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Last week, Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic and curator of The Democracy Essays sat down with Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare to debate first principles and discuss how their views of American democracy have shifted over the past five years. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of the second half of their conversation. You can find Part One of their conversation here.
Osita: Part of the struggle in combating antidemocratic attitudes today is that we are missing a framework in which we can say, “Here are the reasons why, even if it looks like you're losing this particular cultural battle, there's something about these values that is going to be there for you when you need them.”
Quinta: I think that's right. The core of the question is always going to be whether it’s even possible to provide that case for democracy in a way that grabs people. Over the past five years, I've spent a lot of time trying to get people to care about aspects of the government that are objectively foundational to democracy but are hard to explain. Certain aspects of independence of the Justice Department—I would argue that is foundational to democracy. And it shows up in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, where you need rules so that people know what it is that they can and can't do, and you're not just subject to the whims of the person who happens to hold power at the time. That is critical if you're going to sustain a democracy, which has to be a system that operates in a predictable way, and you can trust that you’re not going to be screwed over when the next person takes power.
With that in mind, I would argue that Trump's attacks on the Justice Department—firing the FBI director, pushing for investigations of Hillary Clinton and James Comey, trying to get rid of the Mueller investigation—go to the absolute core of what democracy is and what it’s supposed to do. And I’ve had so many experiences where if you're trying to explain to people why that's important, it's not instinctive. People are busy, they have jobs, they have to put dinner on the table.
I had a conversation with a friend who suggested it boils down to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. People will care more about making sure they have food and healthcare than these abstract questions about who can be investigated and under what circumstances by a bureaucracy they don't really know anything about. And I don't really know what to do with that.
I think one way to handle it is to look back to John Maynard Keynes and say that in order for a democracy to be self-sustaining, people need to understand that it will provide for them. And that the economic system under democracy will sustain them so that you can then have the time to think about all these big questions about the rule of law, law enforcement independence, etc. I think that's one option. On the other hand, it strikes me that it doesn't really answer the question because it's just another way of saying, “Well, we need to make sure that people are fed and have access to healthcare. And then they'll understand the big principle.” But it's not quite defining what the big principle is. It strikes me as kicking the can down the road.
Osita: This is part of the reason why I go back to institutions. For me, somebody who was writing a little bit—not as much as you were or other people who were on the beat specifically were—but a little bit about Trump and the Justice Department and the Muller investigation, in the back of my mind I was thinking to myself, “Well, he's just going to get away with this, right? I can write about this. I can tell people about it. We can be mad about it. But just given the way the system has been designed, he's gonna get away with it.” And I think that that's the reaction people have to a lot of things in politics. Even if they don't understand the specific structural defects of the Senate or whatever, there’s a baseline level of cynicism about what goes on in Washington that’s the product of a sense that it’s not responsive to democratic will. That it wasn’t even before Trump got there.
And it's weird that most Americans really do deeply believe in democratic values and were appalled by Trump, upset by his presidency and violations of the law and all of those things, but aren’t willing to think about the fundamental building blocks of the political system. There's not really a sense of urgency about it, as much as people believe in democracy. Our values are in one place and the system is in another, and we just sort of accept as a matter of course that the system is what it is. It’s kinda-sorta like democracy and that’s close enough. I think even beyond what you were talking about, the fact that people have immediate, material needs and want you to talk about healthcare means there’s a baked-in level of ambivalence or resignation about the extent to which the law really applied to wealthy people and powerful politicians to begin with even before Trump was president.
Quinta: I think that's right. In the case of Trump, it's obviously right. If you go back and look at the New York Times reporting on his various business interests, there were just incredible amounts of fraud going on without any enforcement whatsoever. It’s a demonstration of how this guy got a free ride from a number of institutions. As you said, on some level, there is an instinctive sense that this system is not built for the average person. And on another level you can say, “Well, actually, it's a system of representative democracy and every person has an input in this way and the other.” But then if you really look at all the pieces fitting together, I would argue essentially that once Trump fired Comey and the Senate did nothing that was the end of it—of course he was going to get away with it.
