Guardrails for Democracy

What is our ultimate protection from Authoritarianism?

The Impeachment Trial is being broadcast live this week, and for me, the most serious charge of the House Managers is that failure to convict will remove an important guardrail for American democracy.

Mr. Trump’s defense is designed to destroy those guardrails. If Republican senators go along with it, they will not only be excusing behavior that many of them believe to be improper. They will be enabling further assaults by Mr. Trump on the foundations of American democracy. —

As I think about this, I wonder if this is alarmist rhetoric or actually the potential end of the American experiment. I do believe that President Trump has authoritarian tendencies, and I believe that we all do, to some extent. Think about dictators, and about our own desires to run our own lives — aren’t we all dictators at heart? What are the guardrails which hold us back?

Well, first it is our parents, who also want to run their own lives. We eventually learn the advantages of reciprocity — quid pro quo, if you like. And maybe we learn empathy, and receive empathy in return. These may be evolutionary guardrails that got hard-wired into our human nature. The impeachment clause of the American Constitution did not exist before September 17, 1787, and raises the question, what were the guardrails for democracy before that day?

In my mind, public opinion is the ultimate guardrail, and the freedom of the press is a powerful tool to shape and change public opinion. Recent example: the Iraq War.

The United States public’s opinion on the invasion of Iraq has changed significantly since the years preceding the incursion. For various reasons, mostly related to the unexpected consequences of the invasion, as well as misinformation provided by US authorities, the US public’s perspective on its government’s choice to initiate an offensive is increasingly negative. Before the invasion in March 2003, polls showed 47–60% of the US public supported an invasion, dependent on U.N. approval.[1] According to the same poll retaken in April 2007, 58% of the participants stated that the initial attack was a mistake.[2] In May 2007, the New York Times and CBS News released similar results of a poll in which 61% of participants believed the U.S. “should have stayed out” of Iraq.[3]

This change in public opinion is comforting to me, that with or without impeachment, American democracy can survive this moment. We need reliable news sources, and independent analysis by knowledgeable commentators — in short, good journalism and a free press.

Speaking as a life-long printer, and the son of a printer, I believe that the private ownership of printing presses is an essential guardrail for democracy. In this age of computers and email and internet communication, maybe printing is outdated, but when authoritarianism and centralized power become oppressive, I can foresee high-tech communication methods may become vulnerable. If there remains a remnant of low-tech mass communication methods, we still have a guardrail we can turn to. The recent TV series on PBS — La Résistance — about the French Resistance in WWII features Vélin, an important printer in Lyon, France. —

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