Can US still be called a functioning democracy?

The writer is a US-based author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Home Free: An American Road Trip, among other books.

The premise of democratic society is that citizens have an obligation to keep up with current events and to engage themselves in the issues confronting us all. It’s mixed up with what we call “the consent of the governed.” I consent to be governed by elected representatives, and in turn I accept the responsibility to take part in public life, to care, to debate the issues, to vote. That’s the theory. In America, it more or less seemed to work during most of my lifetime to date. But now it doesn’t anymore.

I find Brett Kavanaugh utterly disgusting. But I confess that the effect on me of his confirmation to a lifetime appointment on the United States Supreme Court has been to make me want to withdraw, to shrink within the shell of my own private world, to husband my strength and mental health, and to take a long view of what’s going on and what I might, or might well not, be able to do about any of it. I understand the rhetorical intemperance of many on the American left, and I agree with most (not all) of what most (not all) of them are saying. But I don’t want to be one of the ones saying it.

What would be the point of adding my voice to the din, only for it to be drowned out? About her first response to the enormity of the 2010 earthquake that devastated her small, poor native country, the wonderful Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat wrote: “It was too soon to even try to write, I told myself. You were not there. You did not live it. You have no right even to speak – for you, for them, for anyone. So I did what I always do when my own words fail me. I read.” I think of the wisdom of that – of practicing the disciplines of reading and of maintaining silence – a lot these days.

I do frequent Twitter and, believe me, there are plenty of Americans who are being anything but silent, more than enough opinions flying around the Internet. And that’s exactly why my opinions are not needed at the moment. It’s not that I don’t have opinions on Trump, or the damage wrought on judicial independence and credibility by Kavanaugh’s appointment, or the midterm elections scheduled for November 6, or climate change, or any of the many other pressing issues facing Americans. It’s just that I don’t feel the need to share them, or see the point of doing so. By refraining from contributing to the daily feeding frenzy of news consumption, outrage at Trump and his minions and enablers, and tiresomely earnest liberal policy prescriptions, I believe I’m conserving my physical, mental and emotional energy for other important things that require my attention.

What are those things? First and foremost those are my wife, my parents, my brother, my cousins, and my small number of genuinely close and important friends. They’re also my garden, my neighborhood, and my city. I can weed my garden; I can note and fret about the many changes to the most local context of my life as I walk around my bustling neighborhood; I can read and wonder about, and feel (and even express) concern about, the civic decisions that are transforming the texture of the booming city of Seattle. I do all those things, and they feel more effectual and real to me than screaming hysterically about what’s becoming of the American republic, because – as Thomas Jefferson warned us – the republic is too big: far too big for any of us to understand or grapple with in its entirety. Bigger even than Jefferson himself – who hypocritically and ill-advisedly doubled the country’s size with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – could have imagined it would ever become. And indeed, as Jefferson rightly feared, too big to remain a republic.

Some are starting to use the phrase “coup d’état” to describe what’s happening, and that’s not inaccurate. But it’s not the kind of coup where (as in Pakistan in 1999, for example) soldiers forcibly seize control of television stations and airports and the army chief announces that the military is now in charge. What’s happening in America now is, in some ways – or at least ostensibly, or arguably – perfectly legal and legitimate. It’s not really, but those who excuse it can argue that it is, using the handy device that became known during the Reagan era as “plausible deniability.” The ugly and contemptuous way that Trump, the despicable Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and their cronies and cheering section shoved Kavanaugh down our collective throat is the most recent, and most revealing, case in point. Some people I know are saying it feels like a worse calamity even than Trump’s election victory two years ago, and that’s saying something.

And now, as the enormously important November 6 elections loom, we’re hearing ominous things about Republican operatives – now including the Supreme Court, whose right-wing majority has just been buttressed by Kavanaugh – using various tactics and devices to deprive ethnic minorities of the ability, if not technically of the right, to vote. In the lightly-populated state of North Dakota, the Supreme Court-sanctioned disenfranchisement of Native Americans who live on reservations (and thus lack “normal” mailing addresses) could well tip the Senate race in favor of the Republican candidate – and that single seat is likely to make the difference in which party controls the Senate. In the state of Georgia, tens of thousands of African Americans are being disqualified by the state official responsible for such things… and he just happens to be the Republican candidate for governor.

In such conditions, it’s no longer accurate or justifiable to call the United States of America a functioning democracy. For my part as an individual I don’t know what to do about it, other than to continue paying attention, to seek understanding through reading, and to live my own life as usefully and honestly

as I can. •