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An Update on America's Brezhnev Years
A while back I wrote a post articulating an old theory of mine that the United States had long entered the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s years under Leonid Brezhnev. We are still a global power with lots of nukes, but a majority of people do not believe in the nation’s animating ideology. To quote from the earlier piece:
“For those who don’t know, Brezhnev led the Soviet Union in the years of its long stagnation and decline, from 1964 to 1982. He replaced Khrushchev, who held out the promise of a post-Stalin USSR able to meet the needs of its people and even surpass the West in its standard of living. The Brezhnev years exposed that false promise and failed to provide anything to replace it with other than stasis. Outwardly the Soviet Union looked strong, from its massive military to its space program to its bushels of Olympic medals. Underneath the nukes and May Day parades through Red Square, the rot had set in.”
Just as most Soviet citizens had stopped really believing in Marxism-Leninism, most Americans no longer really believe in democracy. The Republican Party has made denigrating democracy an article of faith, with “it’s a republic not a democracy” being one of their most commonly expressed mantras. The majority of the majority who are not Republicans may not be hostile to democracy, but they don’t believe in it in any meaningful way. At most, they express lip service.
A New York Times article last week got me thinking about this again. It examined recent polling, finding that most Americans (over 70%) perceive democracy to be under threat, but very few of them (7%) see its potential demise as the most pressing issue. This confirms my belief about the majority’s orientation towards democracy in this country.
Accepting that fact helps explain a lot. The political party whose leader instigated an attack on the Capitol to maintain power after losing an election, and who has defended that leader while refusing to call him to account and spreading his lies about a stolen election, is likely to make gains in the next election. If people actually cared about the health of democratic governance in this country there is no way such a thing could be possible.
Instead moderate swing voters are going to do what they always do: vote against the incumbent’s president’s party in a midterm election. They still treat the Republican Party as one of two centrist parties to alternate between, not as a vehicle for an extremist, anti-democratic right wing movement. If gas prices go up and the media keeps reporting on crime, they will vote Republican despite that party’s obvious authoritarian leanings.
I am tempted to blame this all exclusively on bad Democratic Party messaging, the Saudi state jacking up oil prices, and a news media completely unable to break free of their old framing. However, much of the deeper blame lies with the aforementioned lack of concern for democracy. Let’s face it, not enough people care.
The Dobbs decision is a case in point. The Supreme Court was rigged and packed with extreme conservatives to take away fundamental rights of bodily autonomy against the will of the people. Even voters in conservative Kansas overwhelmingly rejected outlawing abortion. Ten year old rape victims are being forced to give birth against their will and women are being denied care for ectopic pregnancies. It’s a pretty flagrant example of democracy being denied all so radical right wingers can get their unpopular agenda passed when voters don’t want it. Sure, plenty of people came out into the streets and protested and a lot of folks ended up registering to vote, but the party responsible for this will still win the election, effectively rewarded for this behavior.
The Democartic Party, whose leadership is actually older than the late Soviet gerontocarcy of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko, does not seem to have an answer. I tend to think Trump’s election was a massive blow, one that didn’t kill democratic governance in this country, but which has mortally wounded it. There was an opportunity after January 6th to drive his ilk out of the public sphere and to reaffirm democratic values, but that failed. Too many people just didn’t care enough. We are about to reap the bitter harvest of that ambivalence. As I said before, we all know what came after the rot of the Brezhnev Years.