Our democracy is a balancing act, deliberately designed that way. That’s why we have three equally powerful branches of government: the Presidency, the Congress, the Supreme Court.
The Constitution is also full of balancing acts. For example, the First Amendment allows freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition. You can talk about your cheating spouse, but not state secrets; you can be a member of a truly stupid religion or cult, but not if it endorses raping or killing people; you can protest in front of the White House but not on the White House lawn; you can petition Congress, but you can’t storm the Capitol after a disappointing election.
We’re a nation of laws that require balance, too. That’s why we have judges and juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
One of the reasons our democracy has thrived for nearly 250 years is shared values. They are not just written into the Constitution; they are the pole that holds us upright and steady through the constant balancing acts.
I’m talking about “Thou shalt not steal, lie, or cheat”. These are values derived from most religions, including that bearded guy who carried stone tablets down from the mount.
Previous American generations were brought up believing in those values. Today, in many ways, they are artifacts, like black and white westerns.
Sure, politicians have skirted truth on occasion in search of their goals. Car dealers have been smarmy since just after WWII when cars were scarce and buyers plentiful, so plentiful that dealers would promise them all a car and then play them against each other for the highest price. And crooks have always been crooks. But they were the exceptions.
Most people didn’t lie or steal or cheat the way they do now. We had Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, not Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. Our heroes were stalwarts of good ethics, like Superman whose “Truth, Justice and the American Way” was a source of pride, not cynicism. We trusted the media, banks, hospitals, schools, local and national governments, police, the courts, and other institutions.
That balancing pole of shared values enabled our democracy to move steadily forward, with the exception of those unbalanced years between 1861 and 1865.
Over the last few decades, however, the country has begun wobbling again, like a tightrope walker with a flimsy balancing pole.
It is easy to blame it on “He Who Rode Down” his personal escalator from his personal mount carrying his own set of values, which resulted in 30,000 false or misleading statements in 4 years, 3900 children separated from families, and 91 indictments spread over four jurisdictions, not to mention millions of smitten fans who support him despite his values of lying, stealing, and cheating.
But let’s not forget two things: one, the citizens of this country elected him in 2016 and might do so again in 2024; and two, the rejection of shared values started well before The Don arrived, or he wouldn’t have been elected in the first place.
When Nixon was caught covering up for just one crime, the Watergate burglary, the nation was outraged and Nixon, with only 20% support, resigned rather than risk humiliating himself. When Ford pardoned him, the nation was outraged again, to the point of not re-electing him.
Compare that to The Don and his willingness to fight two impeachments while President, and 91 indictments while running for President again with the support of 40% of voters, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight poll.
The same thing that put more guns into the country than people, the same thing that allows Comcast and Verizon, Amazon, Google and others to operate like monopolies, the same thing that has allowed Fox News to spew lies for years, the same thing that has broken trust in our institutions, from Congress to police to the medical system to public schools to the media.
A loss of shared values.
Which is why this great American balancing act is teetering, the pole of shared values twisted into angry knots.