Failing Democracies

a color block drawing of donald trump

I once thought it impossible that our democracy would fail. I now believe failure is not only possible, but happening.

I was in high school in the late 1960s, and there was a moment when we thought Richard Nixon was going to take over the country from the inside. The Vietnam War was raging, and Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman were as scary a couple of guys as anyone in Hitler’s cabal. Under Nixon, the National Guard shot students on Kent State campus during protests over the bombing of neutral Cambodia (something which, mercifully, has not happened since).

For the span of a few months, a fascist takeover loomed its ugly head. But we had institutions that held (or appeared to hold) fast. We believed more in the federal government than we do now. That belief and others were even more important than the realities. We had great faith in the media; figures such as Walter Cronkite were revered as gods. Unions were real organizations that seemed to help the common man. Religious institutions were much stronger. Corporations were paternalistic, but patriotic, and kept things moving. I believed in the country. Yes, we had killed the Kennedys, but I believed we aspired to a better nature.

In 1973, Archibald Cox, the Special Council in the Watergate case who subpoenaed Nixon’s tapes, was fired for unmasking the aspiring dictator. Cox’s dismissal at Nixon’s hands contributed to the president’s sudden fall from power. His autocratic move signaled to the Republican leadership in the Congress that Nixon had lost his viability. His own party’s leaders informed Nixon that he did not have the votes. He would lose his impeachment trial in the Senate. Imminent checkmate persuaded him to step down before the trial.

After that, democracy seemed to be on a better, if wobbly, footing. Gerald Ford served out the remaining time of Nixon’s presidency.

Jimmy Carter was elected and seemed to be both strong and moral, an embodiment of American character.

And then Ronald Reagan was elected and declared government to be the problem rather than the solution.

The current era descended in November 2016, when an opportunist, who seemed to have no real intention of winning, was elected president with fewer votes than his opponent. People were surprised by Trump’s behavior, but he should have surprised no one. He told us what he was going to do—put right-wing judges on the bench, rescind trade agreements, cancel the Paris climate agreement, restrict immigration, deregulate industries that were regulated for a reason, and cut taxes for the wealthy—but we elected him anyway. And—surprise!—he did all these things.

Each step by Trump is more ominous than the last. And our institutions appear powerless to resist him, given their own corruption.

With Citizens United—the Supreme Court decision that permits corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on so-called “independent political communications”—the United States of America has become a dollar democracy, where dollars, rather than people, vote. Oh, technically, we can still vote, but our votes hardly mean anything. In many states, because of rules at the state and federal level—often benefiting the two incumbent parties at the expense of the populus—certain citizens’ votes simply don’t count at all. In winner-take-all states such as California and Texas, the minority party votes for president do not count. Most states still maintain winner-take-all rules, awarding all electoral votes statewide to the winner of the popular vote rather than by popular vote.

So, it is not even a discussion of the possible, but of the actual. Our democracy is failing.

My greatest fear is that our democracy may not be able to withstand a perceived external threat; and I feel confident that Trump is looking for an opportunity to mount a coup, or find a reason to evoke martial law. A lot of people are benefiting from his depredations of the future for the present. A lot of people are feasting on the here and now. And these people are motivated to go along with him, even with, and maybe because of, his terrible behavior. But as long as there is a chance of military resistance to his rule, Trump has to continue to play a longer game, moving people around, disabling resisters and rivals. I am confident that if he had the military in his pocket, he’d be all too happy to use them, despite his lack of appropriate experience. He knows just what he’d like to do. He’s already told us: be more like Kim Jong-un.

I never thought it possible that our system of government might end, but we’re well down that road. As a Baby Boomer, I take some responsibility for the current state of play. This mess is happening on our watch, and I feel bad that we’re handing it off to the next generation.

Roger L. Kay ’75 founded Endpoint Technologies Associates, Inc., an independent technology market intelligence company. Previously, he was a vice president at IDC and ran his own research and analysis firm. He has published in a variety of forums and is frequently tapped by media outlets for his expertise. Kay lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children.