Is This the Twilight of American Democracy … Or Will Dems Wake Up and Act?
On this episode of democracy-ish, Daily Beast columnist and author of the forthcoming book “Go Back to Where You Came From,” Wajahat Ali, joins Danielle once again to talk about how ish our democracy really is, and how to fix it.
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in Stockholm added the U.S. to its annual list of “backsliding” democracies for the first time. IDEA says this regression started in 2019. But what if it began long before Trump?
The verdict is in: Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage shooter who killed two protesters and wounded another in Kenosha last year, was acquitted on all counts. And after this episode was recorded, the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty by a Georgia jury.
As we look forward to 2022 and the midterm election, Republicans are creating and capitalizing on all kinds of “anxieties” among white voters, which are mostly just thinly disguised racism. Democrats need to learn a few lessons about messaging and embracing their largely BIPOC base — and fast.
There’s almost always unpleasant news to discuss on democracy-ish, but this one hit different: Danielle kicks off the show with a “depressing” news story reported by the Guardian. For the first time ever, the U.S. has been added to an annual list of “backsliding” democracies by a leading think tank.
“It’s stuff like this that keeps me on edge,” she says.
The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) points to a “visible deterioration” of American democratic values that it says began in 2019.
The report notes that globally, more than one in four people live in a backsliding democracy. If we count authoritarian or “hybrid” regimes, that percentage goes up — to more than two in three.
If democracy is backsliding here in America, where on earth is it safe and thriving?
“Your book says go back to where you came from,” Danielle says to Wajahat Ali, who is back this week to talk turkey about politics. “I’m from here. But I want to go back to someplace else. How are you feeling?”
“I’m on the edge of hope,” he replies.
When Waj listened to the prosecutor’s closing statements in the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, he thought the case was “much stronger” than the Rittenhouse case: “I think the instructions [to the jury] were much better,” he says.
He thinks it will be much more difficult to prove Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan Jr. acted in self-defense. [Editorial note: The three defendants were found guilty of murder on Wednesday, after this episode was recorded early due to the Thanksgiving holiday.]
“They chased this man, who wasn’t on their private property, who was not found to have stolen anything … and then accosted him and shot him dead. I’m hopeful that maybe — maybe — we might get justice. But at the same time, I am slightly frustrated. Not enough Americans realize what we’re up against with this slow-moving coup, and how their right wing is turning more fascist.”
Put on your comfy pants, because this week’s show is stuffed with piping-hot takes on the state of democracy in America — just in time for dinner-table debate with your drunk uncle.
Episode Highlights –– America's Backslide
Barack to the future
Danielle found it striking that the think tank identified 2019 as the year things started going downhill. She was “100% sure” it began when Donald Trump descended down an escalator in 2015 — if it didn’t already begin “when we were questioning the birthplace of Barack Obama.”
“You’re taking the DeLorean really back,” says Waj.
“I would even go back to the year 2000,” he continues, “when the Supreme Court decided who was going to be President of the United States, as opposed to the people who actually voted in the election between Bush and Gore … When the legitimacy of our elections begins to erode, that’s one of the first red flags.”
For anyone who didn’t have the privilege of living through that catastrophe, the election was so close in the key swing state of Florida — by only 535 votes, in fact — that the Republican Secretary of State took the decision all the way to the Supreme Court.
“In a very controversial, 5-4 decision, they basically gave it to Bush,” Waj notes. And Gore conceded, “because apparently Democrats still care about democratic norms. It was painful.”
The GOP crazies of a decade ago are now RINOs
“For you and me and our generation, we thought it couldn’t get worse in the Bush administration,” says Waj. “Things were really bad.”
How bad, exactly?
Well, “they effed it up so hard that this country was like, you know what? We’re gonna elect a ’Muslim’ Black man named Obama,” Waj jokes.
Later, he adds, “The white folks who elected him were like: Holy shit, he actually won. We’re never going to vote for him again.”
Waj notes that in 2012, only 39% of white voters voted for Obama — “but he was able to get by on the popular vote, thanks to the multicultural coalition he created.”
It’s gotten so much worse since then. Republicans who seemed alarmingly right-wing during the Bush II and Obama eras are now called RINOs, effectively ostracized from the party.
Today’s premier prime-time unscrewed right-wingnut Tucker Carlson makes his Fox predecessor Bill O’Reilly “look like a tame conservative uncle,” Waj says. “Just to give you a snapshot of where we’ve gone in 20 years, George W. Bush would not get the nomination in 2020 because he would be seen as a Muslim and a Mexican lover by the modern GOP.”
Nostalgia for a puppet master
“Damn, America has deteriorated fast,” says Danielle. “Now we look at George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and we say, God, I miss the good old days. And those people brought us into war based on a lie.”
She remembers Bush’s infamous flyover to inspect the damage from Hurricane Katrina, when “people are literally dying, standing on their rooftops begging for aid. He did not send in the federal government. But Oprah was able to send in multiple 18-wheeler trucks with water and food.”
