As the United States wallows through a self-inflicted crisis over another government shutdown combined with a potentially catastrophic financial default, it is critically important to recognize what we are seeing – the piecemeal destruction of American democracy by its radical right-wing. This is not petty partisan politics or even brinksmanship. This is a deliberate attack on the nation’s structural institutions which allow the people to exercise their right to self-governance through majority rule. Those who oppose this practice of democracy, emblemized by the virulent Tea Party, are motivated by an irrational adherence to an authoritarian orthodoxy which has merged the laissez-faire capitalism of Ayn Rand with Christian fundamentalism and White nationalism. Their zealous pursuit of a win-at-all-costs strategy is not sane.
In almost every respect, the ideology of the modern-day Tea Party parallels that of the Antebellum South prior to the Civil War; and therefore, can be accurately described as neo-Confederate. It uses the failed states rights argument (i.e. Tenther Movement) as a bludgeon against the federal government. It draws upon anti-tax sentiment to preserve the consolidation of wealth and a hierarchical society. It rails at even the most beneficial government regulations as some sort of “crime” against free enterprise (a.k.a. corporate hegemony). It demonizes and marginalizes Blacks, Latinos, the LGBT community, Muslims, Jews, atheists, leftists, workers, and even women, as inferior humans undeserving of equality. It propagates factually absurd memes such as “America is a republic, not a democracy” in order to justify its extreme agenda. It blurs the distinction between truth, falsehood, and fantasy, to deceive the public. It is the cold, Machiavellian stepchild of totalitarianism. And, it will never, ever willfully submit.
What’s most disturbing now, though, is not the current nature of the radical right – for it has always been with us – but the impassivity of the general populace towards the threat posed to democracy. Americans, particularly younger people, seem to be losing their appreciation of this precious commodity. They are making a terrible mistake in assuming that America’s present political dysfunction is systemic rather than being a deliberate act by aggressive malcontents. Although public opinion regarding the government shutdown is weighing more heavily on Republicans than Democrats, far too many still assign equal blame for the crisis. What these folks are failing to comprehend is the bigger picture and the real motivations of each side. It’s as if they are unable to see through the smoke and unwilling to move closer for a better look. As time goes on, this lack of public awareness could prove fatal for the nation.
Everyone must come to realize that some form of autocratic authoritarianism always reigns in the absence of democracy be it called fascism, communism, dictatorship, monarchy, oligarchy, plutocracy, or theocracy (Iran is an example of a theocratic republic). One of America’s greatest founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was the epitome of democratic principles. And, don’t be fooled by right-wing rhetoric claiming that the founding fathers hated democracy. While it is true they were wary of direct democracy, it is also true they were steadfastly supportive of representative democracy.
In 1835, the French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Jefferson himself, the greatest democrat whom the democracy of America has as yet produced…” [Democracy in America (New York: Walker, 1850), 205. (The book was first published in 1835, although the edition we link to here is one from 1850.)]
In 1859, future U.S. President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society… This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it. All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” [Roy Basler, ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 3:375-376.]
And Thomas Jefferson himself, in 1816, wrote: “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both. We are destined to be a barrier against the returns of ignorance and barbarism. Old Europe will have to lean on our shoulders, and to hobble along by our side, under the monkish trammels of priests and kings, as she can. What a Colossus shall we be when the Southern continent comes up to our mark! What a stand will it secure as a ralliance for the reason & freedom of the globe! I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” [Cappon, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 483-85. Also printed in L&B, 15:56-59.]
The core ideals of what is known as Jeffersonian Democracy laid the principled foundations for America. They are ingrained in the nation’s history, heritage, and psyche, and can be summarized as follows:
- Republicanism (i.e. the rule of law) resists the corruption of authoritarianism (i.e. rule by decree).
- Voting and participation in governance is the essential civic duty of all citizens.
- The separation of church and state is necessary to protect religious freedom and to prevent theocracy.
- The rights of individuals, as defined in the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, are inviolate.
- Freedom of speech and freedom of the press counter the tyranny of power.
- All citizens have a right to an education regardless of their personal circumstances or social status in order to stay informed and therefore have a voice in their government.
- The U.S. Constitution was written to ensure the liberty of the people. However, no society can make perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation.
These are the things America would lose if the Tea Party is successful in achieving its goals. Democracy is now failing under its assault. Unless Americans speak out in unison against this subversion, the worst outcome could result. Should that happen, the American people will have proven they were no longer worthy of that precious gift of democracy which their fathers and mothers fought so hard to secure for them.