American democracy has survived, for now, its most harrowing assault since the Civil War, but there is a big difference between surviving and thriving. An extraordinary percentage of our citizenry seems willing to chuck out democratic processes altogether. And who can say what rough beast, its “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun,” is lurking out there, scheming to lead the next charge on what had long seemed inviolable institutions?
Yet it must be said that some of those institutions are showing their age. Shakhar Rahav, in his cover story on China, points out that crucial elements of our liberal representative democracy were invented in a far different world. The abject dysfunctionality of Congress, partly attributable to the disproportionate power of rural states in the Senate and largely related to the stranglehold that money has on both houses, has undoubtedly contributed to the discontent and disillusion across the political spectrum. Graeme Wood, in his cover story, elaborates the differences between our cities, with their tired infrastructure, and Russia’s showcase cities. Congress can’t even pull itself together to fix bridges before they fall down, much less to build gleaming airports and transportation systems. (Gleaming sports stadiums we can build.)
President Trump, with his outrageous end runs around Congress, can hardly be seen in a vacuum. The four most recent presidents, at least, including the present one, have pushed the boundaries of executive power because Congress gets so little accomplished. President Biden, with his flurry of executive orders, is a far, far cry from Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, not least because he, unlike them, was elected fairly and freely. But more and more countries in the world are turning away from the sort of liberal representative democracy that we have long promoted internationally, and turning toward strongman leaders of various stripes.
Let it be said clearly that neither of our cover story writers is idealizing or recommending life in countries where leaders hold on to their power by employing security forces to stifle dissent. But as we try to repair and, with luck, update our own system, it is worth seeing how the alternatives look. As imperiled as our democracy can seem, it is hard to perceive Putin’s response to the widespread protests in Russia supporting Alexei Navalny and decrying corruption and tyranny as the action of a leader confident in his position. Similarly, Xi’s creation of a total surveillance state in China does not suggest a strong conviction that the dream of liberalization and democratization has died in the hearts of the Chinese people.
May it be rekindled in the hearts of all Americans as well.
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