Tearing Down the Edifice of American Democracy

The joists & beams that hold U.S. democracy are not as flexible as they appear, writes Scott Ritter. They are the byproduct of societal passion of two political parties and are on the brink of failure. 

U.S. Supreme Court. (Joe Lauria)

By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News

The fact of the matter is that politics—at least how it is practiced in the United States—is more about perception than reality. The nuance associated with lawmaking, the arcane art of manufacturing the rules and regulations that hold society together, are hidden and therefore unknown to the vast majority of those who participate in the electoral processes that are the hallmark of American democracy.

Most Americans have not taken the time to follow a bill as it makes it way through the legislative process. Instead, they may hear about it at its inception, and then, if the bill is adopted, watch as the Executive signs it into law. They get the headline version—what the brokers of “truth” in the media opt to say about the legislation, and not what it really represents:  an amalgam of special interest money sprinkled with a modicum of societal need, want or desire.

Americans get their news like a baby bird gets its meal—waiting for a “mother” figure to digest it and then regurgitate it down their collective throats. They are not informed so much as shaped, the byproduct of a system that is built on manufactured consent derived from half-truths, myths and outright lies.

For politics to work in a nation as large and complex as the United States, there must be a rock-solid foundation upon which everyone operates. This role is served by the Constitution, the document which provides foundational principles that guide everything that follows. Adherence to the Constitution is mandatory if everything else that follows is to have a chance at success.

But even here, the perception of law-and-order masks a grim reality that the rules collectively embraced as “constitutional” are every bit as partisan as the politics Americans pretend are removed from their system of “blind” justice. For a rule to have meaning, it must be widely embraced as viable and fair.

In a system where the final arbiter of the rules is a panel of nine justices whose selection is predicated on the whims of a partisan political elite, the result of many of the most controversial decisions about the very rules that govern society come down to a narrow 5-4 vote, which means that while five justices believe that something is “constitutional”, there are four who do not. If that which divides the two sides is merely an interpretation of legal nuance, then this disparity is irrelevant—the underlying legal principle holds.

But when the deviation is significant, to the point that the difference represents a fundamental disagreement, then the law it portends to uphold itself becomes divisive. When something as supposedly as black and white as constitutional law comes down to a single vote by a highly politicized body, the reality is that the foundation it underpins is far more fragile than anyone realizes.

On top of this shaky foundation of politicized principle Americans have constructed an edifice of governance which is not nearly as solid as they would like to believe. The joists and beams that hold American democracy together are not as flexible as they appear. Like the Supreme Court, they are the byproduct of a bi-polar reality of societal passion contained in the vehicle of two political parties—Republican and Democrat—which must work in harmony if the building is to withstand the storms that periodically sweep across the landscape.

A Unifying Concept

America was born from a revolution which manifested itself from the failure of the British system of colonialism, and further shaped by a Civil War where a divided nation had to be reformed into a union not through an expression of democratic will, but rather prodded along by the tip of a bayonet. In both Revolution and Civil War, it was the perception that the system of governance had failed the people, rather than the reality, that inflamed the masses.

The Pennsylvania farmer who marched to Boston in 1775, like the Pennsylvania farmer who marched on Richmond in 1865, was not versed in the political complexities that defined the side he was fighting for. These men fought for a unifying concept, a belief constructed more from passion than fact. For this concept to succeed, there needed to be a fundamental core of agreement, with the space between the differences that naturally arise when dealing with independently thinking humans kept as small as possible.

It is this space that is the key to the success, and ultimately survival, of the great American experiment in democracy. Here, Newton’s Third Law of Physics applies in full force—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. American democracy is not a singular entity operating on its own, but rather formed from millions of threads of beliefs and passions that have come together in harmony.

These threads work if they operate on the same—or similar—wavelength, bending this way and that in relative unison. There can be pushing and shoving, but the harmonic holds so long as the resistance is minimal.

