Skip to content

Is US Democracy Dying a Slow and Barely Visible Death?

July 3, 2019

Ret. Col. Larry Wilkerson examines the dangers that Republican efforts to abridge voting rights and that Trump’s racist and violent exhortations represent to US democracy

Ret. Col. Larry Wilkerson examines the dangers that Republican efforts to abridge voting rights and that Trump’s racist and violent exhortations represent to US democracy


Is US Democracy Dying a Slow and Barely Visible Death?

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great to have you all with us. Many people worry that our democracy is in jeopardy— not from some potential military coup or some openly fascist takeover, but from an inexorable slide down the rabbit hole of perhaps our own Constitution. These fears have launched articles and books and opinion pieces and a whole industry, but especially since the populist victory of Donald Trump, and seeing the right xenophobic leaders elected throughout the office and throughout the world. In our democracy, some people are saying we’re going through a midlife crisis. Jan-Werner Muller proposed this in a Nation article. Perhaps we are constitutionally seeing our democracy dissipate before our eyes into an authoritarian state, as Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in their book How Democracies Die. We may all be shocked to learn that the word “democracy” is not found in any of our founding documents for this nation. And when you look at what especially the Republicans have been doing recently— the push against voting rights, refusal to allow Obama to fulfill a Supreme Court vacancy— alongside the rhetoric and actions of Trump that bring fear into the hearts of many, it should give us pause.

What kind of pause? Well, that pause we’re going to take today with Colonel Larry Wilkerson. He’s Professor of Government at William and Mary, and, of course as we all know, former Chief of staff for Colin Powell. Larry, welcome back to Real News. Good to have you with us.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Good to be with you.

MARC STEINER So there’s so many ideas floating out here about what this threat is and so I’m, you know—Your years in the army, your years working in government, you’re now teaching government at William and Mary, so how real is this threat? Whether you take the threat that some authors are saying, that we’re just sliding very dangerously into this place, or that it’s something they speed up, I mean, how do you see it?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON If you believe in democracy, as the Greeks and others have taught us what democracy means. And in my view, that means in essence that at any given time, on any given critical issue, or any issue for that matter, but critical ones especially, the people—P-E-O-P-L-E, as Lincoln said, “for the people,” “of the people.” [laughs] I think that’s the way he said it. I think that’s the way he said it. He didn’t say, “of the people, for the people, by the people.” He said, “of the people. By the people. For the people.”

MARC STEINER I hear you. I hear you. Right.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON That’s what our democracy is about. Well, what the founders wanted, as you pointed out, was a government for the landed, white male aristocracy. And the people could do whatever they wanted to under that government, so long as it didn’t badly interfere with what those white, male landed members of aristocracy wanted. Gradually over time we have bent that, molded that, and perfected that, and so forth and so on, to the point where we thought at least post-World War II that we were headed towards more democracy than not. I think you just in your opening hit on something that’s happening to us right now, and my party is the lead element in this happening that is causing us to move very abruptly in the other direction.

That is to say, whether you believe it’s plutocrats, whether you believe it’s a national security state, a deep state, a predatory capitalist state—And I happen to believe it’s all of those, which makes it all that much more dangerous and complex that it’s trying to take over. One of those or all of those are making a run on taking over, and I’m sad to say my political party, the Republican Party, is engaged heavily in some of that more so than the Democratic Party. I won’t let the Democratic Party out because, for example, guys like Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez. They’re owned by Wall Street as much as anybody in the Republican Party, but it is a backward movement if you believe in democracy.

MARC STEINER So let’s just talk a bit about going backwards. Before we get to Trump, which is obviously a target point in these conversations, let’s take it back a bit. I mean, and I want to posit something here even though you cannot define the present moment in terms of just pure history, or the history of our nation, or the history of the world. I want to try something out on you and see if you think if we’re even close to what my analogy is. So we had an election in 1876. Rutherford B. Hayes became president and in a minority of votes. And the Redemptionist Democrats in the South and the moderate Republicans, together, killed Reconstruction— which some would argue, and I am of those, was one of the great experiments in American democracy. It killed it, and we saw 90 years of segregation, and we saw 90 years of abject terror against black people in the South.

And so, now we have this modern era where one of the things that led to this hope for democracy after World War II was the push on civil rights, was the push for black Americans to say, “We want full rights in this country of ours.” And then, other groups, as well, doing the same thing. That in some ways set up a very threatening situation for a large part of the population. I think, spoken and unspoken, that dynamic could be one of the underpinnings to the threat to our democracy. I’m curious, A, if you agree or disagree with that, and B, what that portends?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I agree with it, largely, and I would point to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, as a quintessential example of the person who leads in this movement of retrogression. The white male fundamentalist Christian in many cases, but Christian nonetheless, who wants to hold onto power so desperately, that in seeing the reality of America—That is to say, that they are now outnumbered and will be increasingly outnumbered as time goes by. Why else is Trump so bent on stemming immigration? They see brown, they see other colors, they see other religions, other beliefs, other sexual orientations— you name it— taking over their country. And they are desperate to hold onto power and will use any means at their disposal to do so. And they harken back to the time when the only thing we got rid of with the 750,000 casualties, people dead in The Civil War, was slavery as an institution. We didn’t get rid of, as you just pointed out, sharecropping that would replace it. We didn’t get rid of disenfranchising anybody we didn’t want to vote by having guns at a polling place— and if you voted, you got shot— or having a test, and so forth and so on.

