What We Can Do, Part II: Be an Institutionalist

9 mins read
US Capitol Building
Scrumshus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The original post entitled “Oligarchy v Democracy in the Age of a Pandemic is here.

People asked what they can do. Part I is here.

Warning: People often like my assessment of what went wrong, but dislike my advice on what to do about it.

I think we agree that our democratic institutions are being battered and undermined. By democratic institutions I mean courts (independent judiciary), laws, reporters (free press), elections, prosecutorial discretion, Congressional oversight, etc. I’ll include truth itself.

Trump is a literal wrecking ball. He has openly declared war on democratic institutions and batters them at every opportunity. (He calls them the “deep state.”) Recall that a goal of Active Measures is to cause people to lose faith in democratic institutions.

Whisper campaigns are just dangerous. By whisper campaign I mean campaigns spreading stuff like this:

  • All politicians are corrupt
  • There is no difference between the two parties
  • Democracy failed
  • Why bother voting?
  • There’s nothing we can do, and
  • We may as well give up now because it’s all over; we’re already in an autocracy.

There is a fine line between healthy concern that motivates people to get involved, volunteer, and do their part to save democracy, and despair-mongering and institution bashing that causes people to shut down and give up—and further damages institutions.

Q: So how do we counter a direct attack on our institutions?
A: By becoming an institutionalist.

Q: What the heck is an institutionalist?
A: It is person who likes (and defends) institutions.

I’ll pause here to tell you that I spent my legal career criticizing institutions. I’ve argued in court that prosecutors over-reached, that searches were illegal, etc. In fact, I wrote this book offering a critique of our criminal justice system:


As a progressive, my goal is to improve our institutions. Being run by mere human beings, they are flawed.

But what’s happening now is something else: An effort to destroy our institutions altogether. Most people actively undermining our democratic institutions right now would miss them when they’re gone. They don’t know what it’s like to live in a country that has none.

My husband and his family experienced the Pinochet dictatorship. From the experience of people close to me, I say to anyone who is undermining our institutions: Stop it now. Semantics matter. Words matter.

In a healthy, functioning democracy there isn’t much harm if a band of people go around saying “all politicians are corrupt” or “our courts are completely corrupt” or “we need to burn it all down and start over.” But right now, our institutions are under siege.

Many of our institutions are teetering on the brink. The more damage done now, the longer they will take to rebuild So we have to do everything we can to preserve them. That’s why “Defend Institutions” is #2 on Timothy Snyder’s list for how to fight against tyranny:

Apparently, in some quarters, “institutionalist” is a nasty name to call someone: I received this criticism from someone who claims to be on the political left:

“Swift decisive action” is very difficult in a system with so many built-in checks and balances.

In fact, it’s these very checks and balances that are slowing the Trump-bulldozer.

This person claims to be frustrated that his candidate didn’t win the primary. (I don’t think he’s really a Democrat):

(My preferred candidates so rarely win primaries that I suspect my vote is a jinx)

Biden won because more people voted for him in a free and fair election. To say otherwise is to deny agency to the people who voted for him, and to deny the legitimacy of a democratic process. It’s also naive about what a corrupt election looks like. My husband had to vote for Pinochet or suffer consequences.

The problem with democracy is that—in addition to being slow grinding work—we have to compromise and usually don’t get our way. Hence the appeal of autocracy: An autocrat always gets his own way. The autocrat doesn’t have to compromise. The autocrat can be a “purist.”

Steven Levitsky (co-author of How Democracies Die) explains that it’s best to treat this transition like an earthquake. There is much rattling and shaking as a minority party tries to hold onto power by attacking the very institutions of democracy.

The way to respond to an earthquake isn’t to put more pressure on the weakened structures. Instead, you rush to strengthen and prop up the structures so that there will be less rebuilding later. You become an institutionalist.

OK, so, how do you do that?

Get busy. Find a voter protection organization and join. Turn our anxiety and outrage into action. When courts made terrible decisions, say, “This was a terrible decision. We need to win the next few elections so that we can get better judges onto the courts.”

Don’t say, “our courts are so corrupt, it’s all over.” Semantics matter. If you persuade enough people to give up, it WILL be all over.

Remember: the GOP is fighting tooth and nail because they are a shrinking minority with an unpopular agenda.

This kind of question often comes from unrealistic expectations. Consider, for example, what would have happened if the Democrats had lost the midterms and the GOP held the House. For one thing, Operation Ukraine Shakedown would have succeeded, we would have never learned the truth. Instead, because of the procedures and institutions, the underhanded dealings have been exposed. Look at all the people who came forward to expose the deception.

The single most important “institution” of Democracy is Truth.

Things looked pretty bleak during the Great Depression, also. There was no minimum wage, no 40 hour workweek, workers who were injured were left to starve. There was no GI bill. Returning injured soldiers were on their own. Jim Crow was the law of the land. The Supreme Court had held that minimum wage violated the Constitution by interfering with the freedom to enter contracts. (If workers were willing to work for spennies per hour, the position of the Court was that was their business).

You get the idea. Someone asked me, “Have things ever been this bad in the past?” I don’t think that question has ever been asked by a black woman with a sense of her own history.

So yeah, we can do this.

If you feel discouraged, listen to Taylor Swift:

She knows the demographics are on our side, and people are angry and eager to vote these democracy-bashers out, so it’s just a matter of time. Swift knows how to turn outrage to action.

Originally posted on Musing About Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.

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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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