Broken Harmony

This notion fails, however, when the threads start to collide significantly—a strong push gets an equally strong pushback. The harmony is broken, and the weave of the threads unravels. So long as the American political parties served as a buffer to the passions and beliefs of their constituent threads, harmony could be sustained. To do this, the parties need to operate from the same sheet of music, directed by the same conductor.

A unifying narrative must be maintained to shape the perception of the people. When competing narratives exist, they must adhere to a similar core concept, or else risk being torn apart by the destructive echo produced by the space between.

The concept of a “stolen election” is the antithesis of the model of a free and fair election that underpins American democracy. For the supporters of Donald Trump, the events of Jan. 6 did not occur in a vacuum but were rather the culmination of what they believed to be a four-year campaign to undermine the legitimacy of the president they voted for and, by doing so, disenfranchising not only their vote, but by extension their role as citizens.

The collapse of the Russian collusion allegations is, today, historic fact. The recent declassification of additional documents related to the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation targeting the Trump campaign only reinforce what most Trump supporters had come to firmly believe—that the FBI, working in concert with the Obama administration and sympathetic Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans (John McCain comes to mind), sought to manufacture a narrative that could sustain the perception of Trump-Russian collusion in an effort to prevent Trump from prevailing in November 2016 or, failing that, serve as the basis of undermining his presidency going forward.

The persecution of Carter Paige, the politicization of the Steele Dossier, and the failure of the Mueller investigation have all been well documented, while the issue of legal culpability regarding the various Constitutional abuses associated with these, and other, activities may never be finalized.

In the end, the lack of legal finality misses the point. In the minds of Trump’s many supporters, there was clear and incontrovertible proof that the establishment was conspiring to suborn the victory they had achieved at the polls. The drawn out political drama that was the Democrats’ first effort to remove Trump from office through the vehicle of impeachment only reinforced this conclusion.

Justice or Revenge?

The events of Jan. 6 represent the culminating moment where the disharmony of American politics brought on by the unbridgeable gap between those citizens whom Trump said he had empowered as the guardians of American democracy in his January 2017 inaugural address, and those citizens who had, since 2017, been struggling to undermine Trump, created a harmonic whose echo tore down the edifice of American democracy.

As fervently as the Democrats and their “never Trump” allies in the Republican Party believe that Trump and his supporters represent a clear and present danger to American democracy, so, too, do the supporters of Trump view those who conspired to undo the will of the people as expressed in a free and fair election as enemies of the state.

These perceptions remain valid in the minds of tens of millions of Americans as they watch the second impeachment trial of Trump get underway. Some view the proceedings as necessary justice; others as an act of political revenge. There is no common ground, and no outcome—either conviction or acquittal—will change that.

Joe Biden supporters will have four years to try and repair the institution of American democracy, but for all the rhetoric of unity, the impending second impeachment trial of Trump provides living proof that there remains a deep and dark divide between those who support the 46th president, and those who continue to support his predecessor—and never the two shall meet.

Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm, and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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26 comments for “Tearing Down the Edifice of American Democracy

  1. Ian
    February 11, 2021 at 20:46

    I just wonder how much of the public realizes that Congress, while fervently pursuing a ludicrous second impeachment of an ex-President, centering their personal trauma of being frightened by an angry mob in a time of deep societal turmoil that they take no responsibility for, and dishonestly inflating the experience of a rowdy protest to something on par with the Pinochet coup, still haven’t provided the American public or small business meaningful COVID financial relief in an entire year since they bailed out Americas biggest corporations and added a trillion dollars in net worth to the country’s richest billionaires. They don’t even plan to do this until March, at which point well over 500,000 Americans will be dead, millions evicted, enormous medical debt incurred, and small businesses boarded up or sold. It is absolutely grotesque that while they refuse to help this nation’s people in a timely or meaningful way we have to endure this bit of meaningless, partisan, self-indulgent victim drama on behalf of the most powerful people on Earth. Anyone not sucked in by the spectacle should be revolted by what is happening. Every waking moment Congress should be working to protect human life and the financial health of the public in this time of crisis, and it is beyond insulting to be subjected to a histrionic therapy session.