That’s the mechanisms that they hearken back to. With modern sophistication and more complexity to it, those are the institutions they’re bringing back— whether it’s poll taxes, or fright, get them away from the polls, or it’s gerrymandering. You name it. Any means legal and a lot of these means are because our Constitution is so ambiguous. Legal, in the strictest sense, but increasingly many of them are not legal. Donald Trump is the personification of that not legal aspect of it. Just look at how many things he’s done that 50 years ago, 60 years ago, we’d probably already thrown his ass out of the White House. [MARC laughs] This is incredible what we’re doing to ourselves. We’re ruining the movement that you just cited, post-World War II in particular, when it looked like we were moving towards a—What was it the founders said? A more perfect union. We are now trying to destroy that more perfect union in the name of predatory capitalism, national security, endless wars— you name it. The very complexity of the challenges might be in itself a strength for those of us who want to restore democracy because there are so many competing elements, all moneyed to the hilt, trying to defeat democracy.

MARC STEINER Well, you know, when this nation was founded—And it was founded by white men of property. I mean that we all know our history, and so people are very nervous about a popular democracy. Popular democracy came with a man who I’m not always so sanguine with in terms of what he did at all— Andrew Jackson, when he pushed that for working-class white American men. But those ideas, kind of, took hold. The question is, I’m very curious as to what you think. I mean, people will argue that maybe popular democracy can’t work. Maybe they were an experiment that failed, that we can’t actually do this. You know, even when I read Levitsky and Zablitt’s book on How Democracies Die, I mean, they write about very much that the solution is among the elite to govern things in a different way, which is to me akin in some ways to the founding fathers. So I’m just curious how you I think our democracy has fared, and can you have a popular democracy that actually works and grows?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I think you can, but you have to have a very carefully-crafted, educated elite— whether it’s a national security elite, a foreign policy elite, a domestic elite, a business elite, or whatever. First, you’re never going to do away with that elite because it’s human nature. You have to have that elite, but that elite has to be more or less majority at least, or a powerful minority amongst them, interested in the betterment of the whole, not just the betterment of the individuals within that elite. The second thing you have to have because we are a capitalist state, is you have to have a well-regulated business. That means you have to have a federal structure, a federal government if you will, that has all manner of interest and incentive to overlook capitalism and to ensure that it doesn’t go out of control. And that’s not adequate either. You need within the demos, mostly within the demos, but accepted by the elite, you need a robust, well-organized and powerful labor movement to represent those who only earn through their labor to balance the monopolistic and predatory tendencies of capitalism. You have to have all of that in order for democracy, the people, to prosper over time. Adams and Jefferson both very, very almost diametrically opposed intellectual men.

MARC STEINER Yeah.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON They didn’t think the people— the mob if you will, which is what Jefferson or Adams would call them— could ever govern themselves. They had to have an elite. Well, I think we’ve proven over time one of the most successful countries in the history of the world. We are. That you have to have all these things in balance. You have to have an elite. You have to have a labor movement and a labor organization. You have to have a federal government who looks over that organization and over business, and so forth, and is well-regulated. You have to have all these things. And basically, what we’ve done in the last 30-40 years is destroyed much of this, so that now all we have are these elites, these various elites, competing with one another to take over the rest of us. And now, we have an added element. You have robotics, artificial intelligence, and other high-tech means coming along for some of this elite who would like to do this anyway, to eliminate labor as a cost for business, and as those demos out there. We’re in a real trick bag if we don’t figure out again how to bring a balance to all of these things.

MARC STEINER So before we have to go, and I wish we had a great deal more time for this, but  maybe we can do a whole—When you come back from catching a lot of trout that I hope you share with us, [laughs] we can talk about this some more. But I’m really curious to explore just briefly here, your notion of “elite.” Because, and I’ll be very honest, when you first said that, my first inclination was to go, what? Elite? What does that mean? And juxtapose that with what Republicans are now doing across this nation to ensure that people of color and black folks in specific don’t get a chance to vote, or students don’t get a chance to vote. If they live in let’s say in Wisconsin, and they are not from Wisconsin, they’re not allowed to vote. I mean, so all these things are happening to overturn voting rights, which are also not inside the Constitution. There’s something about—The Constitution doesn’t tell us we have a right to vote. We fought for that right to vote. So I mean—

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON The Constitution is not a perfect document by any stretch of the imagination. The people who put together the Constitution, and the main pin on it was James Madison, my fellow Virginian, did not want to tie the hands of any future government in a way that they didn’t think— here we go— an educated elite couldn’t get out of, couldn’t make work. And so, they left much of the Constitution extremely ambiguous, subject to interpretation, and part of that is why we have some of the problems we have today because different elements of the structure are interpreting it in different ways. But at the same time, that ambiguity is a healthy thing if you’ve got very concerned, well-educated people in the elite who are interested in the betterment and the good of all, rather than just their individual aggrandizement of power and money. We don’t have too much of that elite today. Look at Pelosi. Look at McConnell. Look at Trump. Look at any member of his cabinet. Look at the people who run our businesses today. My God, you deal with them. I deal with them every day. They’re cretins. They’re not well-educated. They’re just cretins out there for more and more filthy lucre.

MARC STEINER I’m not going to disagree with that.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON You know, there’s some good people amongst them of course, but they’re overwhelmed by all the selfish, money-hungry bastards amongst them. You can’t have a society that way, democracy or otherwise.

MARC STEINER But, Larry Wilkerson, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I really do hope that once you take a breath, and have a good time out in the countryside in the mountains, that we come back and continue this conversation. I think it’s really critical as we approach this Fourth of July holiday that we think about what it means to be in a democracy and what the future might be with all that. And thank you so much for your time, as usual.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I agree with you. Thank you. Take care.

MARC STEINER We’ve been talking with Larry Wilkerson. And I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Have a great holiday. Take care.