Political Health

Strengthening Democracy’s “Gut Health”

Our politics is a battle of immune systems

A human lymphocyte cell. Source: commons.wikimedia.org Public Domain

Written by Joel Ombry and published in Medium.com

Strengthening Democracy’s “Gut Health”

Our politics is a battle of immune systems

A human lymphocyte cell. Source: commons.wikimedia.org Public Domain

One way I’ve been thinking about our current politics lately is as a battle of immune systems.

On the one hand, we have our democratic system that is designed with a strong anti-authoritarian immune system. Rebelling from a king, the founders designed the system to entrust governing power with representatives of the people and to separate that power among different branches of government with different governing functions. They codified citizens’ rights in a written constitution and set up a court system to peacefully resolve disputes.

On the other hand, we have MAGA which is designed to protect and promote the interests of former President Trump. I’m moving away from using the terms “conservative” or “Republican” to describe Trump supporters as it’s not descriptive of the current reality. Genuine conservatives exist, as do members of the Republican party that are faithful to that organization’s founding values and ideological principles. However, the current elected class and most media on the right is a cult of personality, where position in the power hierarchy is determined by one’s relationship to one person— it’s about Trump and Trump alone. They are MAGA.

Daily Beast columnist David Rothkopf’s characterization of MAGA in the wake of Liz Cheney’s loss in the recent GOP Wyoming primary, planted the notion of an immune system in my mind.

Source: Twitter.com

While I agree with Rothkopf that the MAGA immune system is effective at isolating and destroying truth-tellers within the GOP, the potential scope of that system is larger, and more dangerous than he suggests.

Liz Cheney’s loss marks the maturation of this immune response within the Republican Party, but it’s still an open question as to whether it will triumph over our democracy’s anti-authoritarian immune system.

The key is attacking accountability institutions

The true danger of the MAGA immune system is that it not only targets dissent within its ranks, it also targets the accountability mechanisms our country has in place against authoritarianism. Like our body’s immune system protects our organs and other systems from disease, our democracy’s laws, and political norms protect our institutions from corruption for personal and political gain. The MAGA immune system is in direct conflict with our democracy’s anti-authoritarian immune system. It’s a zero-sum contest, both cannot co-exist.

Writing about Cheney’s defeat in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent captures it well:

The true reason he (Trump) worked to oust her is to help secure absolute impunity for his crime spree against democracy — to clear the way to do it all again.

For Trump, the targeting of Cheney is very much about debilitating the institutions that are struggling to preserve U.S. democracy against his movement’s assault on it.

…it’s about disabling mechanisms of accountability that threaten to fully expose Trump’s wrongdoing.

Opinion | Trump just revealed exactly why Liz Cheney’s loss is so dangerous

After losing the Republican primary for Wyoming’s House seat by more than 30 points to a candidate enthusiastically…


Strengthening democracy’s “gut health”

Based on the above, the key question in my mind is “How do we ensure democracy’s immune system wins?”

Our body’s immune system is reliant on our “gut health” — the ecosystem of “good” bacteria in our digestive tract that helps us absorb nutrition and water and strengthens our body’s ability to fight disease. Through this lens, the question becomes, “how do we help strengthen our democracy’s ‘gut health’”?

I think it’s very possible, as does the just defeated Cheney in her concession speech from Sargent’s article:

“As we leave here, let us resolve that we will stand together — Republicans, Democrats and independents — against those who would destroy our Republic. They are angry, and they are determined. But they have not seen anything like the power of Americans united in defense of our Constitution and committed to the cause of freedom.”

While I’m optimistic, the threat is formidable. The majority of a major political party has gone authoritarian, while the remainder is cowed into silence. Democracy’s immune system also has a structural weakness that MAGA exploits — its insistence on freedom of speech and due process. Sean Iling, co-author of “The Paradox of Democracy”, notes,

“The history of democratic decline is a history of demagogues and autocrats exploiting the openness of democratic cultures to mobilize people against the very institutions that sustain democracy itself.”

Our democratic and law enforcement organizations can’t clamp down on MAGA arbitrarily and without due process or we become the very thing we oppose.

Supporting democracy’s “gut health” means strengthening our democratic institutions at all levels — national, state, and local — but particularly the latter two. Much of our attention is often focused on the national level because it makes for splashier headlines. However, as we learned in the fight over the 2020 election results, the state and local levels are crucial. This is where election systems are designed and operated, votes counted, and results certified.

Secretaries of state, canvassing boards, and other similar bodies are the institutions that determine democracy’s “gut health.” Each one by itself has an impact limited to its municipalities and states. But in total, they comprise our electoral system and determine the integrity of elections for every level of government. MAGA learned its lesson in 2020 and is now actively targeting these institutions. Election deniers have won nominations to these types of offices in multiple battleground states for the midterm election.

The best way to strengthen our democracy’s “gut health” is to ensure pro-democracy candidates, not election deniers, win these key state and local positions. This means voting all the way down the ballot. There’s a phenomenon in elections called “roll-off.” It is the difference between the number of votes for the “top of the ticket” — high profile races like president or governor — and those “down-ballot” — like secretaries of state, county commissioners, and election boards. The lower the “roll-off” number, the more people filled out the ballot completely. Our goal for the 2022 midterm election must be zero “roll-off.” A vote for the top of the ticket is weakened without a vote for the bottom.

I was talking to a friend recently about how to communicate this idea in a mail piece with limited space. “Fill out the whole frickin thing” came to mind. We’re still working on it.