There’s no better time than Thanksgiving to be grateful for the fact that we still live under a democratic system, however frayed it may be.
That idea may sound corny at a time when our country seems to be sliding off its axis. But unless Americans appreciate the political gifts with which they are (still) endowed it becomes easier to lose them.
The growing challenge of foreign dictatorships, along with the demagogic Trump presidency, should provide a powerful wakeup call. They remind us of the historical uniqueness of our long-running democratic experiment – and the effort needed to preserve it.
As Benjamin Franklin warned when asked at the close of the 1787 Constitutional Convention whether America had a republic or a monarchy: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Two hundred thirty years later, at this holiday season, here are five reasons why, with Franklin’s warning in mind, we should all give thanks.
One: The election of Donald Trump has shaken a majority of Americans out of their complacent assumption that their (admittedly troubled) democracy was immutable. This is a good thing.
Of course, anyone who wasn’t brain dead recognized the strains caused by globalization, rising inequality, and deepening public mistrust of Washington politicians. But until 2016, the assumption was that these strains were problems that needed addressing. Americans debated the future of U.S. democracy, the alienation of American youth, and the paralysis of Congress, but these weren’t yet seen as the harbingers of system failure.
Then came Trump, an open admirer of foreign dictators, who scorns constitutional principles and threatens political opponents. Who openly harangues the courts, denounces serious print and TV coverage, and debases all previous political norms of civility and morality.
His demagoguery has shaken millions of Americans out of their complacency about their system, a complacency born of 70 peaceful postwar years in which America was the unchallenged global leader. It has buried once and for all the 1990s mantra that history ended with the triumph of liberal democracy.
But forewarned is forearmed. Having been shocked, those who value democracy can regroup to revive it.
Two: Trump’s enthusiasm for dictatorial norms doesn’t reflect the wishes of a majority of Americans. Polls show that there is little enthusiasm in this country for military rule or a strongman. The president’s predilection for generals is well known, but in America generals still submit to civilian rule – another reason to give thanks.
Three: The bedrock of U.S. democracy - the separation of powers - while battered, is holding. So far.
Where Trump has veered off constitutional rails, as on his putative Muslim ban, courts have restrained him. Judges have withstood his open denigration of jurists and courts that have not bent to his wishes. Even Trump’s appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions has (again, so far) bowed to the tradition that federal law enforcement is independent and a special prosecutor (Robert Mueller) can’t be dismissed just because his investigation angers the president.
Even in a Republican-led Congress there are still a few (far too few) GOP voices that challenge the president’s tweets and erratic behavior when these threaten decent governance or America’s national security. They recognize the danger of provoking premature war with North Korea. Give thanks for outspoken GOP Sens. John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, and Susan Collins.
But if you want a better Congress, the time to get involved in civic action is now.
Four: Responsible mainstream media are still producing fact-filled investigations of government turpitude, corruption – and Russian efforts to undermine our system. The way to support such investigations is to subscribe – whether to digital or paper – and keep real newspapers alive.
This is not merely a self-interested plea. One of the main threats to American democracy is the far right’s ideological campaign against real news, a campaign begun by the late Roger Ailes with Fox TV.
Many Americans – and Trump himself – now turn for “news” to alt-right websites such as Breitbart that peddle made-up “news” and wild conspiracy theories and viciously attack Trump opponents. The president promotes such sites and seems to believe what they feed him, sometimes even retweeting stuff from RT – the Kremlin controlled English-language TV outlet. Nothing endangers our democracy more than the rise of alt-right fake news.
Five: Finally, give thanks that you were born in the USA or immigrated here at a time when Americans appreciated the essential contribution immigrants make to our society. I travel abroad constantly to countries such as Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and China – where would-be democrats dreamed of, or fought for, the rights and freedoms that Americans take for granted. Most have now become disillusioned, as they watch Trump’s value-less presidency. Or they have been killed or repressed by jihadis and dictators.
Americans are still privileged to live in a country where democratic institutions remain strong, and where they can organize at a local, citywide, or state level. They still have the chance to elect better legislatures, a more responsible Congress – and in 2020, a president who embraces democracy.
We do have a republic if we can keep it, for which we should indeed give thanks.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.