  2. February 11, 2021 at 15:44

    It was mysterious, as the glass was being cleared up in the Capitol and the police started to discharge the blissful agitators, regardless of whether they were the encapsulation of a last fit of a spent power, or the genuine essence of America’s future.

  3. Steve Abbott
    February 10, 2021 at 19:47

    We promote rumor of election fraud all over the world, whenever we can find a loser to take our side (and we his). It was only a matter of time before it came home to roost, and we discovered that there is no basis for confidence left. The fact that all factions then turn to combat to determine righteousness, is also a direct replication of our own example abroad. In this political climate, can democracy ever happen?

    • Steve Abbott
      February 10, 2021 at 19:49

      More to the point, can justice ever happen?

  4. February 10, 2021 at 17:36

    I’ve been reading and and reflecting upon Scott Ritter’s consistently convincing and important articles from about 2000 or so, and have never been disappointed yet. I also deeply appreciate the way in which he has repeatedly attempted to warn this country’s wayward leaders of the multiple dangers they were about to encounter should they actually pursue the mistaken, and often just downright foolish, foreign policy measures they were proposing to enact, and usually also did enact, much to the detriment of this nation’s best interests. Thus it would not be too strong as statement to say that Ritter is one of my heroes in this world, one of those very rare persons committed to a disinterested determination of the facts and a completely truthful representation of these facts once they have been found. His at the time completely neglected debunking of the “big lie” about the existence of WMD in Iraq and his unheeded Casandra-like warnings that invasion of that country would lead precisely to the unmitigated disaster which soon transpired represents one of the finest attempts to prevent impending mass murder in our time. In short, with his constant commitment to telling the truth, often despite all potential personal risks, Ritter is, like Manning, Snowden and Assange, one of the truly GREAT persons of this otherwise so duplicitous age. Although seldom recognized as such, especially by the hopelessly corrupted established powers, he is also genuine a true PATRIOT consistently acting in highest service to his unappreciative country.

    As to the article at hand, I read it too as a kind of warning, even if not so dramatic or urgent a warning as he has given us in the past. Please allow me here to comment on only one passage and ominous passage from the piece, viz.;

    “[The] second impeachment trial of Trump provides living proof that there remains a deep and dark divide between those who support the 46th president, and those who continue to support his predecessor—and never the two shall meet.”

    It would be very hard to deny the veracity of this claim, which alas now seems as obvious and it has become foreboding. Certainly it urges us to reflect upon the wisdom, or lack thereof, of the current proceedings in the Senate, the second trial of Donald Trump upon the charges enumerated in the impeachment document forwarded to the Senate from the House.

    I personally am to be counted among those who believe that this second impeachment is on balance a rather bad idea since with so much disunity and partisan rancor remaining from the last election, pursing another impeachment of the man, however deplorable his behavior, is most likely apt merely to poke around in the hornet’s nest of American politics, prompting the easily anticipated consequences.

    Almost equally unwise, wasting time and political capital on impeachment has already taken whatever small “eye on the ball” of this country’s enormous and urgent social problems a few of the Dems may have had and directed it instead unto a matter likely to have few significant consequences, and certainly no consequences of any significance to the necessary tasks of restoring faith in government among the many tens of millions of citizens, from all political perspectives, who have become completely alienated from all that transpires in the precious capitol of money exchanges for special prerogatives that is Washington D.C., nor for the closely related task of once again allowing the citizenry to believe that their “representatives” both understand which issues are most urgent to their constituents and have some coherent plan to ameliorate their grievances.

