Democracy on the Ropes?

This is my weekly op/ed for newspapers in my 2:1 Republican congressional District, VA-06. February, 2018.


This is a dark time for democracy.

At this point, Turkish democracy exists in name only. The leader of the Philippines has unleashed extrajudicial killing squads. Democracy in Hungary and Poland has veered sharply toward fascism.

But the situations I’ve been wondering about are those in Russia and the United States, wondering: how might things have gone differently?

First, about Russia:

Around the end of the Soviet Union, it was worth celebrating not only the peaceful end of the Cold War, but also the end of the dictatorship of the Soviet Communist Party and the beginnings of democracy in Russia itself.

After a long, nightmarish history, one of the world’s major nations seemed to have a chance for a brighter, freer future.

But a decade later, the age of Putin had begun. Bit by bit, Putin extinguished the democratic workings of the Russian political system until, at this point, the Russian regime is a Kleptocracy, with Putin and the oligarchs controlling everything and stealing their countrymen blind.

Were the Russians doomed from the start – after their centuries of autocracy under the Czars and the communists — to return to their pattern of dictatorship? Or was there a real chance that Russian democracy might have taken root and thrived? (For years, I’ve wondered if different American policies and actions might have helped Russian democracy survive.)

Then there’s all the damage that has been done in recent years to American democracy.

Of the many points where it seems things might have taken a different turn, this is the one I’ve lately been wondering about: Was it inevitable that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for President in 2016? Or might it have gone differently?

Trump’s march to the nomination made him look irresistible, as if his rise was the inescapable destiny of the Republican Party.

But had there been a stronger alternative in the field, might it have turned out differently? Jeb Bush seemed positioned to be such a figure, but he apparently lacked the personal charisma to rally much support against Trump’s bluster and insults. Might, say, a younger Bob Dole, or a McCain or Romney — had they been unsullied by previous defeats — have succeeded?

Or was the Party’s fate sealed by the state of mind of that 40% of the Republican base that, from the outset, responded favorably to Trump’s presentation?

But whatever the “might-have-beens,” history unfolds but once. Trump did get the nomination and then – despite another set of might-have-beens – he became president.

And then, once President, Trump set about attacking some of the main foundations of American democracy: the press (called “enemy of the people”), the courts and, repeatedly, the “the rule of law” and the independence of law enforcement.

Meanwhile, we’ve become aware of how the dismal fate of democracy in that other Cold War superpower has been spilling outside of Russia’s borders. Not content to destroy Russian democracy, that former colonel in the Soviet KGB, Vladimir Putin, has waged an ongoing campaign to undermine democracy across the West.

Wherever Putin’s minions have attacked Western democracies — in the U.K., France, and Germany — the Russian priorities have been to aid authoritarian political forces, to inflame divisions within nations, and to undermine the confidence of democratic peoples in their political system.

And, of course, in 2016 it was America’s turn. All the American intelligence agencies agree that Putin’s regime attacked our presidential election “to sow chaos and discord in America,” and, specifically, to help Donald Trump become President.

Indeed, that is the focus of the central battle now being fought over the fate of American democracy: specifically over whether we will understand that Russian attack on our democracy and discover whether, to win the 2016 election, Trump and/or his campaign joined forces with America’s main foreign adversary.

That Putin’s Russia is our adversary is beyond doubt. Putin’s ambition, it is widely recognized, is to subvert the power of the United States, and thereby to re-establish Russia as our (more or less equal) rival, as the U.S.S.R. had been during the dangerous days of the Cold War.

It is unknown whether Putin’s efforts made Trump the winner in that close election. Regardless, Trump’s ascendance to the presidency has been a bonanza in terms of achieving Putin’s goal, with American leadership crumbling across the globe, while here at home the President is attacking America’s democratic institutions.

The Russians, having hit the jackpot with Trump, continue to employ their propaganda system to prop him up. Just as Russian “bots” promoted fake news against Trump’s 2016 opponent, those bots are now spreading to American citizens the bogus attacks on the investigation into the question of whether Trump joined forces with the Russians interfering in that election.

Helping Trump and his Republican allies deceive their base about the integrity of the investigation gives Putin a two-fer: both maintaining Trump in office and undermining the rule of law in America helps Putin achieve his goals.

Who would have thought that a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, instead of two robust democracies, we’d have one destroyed and the other on the ropes?


Andy Schmookler was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012, and is the author of a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at

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