Democ­racy will sur­vive this era

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - DANA MILBANK Twit­ter: @Milbank

It was an­other one of those weeks in which the wheels seemed to come off the axle of the Amer­i­can mo­tor coach. Pres­i­dent Trump spec­u­lated about his power to par­don him­self for crimes, and his lawyer said the pres­i­dent could shoot the now-for­mer FBI di­rec­tor with le­gal im­punity.

Trump is feud­ing with Canada and our clos­est al­lies in Eu­rope, but is look­ing for­ward to “friendly” talks with North Korea, which, ac­cord­ing to the CIA, has no in­ten­tion of de­nu­cle­ariz­ing but is willing to open a ham­burger restaurant.

Trump, in­flam­ing racial ten­sions, dis­in­vited the Su­per Bowl cham­pi­ons from a White House cel­e­bra­tion and in­stead hosted a “loud” dis­play of pa­tri­o­tism dur­ing which he muffed the words to “God Bless Amer­ica.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, it was learned, tried to use his po­si­tion to get a po­si­tion at Chick-fil-A for his wife, scented lo­tion from the Ritz-Carl­ton and a used mat­tress from the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel.

The first lady, mys­te­ri­ously miss­ing from pub­lic view for more than three weeks, re­turned in time to hear her hus­band use a FEMA brief­ing on hur­ri­canes to talk about elec­tion polls, his love of coal and Air Force One.

Oh, and a con­trac­tor at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil was ar­rested as he ar­rived for work at the White House on a charge of at­tempted mur­der.

There is a ten­dency amid this chaos to think that Amer­i­can govern­ment is dis­in­te­grat­ing be­fore our eyes. But last week also re­minded us that the coun­try has sur­vived worse. It was the 50th an­niver­sary of the as­sas­si­na­tion of Robert F. Kennedy, which it­self fol­lowed the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at a time of war and ri­ot­ing. We sur­vived 1968. We’ll get through this, too.

I took a break from my apoc­a­lypse vigil last week to speak with Robert Mickey, a po­lit­i­cal-science pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan who spe­cial­izes in U.S. po­lit­i­cal his­tory. And I of­fer this glass-half-full per­spec­tive on our cur­rent trou­bles:

Trump will not de­stroy Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Trump is a symp­tom of prob­lems, more than the cause. We’ll solve these prob­lems — even­tu­ally. “Our po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is much more sta­ble than it has been at many pe­ri­ods in U.S. his­tory,” Mickey tells me, “and our dis­course is more civil than a lot of those pe­ri­ods.”

Dur­ing the 1790s, it wasn’t at all clear the new coun­try would sur­vive for­eign in­va­sion or in­ter­nal divi­sion. The 1810s brought more of the same. The di­vi­sions of the 1850s led to the Civil War. The 1890s were filled with farmer re­volts, strikes, rob­ber barons, mas­sive im­mi­gra­tion, war with Spain, an eco­nomic de­pres­sion and the ex­pan­sion of Jim Crow. The 1930s brought the Great De­pres­sion and the rise of fas­cism. And then there was 1968.

Now, by con­trast, “we have sta­ble demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions across the en­tire coun­try in a way we pro­foundly did not be­fore,” Mickey says. “The in­sti­tu­tions we have, while be­ing chal­lenged, have been a source of strength.” Fed­er­al­ism has been a check on Trump, as Cal­i­for­nia, New York and other states push back against him. The jus­tice sys­tem, though as­saulted by Trump, is prov­ing to be a check on him. Trump, though break­ing norms, seems to lack the com­pe­tence to pull off a di­rect as­sault on democ­racy.

The real dan­ger is not from Trump, but from the forces that gave rise to him and could con­tinue to erode democ­racy over time: broad and per­sis­tent wealth in­equal­ity, the back­lash against Amer­ica’s shift from a white-ma­jor­ity na­tion to­ward a mi­nor­ity-ma­jor­ity one, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing re­align­ment of par­ties along racial lines and the re­lated rad­i­cal­iza­tion of the Repub­li­can Party.

In­equal­ity desta­bi­lizes democ­racy by de­stroy­ing the be­lief in “one per­son, one vote,” and giv­ing rise to dem­a­goguery. The United States is strug­gling with (and Trump is ex­ploit­ing) its trans­for­ma­tion from an elec­torate of white men to a mul­ti­cul­tural one. “Amer­i­can democ­racy didn’t re­ally kick in un­til the 1960s,” Mickey ar­gues. “Pe­ri­ods we ro­man­ti­cize as civil and lovely were such be­cause we strug­gled to keep race off the na­tional agenda.”

Past crises have been re­solved by ei­ther war, eco­nomic booms or luck. But this cri­sis could re­solve it­self by gen­er­a­tional change.

Sur­veys from the Pew Re­search Cen­ter find that mil­len­ni­als are dra­mat­i­cally more likely than older gen­er­a­tions to be­lieve the coun­try needs to make changes to give black peo­ple equal rights, that dis­crim­i­na­tion is the main thing hold­ing African Amer­i­cans back, that im­mi­gra­tion strength­ens the United States and that a big­ger govern­ment that pro­vides more ser­vices is bet­ter. There are in­di­ca­tions the youngest and most non­white gen­er­a­tion, Gen­er­a­tion Z, will push against older gen­er­a­tions even more on these ques­tions.

This may be small com­fort as Trump rains chaos and in­flames ten­sions. It’s no ex­cuse to re­lax in the fight to con­tain Trump. But we’ll get through this — even L’Af­faire Chick-fil-A.

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