May 31, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Keep the (Democratic) Faith
Dinesh D’Souza's disgusting pardon may look like yet another reason to lose hope in democracy. But it's really the opposite.
Today’s announcement that President Donald Trump plans to pardon Dinesh D’Souza does more than “trigger the libs,” as they say. It tests our democratic faith.
D’Souza is a lying, thieving, and philandering sadist, much like the president. But unlike Trump, he was held accountable. In 2014, he was convicted for campaign finance fraud. He confessed to the charge. In pardoning D’Souza, Trump is not only saying consequences be damned. He’s saying justice itself is meaningless.
Here’s CNN’s Jake Tapper this morning.Harvard’s Laurence Tribe. The Times’ Adam Goldman. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. As I say, pardoning a confessed felon tests our faith in democracy. This is different from threats to it. We worry that liberal democracy is in retreat and that illiberal forces—in Europe, Turkey, the Philippines and the US—are encroaching on and in some ways replacing the liberal order that took half a century to build.
It remains to be seen whether that political order succumbs. But what we can see, right now, is a clear crisis of faith in democracy. On the one hand are large majorities of white Americans hardened against demographic change who snubbed democracy in favor of a fascist like Trump, who promised to “take back our country.”
I wouldn’t mind that development as much if I didn’t worry about another development, where a force strong enough to combat fascism can be found. I’m talking about the crisis of democratic faith among run-of-the-mill liberals, not progressives but velvety soft partisans, who believe justice must be served and no one is above the law. In other words, people who take for granted the American creed. Trump’s pardoning of D’Souza, as was pardoning Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby, is so transparently political, and disgusting, that no one can be blamed for thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that justice doesn’t matter, that nothing matters.
We’ve been here before, and just as it benefited the Republican Party then, it will probably benefit the party again. After Watergate, the United States experienced seismic spasms of doubt about the federal government’s trustworthiness. In 1960, voter turnout was 63 percent. By 1976, the first post-Watergate election, it was 53 percent. 2008 was a high point, 58 percent, but turnout has fallen since.
Watergate came on top of government lies about the Vietnam War and the subsequent implosion of the Democratic Party. By the time Ronald Reagan said government is not the solution to our problems, majorities already agreed. Even after Bill Clinton was elected, the cynicism endured. Indeed, it deepened after the first black man became president and after the worst economic crisis in more than 80 years.
To be sure, Watergate wasn’t the root cause of systemic distrust in government. Economics played a role. After 2000, millions of Americans jobs went to China. But that was a slow-motion hard-to-see crisis. What disgusted most Americans across the spectrum was witnessing the federal government bail out the same banks that triggered the collapse of the economy and disappearance of wealth only to be rewarded later with historic bonuses and no fear of being held accountable.
When Trump talked about a rigged system, he was talking about it being rigged against him (which was false). But that’s not what many Americans heard. They heard a presidential candidate say it was rigged against them, and they were right.
Why have faith at all? There’s no shortage of empirical evidence to justify abandoning it. But losing faith isn’t an option, because without faith, there is no hope, and without hope, there is no potential for renewal, and we must renew our republican institutions, our democratic values and norms, and the very idea of what it means to be an American if we are to survive. It’s really that simple. As I said, we’ve been here before.
In 1940, another year of seismic upheaval, another year in which the American creed faced internal and external threats to its existence, the philosopher John Dewey took solace in Thomas Jefferson’s democratic faith. He said people no longer believe in the “moral criterion for judging all political arrangements” or that “republican institutions are the only ones that are morally legitimate,” as Jefferson did. But we can’t endure without faith, Dewey said. We must take “the position Jefferson took about [democracy’s] moral basis and purpose, even though we have to find another set of words in which to formulate the moral ideal served by democracy.”
Faith, Dewey said, is a better defense against evil than evidence, policy, and law.
A renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than is demonstration of material success or devout worship of special legal and political forms.
So, yeah. Pardoning Dinesh D’Souza is disgusting. It’s yet another reason to lose faith in America. But it’s really the opposite. It’s a reason to seek renewal.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.