Tag Archives: sanity clause

How Democracies Die

Academia has its prejudices, and they aren’t the ones ascribed to us by rightwing critics. For example, there’s a common opinion that most economists are sort of weird. (Apologies to my friend and colleague Jerome…)

Obviously, I don’t know Paul Krugman personally, but he and Joseph Stiglitz are my very favorite economists, and Krugman ranks right up there with my other favorite political columnists. I particularly liked this year’s Christmas Eve column, in which he addressed the stock market’s free fall.

Two years ago, after the shock of Donald Trump’s election, financial markets briefly freaked out, then quickly recovered. In effect, they decided that while Trump was manifestly unqualified for the job, temperamentally and intellectually, it wouldn’t matter. He might talk the populist talk, but he’d walk the plutocratic walk. He might be erratic and uninformed, but wiser heads would keep him from doing anything too stupid.

In other words, investors convinced themselves that they had a deal: Trump might sound off, but he wouldn’t really get to make policy. And, hey, taxes on corporations and the wealthy would go down.

But now, just in time for Christmas, people are realizing that there was no such deal — or at any rate, that there wasn’t a sanity clause. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Put an unstable, ignorant, belligerent man in the Oval Office, and he will eventually do crazy things.

There is no sanity clause….Love it.

Earlier this month, in a column with the threatening headline “How Democracies Die” he wrote,

Donald Trump, it turns out, may have been the best thing that could have happened to American democracy.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. Individual-1 is clearly a wannabe dictator who has contempt for the rule of law, not to mention being corrupt and probably in the pocket of foreign powers. But he’s also lazy, undisciplined, self-absorbed and inept. And since the threat to democracy is much broader and deeper than one man, we’re actually fortunate that the forces menacing America have such a ludicrous person as their public face.

I have actually made similar arguments. What if Trump actually knew what he was doing? What if he was just as greedy, self-important and mentally-ill, but smart? And able to spell…

Trump’s election was a service to democracy, in much the same way that a fire burning down your house when no one was home is a service: it reminds you what is truly valuable.

Of course, there’s a lot of damage to repair…

Like so many Americans, I was (naively) reassured by Obama’s election. Look how far America had come! Then, of course, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out. Racism and resentment of the black man in the White House motivated despicable behaviors from neighborhoods to Congress.

If Hillary had been elected, it’s almost certain that misogyny would have motivated the same tribal behaviors.  Meanwhile, the erosion of democratic norms–an erosion that began long before Trump, and enabled his election– would have continued unnoticed by the general public.

The election of Trump was our national house fire. He has done an enormous amount of damage, both domestically and to America’s stature in the world, but as the midterm elections confirmed, he has also been democracy’s wake-up call. (Scholars tell us that more people have taken to the streets to protest Trump than protested during the height of the Viet Nam war.)

Thanks to the absence of a sanity clause, we are at a crossroads: we can rebuild the house–and while we’re at it, repair some of the parts that weren’t working properly, or had outlived their usefulness–or we can retreat into our respective tribal enclaves and accuse each other of lighting the match that burned it all down.

We can turn what’s left of our democracy over to the plutocrats who already control so much of it, or we can use the election of this pathetic man as a turning point, and build it back– better. And better–as Krugman points out–means without gerrymandering, without voter suppression, without authoritarian power grabs like those in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan.

We have our marching orders for the New Year…..