    One could argue, I suppose, that the longer the ever pathetic and treacherous Dems and their ever punishing and cruel Rep counterparts are engaged in something as irrelevant to the real lives of the common people as they now are, the less additional damage they are likely to do to the commonweal. I must confess I am not at all unsympathetic to such a view, and am in fact rather thankful that the last four years of the endless “Russiagate” hoax diverted the attention of both pseudo-alternatives of the oligarchic duopoly enough to prevent them from doing still more damage to the republic than they actually accomplished nonetheless.

    On the other hand, there is a substantial backlog of legislation, some of which is even relatively progressive, that still needs to be acted upon, and much more possible legislation, like, say, first and foremost, Medicare for All, which needs urgent action, but which, unfortunately will never be introduced at all by the current crop of cowardly Dems who are evidently tightly controlled by the most reactionary elements at the helm of the party. Thus it is very difficult for me to believe that the current highly provocative second impeachment will lead to anything good for the battered fortunes of the American people, or even just the corrupted politicians themselves. More likely it will lead merely to deeper resentments on both sides, deeper divisions in the nation, and a continued stymying of all opportunities to get us to pull on the same side of the rope to extricate us from this deep and vicious funk which many consider, not without good reason, to be the harbinger of the death spiral into social collapse.

    • bobLich
      February 11, 2021 at 17:11

      The ruling class doesn’t want us to ‘pull on the same side of the rope’. If all citizens worked together to abolish their control of society, they would be out of a job and the thrill of all that power.

      In my senior years I’m not a republican or democrat. I have watched the divide for so long and have watched how corporate news works it, it now seems like it’s all planned.

  5. February 10, 2021 at 16:09

    As always from Scott, a real progressive, great analysis and a great article.

  6. Peter
    February 10, 2021 at 15:45

    There are a number of aspects of American democracy and Americans relation to their constitution that, from an outsider perspective appear rather strange.

    The first is the American constitutions status as a sacred script that should be kept intact and resist change. In several other countries, the constitution is simply a set of laws that mere mortals changes as they see fit, although at a slower pace and after a more rigorous decision making process, than other laws. In this way, constitutions gets reviewed on a regular basis and can be kept up to date with reality; and most importantly – it can be read and understood by mere mortals and there is less room for interpretation, translating to less room for arbitrary acts and decisions in the political process. And, by the way – the temptation of political control over the supreme court is also reduced.

    The second is the role of special interest groups, a.k.a. oligarchs. Again, seen from a outsider perspective, this is a political system that, for it’s democratic process relies on massive monetary contributions for election & re-election campaigns. In many other countries this would be considered bribes to politicians in order to fundamentally influence the outcome of the supposedly democratic decision making process. It appears as if there are striking similarities in the decision making processes in the US and in countries such as Ukraine. There is even, from what I understand an expression for it – “Pay to Play”. Political bribes? Not at all, you have made it perfectly legal. This is naturally undermining the trust in institutions and the democratic system clearly visible in recent events.

    The third is the erosion of truth in politics and in the main stream medias. There is an interesting opinion piece on that in aljazeera.com: The feats, fiats and failures of American news networks, by Marwan Bishara.

  7. Pedro
    February 10, 2021 at 15:34

    It was not British “misgovernance” quite the opposite. They wanted the colonists to abolish slavery as they had in Britain, and to not expand west of the Appalachians and annihilate indigenous people there as they had east of the Appalachians. Parliament had to fight their own demons who were getting rich off the cheaper US cotton, as were the merchants of New York.

  8. Geoffrey Skoll
    February 10, 2021 at 15:16

    When was ‘America’ (I assume the reference is to the United States of) a democracy? And I don’t invoke the phony distinction in contrast to a republic. It was founded by owners and religious patriarchs. It established itself through genocide and slavery. It has been patriarchal from the beginning (‘patriarchy’ understood as a structural means of externalizing csts of social reproduction of the working class). I wil add that in perusing US national elections, the last time one was not rigged was most probably 1860. So, what has been “lost?”