And so the problem here I think—and you're seeing this now in how the Justice Department is handling various loose ends of litigation that are left over from the Trump administration—is that you can make an argument that people really need to see that the system is working for them. That this machine can be turned to work for the common good, holding people who have done wrong accountable. On the other hand, there's also a very good argument for the same institutional factors that Trump was attacking pulling in the other direction and saying, “No, no, no, we don't want to do that. That's too politically toxic. We don’t want to investigate Trump. We don't want to prosecute Trump. We want to maintain our independence. We don't want to wade into the political thickets.” There is a genuine tension there. And I take both parts of that argument seriously. I think whatever the “right” answer is, it’s going to be very fact-specific. But I do think you’re seeing it already—not quite as explicit as Obama's “Look forward, not back.” But it is there.
Osita: I think that’s important too, because we have talked so much about the extent to which democracy is threatened by anti-democratic attitudes on the right. But I think that there are a lot of attitudes that aren’t anti-democratic per se, but sort of sit crosswise with democracy. This idea you brought up, that we shouldn't go after Trump or people in his administration and let political bygones be bygones—out of sportsmanship, basically, or the sense that it would be divisive for the country—that is an attitude that undermines the rule of law. It’s not a scary kind of attitude. It's not somebody saying democracy sucks and we want authoritarianism. But it is an attitude that sits above basic democratic values within our political discourse.
Bipartisanship is another one. “The majority of the American people might want X, but we really need to find a way to get this minority of the population on board so we can get a supermajority. That's going to be more legitimate than something we just did on our own, even if we truly represent the majority of the American people on this issue.” Again, that's not an attitude that presents as hostile to democracy. It's something that feels nice and that we're used to in our politics. But I don't think you can see it any other way than as a system of strange virtues that seem to be doing their own part to undermine democracy and prevent us from really protecting or improving our political institutions.
This effort that we are now seeing in Congress, to pass a set of voting reforms that are going to protect the right to vote across the South and that, if it was written properly, might do something about partisan gerrymandering—the thing that's holding that up is this sense that it would be wrong for the Democratic Party to do it on its own, that you have to extend a hand to a party that's been increasingly hostile to basic democratic values. That sensibility seems like its own kind of threat to me. I don't know if you see things the same way.
Quinta: I agree when it comes to bipartisanship. When it comes to the Justice Department, the situation is a little different, just because so many of the norms that might counsel against a politically prominent investigation and prosecution are developed to aid and buttress democracy. That’s the catch-22: If you believe that Trump committed a crime and should be prosecuted, in a perfect world, I would argue that I wouldn't want President Biden to be intervening in that decision at all, because that makes it politically charged. What you want is to have a rule-of-law system go through an investigation, go up to the Attorney General, who looks at it and says, “Gosh, that is bad.” And then they go forward with a prosecution.
I think the problem is that it is very hard in practice, at the moment, to draw the line between the desire to be gentlemanly and the desire to genuinely play by rules that are important to maintain for the integrity of the rule of law. And the twist here is that it's very easy on the outside to look at the Senate and say, “Oh, I can't believe that they're looking for bipartisanship in the Republican caucus for things that are obviously never going to get bipartisan support,” or “I can't believe that the Justice Department is doing so and so.” And then, in counterpoint, it's very easy for someone inside those institutions to say, “Well, it's easy for you to say that because you don't know the internal deliberations that we're having.” On the other hand, there’s also a clarity to not being inside those institutions and not being bound by their rules and traditions.
And so you end up in this situation where the people who have the distance to see things clearly also are operating without all of the information and without a full understanding of the dynamics at stake. And that just creates a situation where it's actually very hard to know what the right way forward is. I can set out a set of principles that I'd like the decision-makers to abide by, things I think that they should keep in mind. But at the end of the day, it's hard for me to feel like I can say you should do X without a full knowledge of the situation, which I, of course, can't have. So maybe it’s just my own desire to appear responsible getting the better of me. It’s something that I have been struggling with in recent months.
