June 20, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Fear ye not the loss of trust!
Democracy will muddle on. Same can’t be said of the existing order.
We inhabit a constitutional democracy. Whether it’s seen as liberal or illiberal, either way, it’s a democracy. Because it’s a democracy, there’s always going to be some person, some group or some party that does not like what’s going on so much that democracy, from their perspective, will always be in doubt.
Even the founders couldn’t bring themselves to trust democracy. Not completely. That’s why they built into it all these mechanisms that make the full flowering of a free republic pretty much impossible. Is there anyone who thinks that the Electoral College is not rooted in doubt about the people?
I can’t say I trust democracy either. Not all the time. Why would I? Why would anyone? Democracy can yield terrible outcomes, especially one like ours in which its founders built a system with all these antidemocratic mechanisms such that a lying, thieving, philandering sadist can be the nation’s president.
So before we get to any given issue at any given time that might raise any given suspicion about democracy, let’s first concede the truth – everyone in this country, everywhere in this country, in every time in this country’s history, has, at some point, had a reason to doubt the entire premise of democracy.
Before we get to any given issue at any given time that might raise any given suspicion about democracy, let’s first concede the truth – everyone in this country, everywhere in this country, in every time in this country’s history, has, at some point, had a reason to doubt the entire premise of democracy.
If you hear a dollop of annoyance in my voice, it’s because there are fellow inhabitants of this constitutional democracy who know the truth but pretend not to. I don’t know why they do this, though I have suspicions, but the impression left on the public is that democracy is an incredibly fragile thing – and that the only thing standing between it and chaos is the existing order.
Here’s William Galston, of the Brookings Institution, who knows the truth but, for whatever reason, pretends not to. “A constitutional democracy stands or falls with the effectiveness and trustworthiness of the systems through which laws are created and enforced. If you have fundamental doubts raised about those institutions, then constitutional democracy as a whole is in trouble.”
Galston was remarking on “the unprecedented nature of a federal criminal indictment of a former president compounded by the fact that [Donald] Trump has been charged by the Justice Department in the administration of the Democrat who defeated him in 2020 and who is his likeliest general election opponent in 2024, if Trump is nominated again by the Republican Party.”
This context, reported Post reporters Dan Balz, Ann Marimow and Perry Stein, has the potential of creating a no-win outcome for democracy. They wrote that “many fear that the 2024 election will not overcome the distrust of many Americans in their government and its pillars, almost no matter the outcome.”
Yes! That’s right! The 2024 election will not overcome the distrust of many Americans in their government and in their government’s institutions, almost no matter the outcome, because that’s the way things are in democracy. To fear something as ordinary as doubt in democracy is to fear nothing special.
Yet we are told we should fear it.
To be sure, no one alive has seen what’s happening. No one alive has seen a twice-impeached, twice-indicted former president split his time between the campaign trail and the courtroom. Few have imagined what might happen if he’s “convicted and elected,” wrote the Post reporters. “Could Trump pardon himself? Could he serve as president after a conviction? Could he run for office from a prison cell? Depending on events, those could become ripe for adjudication.”
Because we haven’t seen all this, all this is indeed extraordinary. “Not since the Vietnam War in the 1960s or perhaps the mid-19th century before the Civil War has the country’s governing structure faced such disunity and peril.”
But as it did after those crises, democracy will muddle on after this one. I don’t know how. No one knows how! In our history, however, we can have faith.
Democracy isn’t an incredibly fragile thing. Existing orders come and go, but our history shows that democracy muddles on. It shows that democracy keeps evolving, adapting, developing and changing into new orders of democracy. Will the new one order serve the old order? That’s a different question, isn’t it?
What I want to know is why our fellow inhabitants of this constitutional democracy, who know the truth about it, continue to pretend not to. Why are there people saying that we should fear the erosion of trust when trust, to some degree or another, by someone somewhere, is always being eroded? Why are we being told that “constitutional democracy as a whole is in trouble”?
Democracy will muddle on.
The same can’t be said, however, for the existing order.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.