  9. February 10, 2021 at 15:07

    What democracy? There’s nothing illusory about US politics when we accept the fact that we were never a democracy, that the threads pulling those farmers into war were those of the rich who benefited from these battles.
    I share with Scott in his hope and aspirations for a real democracy. I want what was advertised. Face it, that was not what we were sold.
    We were sold a “Bill” of goods. Even the “black and white” constitution we all want to love is but a slave document, amended up-teen times to make it more palatable, but never wholly digestible.
    Face it. The US government was founded to protect property. To that end it governs the people. Notice how the constitution disappears in times of “national security.” It is thus only used to control the people, not the government. Want democracy? Start over.

  10. Carolyn L Zaremba
    February 10, 2021 at 14:50

    Not all Americans are political babies, Scott. Many of us are fully cognizant of the machinations of capitalist and imperialist machinations of the government. How could it be otherwise when government panders to the markets and the ruling class dictates? That is inimical to democracy. As soon as the rulers of the corporatocracy feel the heat coming from below they turn to authoritarianism and even fascism. This has happened time after time after time. I for one do not depend on the mainstream propaganda media for my information about history, politics or current events. It is foolhardy to do so.

  11. EldarEldar
    February 10, 2021 at 13:32

    Dictatorship of the 1/2 of 1 percent majority where the whole 100% is controlled by corporate oligarchy empowered by PACs and SuperPACs legalized by sophist interpretation of Citizens United Decision.

  12. Piotr Berman
    February 10, 2021 at 11:32

    “The collapse of the Russian collusion allegations is, today, historic fact.” The memes that rule political life let me think about “advice expert Roseanne Roseannadanna”, SNL character played by Gilda Radner, but with a twist. RR would come up with some outlandish claim, but after several minutes of being challenged she would say “Never mind.” The twist has two parts: a huge audience is convinced. And in ten years or so it kinds of fades away, there is no “never mind” moment.

    For example, reasons why it was NECESSARY to invade Iraq (it seems that responsibility of Saddam for 9/11 was most durably accepted, after WMD were gently de-emphasized), subsequently the necessity of controlling Iraq and Syria, is still accepted as an established fact, although root causes became hazy, now it is more “There are nasty guys that cannot be allowed to win, and WE ALL KNOW that they are nasty”.

    Russian collusion as a reason to sanction Russia and purge assorted doubters from positions of responsibility (including “responsible media”) is still going strong, but more fresh piles of manure are continually supplied, so “Russian collusion allegation” will fade away when they no longer matter. Russians are nasty guys that cannot be allowed to win.

    • Jen
      February 10, 2021 at 20:56

      Just a minor quibble; I think you mean Emily Litella in reference to the Gilda Radner character, but point taken. Very rarely do media issue retractions for their ‘mistakes’ anymore.

  13. February 10, 2021 at 10:31

    The metaphor that Scott uses here is brilliant. The analysis that he uses however is incomplete. The real motor behind this, similar to the motor that drove the original Constitution in its original form and various amendments to it, is the heavy hand of the elite groups who shaped it. In this case, perhaps the body politic is split in half, but the elite is not – on which side are the media the intelligence agencies the Democratic majority and the leadership of both parties? On only one side is the answer. This tells you everything about the true nature of that which is described in this article.

  14. February 10, 2021 at 10:00

    There is no need for any discussion about what Democracy is or is not, we all understand how to count. If the result of the count is rigged it is not a question of Democracy it is a question of crookery, so why is the argument not about the lack of any sort of investigation into an election result which was quite possibly stolen? To have allowed those whom most probably committed the crime, as in “who gains”, which according to thousands of witnesses was evident, to take the victim of the crime to trial is absolutely insane. To have a film clip altered to suggest Donald Trump said something which did not, is absurd and the case should have been instantly dismissed. The next step along this road to serfdom is the anti-constitution attempt to seize the weapons of the people as the United States is being destroyed from within.