Osita: So as the responsible one here, I guess I should ask you to peer into your crystal ball and tell us where we're going as a country. Where are political forces taking us? Are we really going to see a democratic breakdown in the next half-decade driven by these attitudes on the right in combination with our political institutions, or do you think that there are some conversations we can begin to have as a country now that could forestall that and create a sense that democracy is worth preserving?
Quinta: It's a great question. My crystal ball is very cloudy. I don't know if I trust myself enough to make a prediction here. I do think that after the election and after January 6th, it was very easy to feel like we dodged a bullet or two. But I think it feels to me like not only among people as a whole, but also on Capitol Hill and maybe even in the White House, that the urgency isn’t quite there in the same way. And yet at the same time, we are looking at a race in 2022 in which the Republicans are facing a very good map to retake the Senate, with the House also in play. So it seems to me that 2020 was much more of a stay of execution rather than something that we can put behind us.
The real question is what do we do? And the problem, of course, is that all of the big things that you would want to do are really hard, like getting rid of the filibuster and the Electoral College, and implementing nationwide ranked choice voting. So rather than wondering where we are going to end up—which I don’t know—I am thinking more about how we are going to keep a fire under us moving forward. The temperature has gone down in the absence of Trump. It feels like people have relaxed in a way that they shouldn’t have. Granted, there has been a fair amount of anger in the wake of the Senate's failure to move forward S1, and perhaps that will spark enough of a genuine understanding in people in government, and among more members of the public, about the magnitude of the crisis that we're facing. But there doesn't seem to be any consensus about what comes next after S1. There's the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, but the fate of that bill is very unclear, and it doesn't address efforts to subvert election results as opposed to efforts to prevent people from voting. I haven't seen the kind of concerted push that I might hope for to protect elections from being overturned, and certainly not at the level of alarm and focus you would want to see if we're going to get out of this.
Osita: Yeah, I think we're probably done for. I mean, it's not a certainty. Activists and organizers might come through in the next year or so. It's possible. But if things continue down the road they've been on for the last several months, I think we are probably going to lose our ability to call ourselves, even rhetorically, a democratic republic for the next 10 or 15 years at least. I think that the next time we are going to have a chance to change things up—maybe as a consequence of demographic transition, maybe as a consequence of people being fed up over the next 10 years, whatever—we are really going to be in a place where people are going to be interested in starting from scratch and thinking about radically transforming institutions. Not just patching them up, but getting to a new place as a country and thinking about how we can more fully implement and embody democratic values than we have been able to up until this point.
Quinta: So things are going to get worse before they get better.
Osita: I think so. And I think they are going to get a lot worse. I mean, I feel like a crank when I say this, but I really do think that climate change is going to radically disrupt American politics and our economy in ways that we can't really anticipate. So I just think that we are going to come to a place as a country where people are going to be encouraged by events to return to first principles. And there is going to be an opportunity in the destruction of what exists now to create something better. That's the only silver lining I can really think of.
Quinta: That sounds pretty optimistic to me. It's just optimistic over a longer time horizon.
Osita: I guess. I think that the task of the next decade or two decades is really going to be getting the American people to a place where they are thinking about these values in more challenging ways than they've been asked to—really getting to what it means to be a democracy, what it means to have equal political rights. These are conversations that are starting again now. But I think that the collapse of what we have is really going to inspire people to think about those values more deeply and about how they might be brought into a system that I do believe, optimistically, that we are going to have an opportunity to refound. If I didn't believe that, I don’t know what I would do. I think that's the only thing that really keeps me going. As far as our short-term political trajectory is concerned, it's not looking good at all. And I really don’t have much faith left that it's going to turn around.
Quinta: I like that there’s a peculiar kind of dialectic there. I like that eventually we'll end up in the right place.
Osita: I hope so.
That concludes this debate. To read similar pieces, check out The Democracy Essays, curated by Osita Nwanevu and Sam Kimbriel and hosted by Wisdom of Crowds.