th when rioters marched through the Capitol shouting ‘Hang Mike Pence,' made similar violent threats against Nancy Pelosi and transformed a challenge to electoral legitimacy into what the Annenberg group claims was a challenge to ‘democratic legitimacy.’ [Page 332.]

How could the country go from the cusp of political anarchy and violence to the most calm and decidedly national political event in such a relatively brief period of time? And let’s not forget that one of the major rhetorical contributors to the 2020 crises was Donald Trump’s daily barrage of ‘election fraud’ narratives, which continued throughout the entire 2022 election and had no effect at all.

Don’t get me wrong. In terms of how and why voters made up their minds about voting in 2020, the Annenberg publication is a fundamental work, particularly in its explanation and understanding of the alt-right ‘echo chamber,’ and how political partisanship was formed and promoted on both sides.

That being said, I’m just not willing to align myself alongside my liberal friends and academic scholars who seem to be looking for a Fascist under every bed. What strikes me about America is how remarkably stable this country has been since Lee showed up at Appomattox and how quickly and easily things recently seem to have gone back to where they have always been.

For all the talk about how January 6th was an ‘insurrection,’ I don’t buy the argument one bit because I have never heard of any insurrection which took place anywhere absent the organized involvement by the armed forces of the national state.

How many active military men and women were part of the gang which clambered up the Capitol steps armed with their bear spray and other weapons of war? A whole big five – that was it.

Maybe some of those January 6th schmucks thought they were a revolutionary vanguard, maybe they assumed that once the took over the reins of government on Capitol Hill that the entire country would erupt in a mass rebellion to help them finish the job. Maybe this, maybe that – who the hell knows what nutty ideas were swirling around in their heads?

One of the first guys to face trial for taking part in the Capitol assault was a guy from New Jersey who told the court he was so ‘stupid’ he didn’t know that House and Senate members actually used the building for meetings – he thought legislative sessions were held somewhere else!

The bottom line is that there were no ideas in the heads of the so-called January 6th insurrectionists – people who behave the way that bunch behaved don’t have ideas.

And this is the problem I have in evaluating the Annenberg book, because the argument made in the text is based on how people responded to surveys which asked them whether their views changed about Trump and Joe over the course of the 2020 campaign.

I’m just not so sure that the answers to the survey questions by individuals who voted for Trump reflect the slightest degree of thought or knowledge at all.

We abolished the poll tax which was imposed to keep blacks from showing up to vote. But we never had to abolish an IQ test because you can be as dumb as that guy from New Jersey and still believe that Trump will make America great again.

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