It was difficult to imagine it wouldn’t be the thing that sunk the Bush administration. But it wasn’t. And now, “when we look at it in comparison to four years under Trump, we’re like, God, I would do anything to have Dick Cheney back in power again as the puppeteer,” Danielle says.
“Because at least — and this is crazy for me to say — I believe Dick Cheney believed in the Constitution. Like, he knew what it was. Whereas now we have Paul Gosar and Matt Gaetz upholding violence and murder, who are still members of Congress.”
This Cheney is ousted by her own
Speaking of Cheney, the Wyoming Republicans ousted Liz Cheney from their party last week, for the crime of voting to impeach Trump.
“Literally, her name is Cheney,” says Waj. “Who last year was the number three ranking Republican, who voted for and supported Donald Trump’s policies 93% of the time.”
In 2019, the year IDEA identifies as kicking off America’s backslide, Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders were forced to do the same with Steve King — “not the author, but the congressman from Iowa, if you guys remember,” Waj explains. “He was an open white nationalist and became so brazen with it they were forced to condemn him, and the dude finally lost his reelection.”
Waj feels bad for him, because he’s “probably sitting at home right now thinking: I should’ve just waited it out. I’m as racist as Paul Gosar and not a single leading Republican leader was able to come out and condemn him.”
Rittenhouse is free … to become a Capitol Hill intern?
Even before Gosar tweeted out a violent, deeply weird anime video that threatened Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he spoke at a white nationalist rally, promoted white nationalist tweets, and calls himself a fan of the Oathkeeper movement.
According to MAGA diehard Ali Alexander, Gosar was one of the lawmakers who allegedly helped him plan the “Stop the Steal” rallies.
“The fact that his party doesn’t condemn him “can only mean they condone it,” Waj argues. “They tolerate it and they support it.”
Not only do today’s Republicans refuse to condemn this behavior, “they are pledging revenge if they get back into power,” says Danielle, who notes that Nancy Pelosi said this week that the GOP “has no business being anywhere near a gavel,” she adds. “But I thought to myself, we have — what? Like, a five-person margin right now?”
In spite of the delicate balance of power, the right wing has devolved into the party of Matt Gaetz, the congressman who praised Kyle Rittenhouse and said he’d be proud to welcome him as a congressional intern. (Two other congressmen offered Rittenhouse internships, too.)
“That’s where we are,” says Danielle, who served as a Congressional fellow when she was younger. When she was awarded the fellowship, it was a point of intense pride for herself and her family. She remembers coming up the escalator for the first time, seeing the Capitol up close and “being in awe,” she says. Now, that privilege seems to matter very little — to the GOP, at least.
JFK Jr. returns … to the site of his father’s murder?
Rittenhouse is just one of the infamous criminals who have become martyrs on the right.
As Waj points out, there’s quite a few: Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL war criminal who knifed a 12-year-old alleged ISIS detainee. Mark McCloskey, who (with his wife) brandished weapons at peaceful BLM protesters, went viral, nabbed a prime speaker slot at the RNC and is now running for Senate. Montana’s Greg Gianforte, who body-slammed a Guardian reporter and still was elected to Congress (now he's the governor). The Oathkeepers, a far-right, anti-government extremist group that includes several Republican elected officials in its ranks.
“And then you have the January 6 violent insurrection, in which thousands of people felt compelled to use violence to cancel a free and fair election,” says Waj.
But it doesn’t stop there: Conspiracy theories abound among the sedition set. Just the other day, hundreds of MAGA and QAnon supporters showed up in Dallas to await the arrival of JFK Jr.
“Spoiler,” says Waj. “He has not arrived yet. Nor will he.”
Those conspiracy theorists are famously opposed to the “deep state,” but their own language is scary AF, Waj tells Danielle. He has gotten emails from people who attempt to rationalize the murder of Rittenhouse’s victims, calling them “leftist scum” who got what was coming to them, who earned it.
“So if you’re white and you’re listening to this, your white skin will no longer protect you,” he says.
‘So this is how they win’
Danielle is glad Waj brought that up, because it’s “nothing new,” says Danielle. “When it came to desegregation, white folks who were allies of Black folks were also assaulted and killed by racists. They were called race traitors.”
That language has evolved. Now, they’re “openly advocating violence,” she adds.
Danielle appeared on the Daily Beast’s “The New Abnormal” earlier this week to talk with Molly Jong-Fast about how right-wingers will use the Rittenhouse verdict “as a way to deter people from being allies, from showing up,” she says.
“One of the hosts said: I have a friend who has three daughters. She was at every protest. And I said now she will, most likely, not go [anymore]. She is terrified — if she is killed, her daughters will grow up without a mother.”
Danielle said to herself: So this is how they win.
