Monday, October 15, 2018

Books: Greg Sargent On America's "Uncivil War"

President Donald Trump.

An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics
By Greg Sargent
Custom House; hardcover, $26.99; available Tuesday, October 16

Just in time for the Congressional midterm elections, Greg Sargent, author of The Washington Post's "Plum Line" blog, looks at the incredibly high stakes involved this fall and in the 2020 presidential election in his new book, An Uncivil War.

American democracy is facing a crisis as fraught as we have seen in decades. Some see Donald Trump's presidency as authoritarian in nature, and the extreme polarization between the parties continues with no clear end in sight.

The paradox of this current moment is that it took a menacing figure like Trump to focus the country's attention on how fragile our democracy is. However, this political dysfunction predates Trump, helped facilitate his rise, and most distressing, will outlast his presidency. 

"If you awoke on the morning after Donald Trump's election with a sense of foreboding about the future of American democracy, what we've seen since that dark day should in some ways be moderately encouraging," Sargent writes. "In important respects, our institutions have held up under the strain that the Trump era has inflicted upon them. The free press has sustained its core independence and has produced a great deal of outstanding journalism exposing all sorts of Trumpian abuse of power. While there is still much work to be done in coping with the challenges posed by Trump's relentless lying amid a rapidly shifting information environment awash in gales of disinformation, key players appear to be thinking ambitiously about how journalism can retain a vital institutional role in our democracy as it transitions to a new and uncertain era. Trump's assaults on law enforcement and intelligence agencies and the courts, while very damaging, have not (as of this writing, anyway) decimated the rule of law of ongoing efforts to root out the truth about Trump campaign conduct during the 2016 election. Trump's nonstop attacks on our institutions and the legitimacy of our electoral system, rather than spreading civic apathy and demoralization, as intended, appear to have helped boost the political engagement of countless ordinary Americans."

Greg Sargent.
Sargent sounds the alarm about the deep roots of democratic backsliding, and how people can unite and turn things around. He draws on years of research and reporting to expose the unparalleled sophistication and ambition of Republican tactics, including computer-generated gerrymandering, underhanded voter suppression, and ever-escalating legislative hardball.

As president, Trump has continued to attack the legitimacy of our elections and has even raised doubts about the legitimacy of the upcoming midterms. What will be the lasting repercussions of his extensive efforts to cast the American political system as corrupt in the minds of millions of his supporters?

Sargent asks what constitutes fair play in politics, and what kind of "constitutional hardball" should be off limits. Republican voter suppression efforts will continue, and they have been enthusiastically endorsed by Trump. The president has used his bully pulpit to aggressively promote lies about voter fraud to a much greater degree than any of his predecessors.

One way to fix democracy is to end the creation of extremely partisan maps and install neutral processes to prevent rigging over the long haul. Some of the current gerrymanders, which Sargent contends mostly favor the GOP, will remain in place for the next two elections. This could help Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives, even if they lose the popular vote.
One term that Trump put into vogue that has threatened our democracy is "fake news." Trump has been a big contributor to the massive amount of disinformation that floods politics due to his nonstop lying. With it being unclear as to what you can believe, Russia could feel emboldened to wage more campaigns of information warfare since Trump has not taken allegations of Russian interference seriously. Will news organizations be able to adapt to these new and very difficult challenges posed by this new and deeply perilous information landscape? How can journalism improve and engage with it in more constructive ways when it comes up short?

Voters must look at all these factors that enabled Trump's rise, which are making this Trump era particularly dangerous to our democracy, and how we can fight back.

"At this point, well into the Trump presidency, many democratic theorists have now documented serious and meaningful parallels between Trump's behavior and that of autocrats who have successfully wielded such tactics to engineer democratic backsliding in their countries. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard, argued in their 2018 book, How Democracies Die, that Trump's presidency has already exhibited many of the telltale signs of an impending autocratic takeover, and that his ascension should be all the more alarming because the 'guardrails' of democracy, which are supposed to protect the system against such autocratic encroachment, are right now perilously weak. They argue for what one might call the 'unexceptionalism' of American democracy, meaning that, as they put it, our system is 'vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere.' Somewhat more optimistically, a trio of political thinkers - Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr. and political scientists Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann - argued in their book One Nation After Trump that Trump's rise has created an extended crisis for our democracy, but that this crisis has activated a deep and reinvigorated civic faith that could yet prove its salvation. Meanwhile, Robert R. Kaufman and Stephen Haggard - professors of political science at Rutgers University and the University of California, San Diego who have spent many years studying the reversion of democratic states - have concluded that Trump's behavior does indeed echo that of of other successful autocrats, in that he has systematically sought to weaken institutional constraints that threaten to impose accountability or function as a check on his power."

An Uncivil War is one of the most thorough examinations of our deeply flawed political system, and a handbook for how it can be turned around to restore an authentic democracy.

Ultimately, this is a story about how Americans must still have faith in their ability to improve our valued institutions.

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