  15. Vera Gottlieb
    February 10, 2021 at 09:54

    Time to bring in more political parties, time to give the voter a real choice. Take a look at Europe where most countries have 3-4-5 political parties and in many instances a coalition is the governing body.

    • Anne
      February 11, 2021 at 11:57

      Yes – and if Germany (a third of our pop) can have c. 6 political parties, many of clearly distinctive purviews, then surely we can have at least as many

  16. Nathan Mulcahy
    February 10, 2021 at 09:39

    I agree with Scott Ritter: “…. and never the two shall meet”. I’d love to be proven wrong …..

    Beyond that, and contrary to common belief, I don’t see democracy as the goal. Rather, it is a TOOL (one of several) to achieve a GOAL which is to have a system of governance that works for the majority of the people. In that goal, this country has failed miserably.

    I also do not consider electoral win as the ultimate seal of approval for a government. Rather the correct metric is the expressed legitimacy of the government by the people it governs over. Here too, the country has failed miserably.

    No, I don’t have any patent solutions. But instead of getting mired in lofty rhetorics about democracy, it might be a good starting point to start thinking about the above.

  17. Afdal Shahanshah
    February 10, 2021 at 03:39

    The United States has literally never been a democracy. The idea that electoral politics, which naturally selects for the upper classes of society by default, is anything approaching democracy is an Orwellian inversion of meaning that occurred centuries before Orwell’s time. The Athenians who actually invented democracy understood elections to be oligarchic in nature, and so did the rest of the world acquainted with Aristotle’s writing on ancient Athens. For millenia this was understood–it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the fiction starting being peddled that voting for which people should rule over you is somehow democratic.

    • Anne
      February 11, 2021 at 11:55

      And then throw oodles of boodle into the mix you not only do not have a true democracy (not even one approaching the first recorded one in Athens)but you do have a profoundly corrupt corporate-capitalist-imperialist plutocracy…

  18. A Very Scared Person
    February 10, 2021 at 03:32

    The US is not at all a democracy. It is a factional plutocracy. I strongly suspect the US constitution was effectively abolished in 2001, as so many acts and policies since have contradicted it, in the name of security. US democracy is like voting on the cast of a reality TV show, but never the plot. Like discussing sports teams so much, we forgot how to discuss the sport itself.

    “Gilens and Page, 2014” study demonstrated that wealth and political power correlate, but the wishes of 90% of the people do not correlate to policy at all. No matter which party is in power, the majority have zero influence on policy. Zero. Studied over thirty or forty years: There is no democracy. There is a mere charade, to distract from the fact economic power – is – political power.

    Now here you are writing intelligently and with the best of intentions, yet still seemingly unable or unwilling to accept that all of your effort is within the context which has been inflicted upon us. You write within the narrative crafted for us, as if it is a real thing.

    The reality TV show has to end. Commentary on it, no matter how insightful, is simply a part of the show. Most of us are used to the idea of analysis, and eat it right up, but most of us have not yet analyzed events in the framework of accepting that there is zero democracy, and no constitution.

    After we abandon the old narratives of law and constitution and democracy in our analysis, we are just left with plutocrats doing things without empathy, or any consideration of ethics or the value of life. What remains, are psychopaths with power, taking action, and crafting a narrative to justify it via the PR department we call the state. The salespeople are elected, the policies of the plutocrats, are not.

    Voting seems a mere token of complicity, and an illusion of control, so… what are we going to do next?

    …asking for a friend… obviously.

    • lindaj
      February 10, 2021 at 13:10

      Dear Scared,
      At least you were not scared out of your wits. You’ve kept them about you and used them to eloquently question the foundation for Mr. Ritter’s analysis. Thank you. I obviously join you in your fear.

    • ML
      February 10, 2021 at 16:20

      Beautifully, artfully, and truthfully said very courageous person. Many of us feel as you do. And we are the many. They are the few.

    • Anne
      February 11, 2021 at 11:53

      Ever so true…thank you…

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