“This is what terrorism looks like,” she explains. “It looks like being fearful to go out and exercise your first amendment right to assemble, to show dissent of your government and do so free from harm. I mean, we can’t even go to a goddamn Christmas parade in Wisconsin without somebody mowing into people and killing several of them. We are so unstable.”
It could happen here … and perhaps it already has
Danielle thinks of “Ill Winds” author Larry Diamond’s essay in the Atlantic, “It Could Happen Here,” from October 2016. Diamond argued that arrogance and apathy are among the most dangerous sins of Democrats in times of trouble.
“In this moment, this moment of deep urgency,” she asks Waj, “What do you make of that?”
As a Virginia voter, he thinks Terry McAuliffe’s campaign is an example of Democrats’ laissez-faire approach to protecting the interests of their base.
“He thought he could just waltz in and run a half-assed campaign,” Waj says of the former governor. “Oh, it’s getting more blueish, but I’m Terry McAuliffe, you all know me. I’m not going to get into the culture war. I’m not going to respond to this critical race stuff, even though you literally knew since [last] summer that’s what they were engineering.”
He thinks McAuliffe just “gave lip service to the multicultural coalition, which is 40% white, but the base is 90% Black, 70% Asian and 65 to 70% Latino. That’s the truth.”
‘Woke-ism’ isn’t to blame, but apathy is
Democrats love to talk about multiculturalism, but “when it comes to actually stepping up and doing something on voting rights, or something on police reform, we’re gonna fail — because then we’re going to be accused of woke-ism,” Waj argues. “And then we’re going to use that language against fellow Democrats, because we’re stupid and self-destructive.”
Waj thinks this all adds up to “slow-moving apathy” in the form of bipartisanship. Joe Manchin is a rich white man who lives on a house yacht, drives a Maserati and insists we need the filibuster as a “cooler.”
That’s fine for Manchin, who will bounce back from whatever comes his way. But historically, the filibuster has been used as a weapon to block civil rights progress.
Lawmakers like Manchin can afford to say, “Don’t be too woke or use words like woke-ism,” says Waj, adding that they might also talk about why police reform should be put on the back burner.
“Black folks, Brown folks and Asian folks, especially in the past 20 years, have been trying to warn our fellow white Democrats that this is coming down the pipeline,” he says.
Are roads and bridges as important as our right to vote?
In 2016, Waj thought that, regardless of the election outcome, America was “underestimating the rise of white nationalist violence.”
Today, not nearly enough has changed. But he thinks the Voting Rights Act can help save democracy, if we’re willing to act quickly.
“We only have one year left. Redistricting maps just came out. It’s almost impossible now in Georgia and Ohio for Democrats to win. The same thing is happening in Wisconsin.”
Danielle worries that Dems might be prioritizing infrastructure and other policy measures over voting rights.
It’s not as if infrastructure isn’t important: “I’m not saying I don’t drive across crumbling bridges and roads,” she says. But she thinks that if this administration did nothing else over its first two years besides pass voting rights legislation, “it would be the moment in our history books where they said, This is when democracy was saved.”
Our ‘better angels’ aren’t enough to save us
If that doesn’t happen, the books will blame the Biden administration, says Waj, who argues that people might care about the child tax credit and their roads being repaired, but “if they can’t vote, they have no voice.”
But if 2020 was the last truly fair election, “I don’t see how anything else matters,” he adds.
That’s why he agrees with Larry Diamond’s argument about arrogance and apathy. Waj thinks Democrats “fundamentally believe Americans are better than they are.”
Danielle agrees: “They believe that, provided with enough information, [voters] will make the good choice … the better angels will win. I’m saying, In what fucking world?”
Waj thinks too many Democrats still believe “they’re living in 1992 and can get away with the Bill Clinton model, and put us on the backslide and not talk about voter suppression, police reform, racism or gender … and just promote policies like BBB and infrastructure. And somehow they also say, with their arrogance, that they will just ‘out-vote’ voter suppression — We’ll rally the crowd. These Blacks and these Browns, they always come out for us anyway … and if they don’t, we’ll blame them.”
Where in the world is Kamala Harris?
All of this post-Virginia election and pre-midterm Democrat drama “coincides with the gossip mill right now around the vice president,” says Danielle. “The conversation for the last couple of weeks has been … Where is the vice president? The vice president isn’t being utilized.”
Considering how the progressive Congressional “squad” and other women of color have been made a target by right-wingers, Danielle asks: “Do you think that it is part of their strategy — to have the Chads and the Karens forget that Biden’s vice president is a woman of color?”
She is a bit disappointed that, as of yet, the woman who ran as a fierce prosecutor hasn’t been “unleashed” to help prosecute the criminals of the Trump administration.
And perhaps more importantly: Are Dems keeping her on the back burner because of some clumsy, ill-advised political strategy?
Waj, who is from California and has seen the rise of Harris’ career, “just forgot until now that she’s a prosecutor,” he says. He too wonders what the Democrats are thinking.