A friend from Toronto recently shared an editorial from that city’s newspaper, the Globe and Mail. entitled, “The American Polity is Cracked and Might Collapse.” The piece said Canadians must “prepare.” After reading the piece, I must agree.
The author, Thomas Homer-Dixon, is a left-leaning Canadian academic. Before reading the piece, I was ready for another spirited condemnation of Donald Trump. That’s not what the editorial is about. Trumpism is referenced but is described as more a symptom than cause of underlying, deeper problems. Worsening income inequality, a more vulnerable economy, and a host of other challenges are leading many Americans to question democracy. The writer also notes that changing demographics are fueling a fear that “traditional U.S. culture is being erased” as “whites are replaced.”
The writer assumes that effective government could respond to the challenges and contribute to renewed support for democracy. That isn’t happening. Homer-Dixon suggests that the wealthy and powerful in the U.S. are starving government of the resources it needs to address our economic, educational, and racial problems. This, in turn, leads to more people giving up on democracy because an “under-resourced government” cannot solve problems. Why bother to vote if government “doesn’t work?”
Homer-Dixon’s assessment, dour as it is, is relevant to the consideration of voting rights legislation in the U.S. Senate this week. Unfortunately, despite renewed efforts by President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Schumer, approval remains uncertain. To date, Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are unwilling to modify the filibuster rule that enables a minority to block passage by requiring 60 votes.
It remains to be seen whether a compromise of some sort will be reached. It is telling that some see passage of the legislation as critical. Because the bill would effectively federalize election integrity, it is seen as a response to well-documented Republican efforts to make voting more difficult. The bill would also outlaw gerrymandering and make election day a holiday.
I am not fully convinced enactment of election reform will end the threat to democracy represented by the January 6 insurrection and continuing efforts to promote political division and dysfunction. Free, fair, and full elections will not by themselves cure racial, social, and economic injustice. Enactment of the legislation would, however, make it more likely that action could be taken on some U.S. societal trends that are ripping the country apart—things such as income inequality and inadequate investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure.
Is the U.S. about to disintegrate as Homer-Dixon suggests? I hope not, but I do see dangerous signs of American decline. Our role as a world leader is now questioned. European and Asian allies are no longer sure they can depend on us. We also are no longer seen as a leader in addressing climate change. And, unfortunately, since Trump left office, despite Biden rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, passage of meaningful measures to address climate change has proven impossible.
Then there are the threats from Russia and China. Both seem ready to test American military resolve. Some interpret recent threats to Ukraine and Taiwan as prompted by a perception of Joe Biden as a weak president. That is naïve. The real problem is that both Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi may be convinced that public support for military action in response to an invasion in either place is lacking. Unfortunately, that may be true, especially after the long-overdue end to the Afghanistan war.
So where does this leave us? The answer is “vulnerable but not yet dead.” If Americans wake up to the fact that we are in a crisis, action will become more likely. Democracy and political stability are in jeopardy. Congress must do all it can to buttress democracy and restore the public’s faith in it. And if Congress passes the legislation, further action is needed to excise the dysfunction out of Congress.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, birds, and other subjects.