Democracy in America, 2003

Democracy in America, 2003

Over the past ten years, there has been a growing gap in perception over the state of American democracy. The vast majority of the Washington press corps-including many pundits critical of the Bush administration-is inclined to see what has happened (and is happening) as basically hard-knuckled politics as usual. The fights may sound harsher, the media blare may be much louder, the reigning politics may be more conservative than anyone expected-but the basic institutions of American democracy are, supposedly, secure. Those like economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman who disagree, and who see something more dangerous unfolding, are branded as wild radicals, or paranoids, or both-and, as Krugman has mordantly observed, they receive the wild hate mail and e-mails that prove it.

There is, of course, always a danger of paranoia setting in at a time of intense polarization, when one political party controls all three branches of the federal government-all the more so when that party in charge looks less like the usual coalition of internally contending forces than a disciplined army. Such is certainly the case today, especially in Washington, where a virtually unanimous Republican Party-the House Republicans whipped into shape by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Senate Republicans only slightly less unified, both houses well coordinated with the adamantine Bush White House, and the Rehnquist Court standing by as the final forum-makes the Democratic minority look like a chorus of scorched cats. But isn’t this just the result of the Republicans’ superior political skills-playing the rules of the game to the utmost, always keeping their eyes on their prizes?

The Republicans’ occasional failures-notably, in the fights over a few high-profile federal judiciary appointments, including that of Miguel Estrada-suggest that democracy still works well enough, that Madisonian checks and balances are still checking and balancing. Those failures even suggest that grassroots opposition organizing can still have some impact in national politics. If only the Democrats would consistently get their act together (so the argument goes), if only they could take advantage of the fact that the public supports their positions on leading issues, if only they could field a candidate with forceful credentials on foreign policy and the military (hence, the instant initial boom for General Wesley Clark), then the political scene would look very different.

Some of this is plausible, some of this is true, but all of it misses that something truly worrisome is happening here-a clear and present danger to democracy, posed by the leadership of the Republican Party. In his latest book, The Great Unraveling, Krugman charges that the current Republican regime is not “conservative” or even normal within the customary boundaries of American politics: it is controlled by abnormal radicals, who will stop at nothing...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels