There are three forces that have converged to subvert American democracy: bin Laden, Putin and the Mitch McConnell.
In 2004, Osama bin Laden told Al-Jazeera that “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” He knew that he could not defeat America militarily, but he could goad us into endless war. He explained, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”
The U.S. took the bait. Since 2001, taxpayers have spent $6.4 trillion on conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. Our defense budget has grown from $437 to $935 billion from 2003 to 2020. Al Qaeda has spawned ISIS. The US has deployed forces all over the globe to counter terrorism, while Russia and China have been resurgent.
The U.S. deficit has grown from $378 billion to $1 trillion (not including $2.7 trillion in COVID relief) over the same time period. There is no one who credibly suggests that the Middle East is more peaceful or stable due to U.S. interventions. There are few who suggest that the U.S. debt is sustainable. The U.S. currently faces its worst economy since World War II, and while the global pandemic is the proximate cause, Congressional profligacy in defense spending has made bin Laden’s vision prescient. Admiral Mike Mullen once said that the greatest security threat is our national debt, a threat that has gotten only worse since his pronouncement a decade ago.
The second force destabilizing American democracy is Putin. Putin, like bin Laden, realized he did not have to wage conventional war to weaken America. He could sow chaos and discord through a disinformation campaign via bots and troll farms. Putin has stoked racial division. He has sown doubts in our democratic institutions, including faith in our elections and our federal workers. Trust has declined in the intelligence officers that keep us safe and the public health experts that keep us healthy, not because their skill has diminished, but their credibility has been attacked by a foreign adversary. Putin interfered in our elections in 2016 and is doing so again today. Putin has helped pit the US against NATO and the United Nations that only strengthens Russia’s hand.
The third force that has subverted American democracy is Mitch McConnell. He told the Heritage Foundation in 2010 that his sole legislative goal was to deny President Obama a second term. Today, more than 400 laws passed by the House sit stalled on his desk. McConnell has perfected the art of obstruction in the name of partisanship.
McConnell’s unwillingness to govern has meant that Congress has not confronted Russian interference in our elections; enacted a national testing, tracing, and treatment program to protect Americans from Covid-19; defended our troops when Russia paid bounties on their heads; condemned Trump’s support for Pride Boys or supported the FBI’s condemnation of white extremist violence in our nation; or defended our nation’s top scientists, intelligence agents and diplomats from unwarranted attacks and retaliation. American democracy depends on people of good will, working together, to check and balance government actions. McConnell has demonstrated neither good will, comity nor balance.
To be sure, all Senate Republicans have enabled McConnell. Trump has blasted through the guardrails of democracy. But McConnell has failed as Majority Leader to uphold the Constitution and abdicated his duty to the American people. They call McConnell’s reign a do-nothing Congress, but he has done a lot of harm through inaction.
A juxtaposition of several polls captures the impact of bin Laden, Russia and McConnell. Congressional approval ratings have dropped precipitously from a high of 84% after 9/11 to just 21% approval today, reflective of McConnell’s nihilistic nature. Republicans who call Russia an ally has doubled from 22% in 2014 to 40% in 2018, an enemy bent on destroying America that is being embraced by an increasingly autocratic Republican party. Lastly, in the 1990’s, two out of three Americans were satisfied with our democracy; today a majority of Americans is dissatisfied with democracy as disinformation dominates and doubts deepen.
The decline in support for democracy by Americans runs parallel to the Republican attacks on it. Reagan’s salvo that the government is the problem gave way to Gingrich’s scorched earth politics which yielded to the uncompromising tea party to today’s Trumpism.
Simultaneously, a right-wing media has emerged reinforcing greater and greater extremes. Rush Limbaugh led to Tucker Carlson which led to Breitbart, Red State, and Infowars. Together, they fomented a right wing, white supremacist, nationalist succubus that is urged by President Trump to stand by, not stand down.
The lights to American democracy are flashing red, but we can renew our democracy. Leaders must do three things. First, we must realign our security priorities away from endless war to sustained diplomatic, political, and development solutions, and ensure that our government has the revenues to pay for the programs the American people need (that means more equitable taxation and programs that clearly serve the people). Second, we must deploy countermeasures to prevent Russian and domestic disinformation campaigns so that we can regain a public square with integrity. Third, we must, as I have written before, reinvigorate our democracy so that common purpose is stronger than political self-interest. Putin and bin Laden could not have planned a more perfect war against the United States, aided by McConnell. With resolve, America can build a more perfect union.