Democracy in America: Six Lessons to Live By in 2020

The start of a new year and a new decade is normally an occasion for reflection, but there is nothing normal about 2020.  America will decide whether or not to give Donald Trump four more years in the White House.  The choice voters make will be historic.  Quite possibly a tipping point.  What follows are some lessons, a kind of short course in civics that could make the difference between a desirable outcome and a disastrous one.

Lesson 1:  Normal Is A Public Good 

Norms are essential In a democracy.  Stable democracies thrive on norms and “normalcy”, like good citizenship and good government.

It’s either normal for elected officials to be incorruptible or democracy is a sham.  An “ordinary politician” is one whose public and private behavior is normal—that is in accordance with established norms.  We don’t expect politicians to be saints and we are fools to vote for them a second time if they turn out to be crooks.

President Donald Trump is not an ordinary politician. He is not normal.  He is extraordinary in all the wrong ways.  Extraordinarily narcissistic (“the best”), dishonest, venal, and self-aggrandizing. He will stop at nothing to get what he wants.  Winning is everything.

Trump habitually violates norms and breaks rules.  He does it out in the open. What you see is what you get.  No excuses this time around.

Lesson 2:  Partisanship Is Not A Public Good 

A tendency toward extreme partisanship is a major disadvantage of  a two-party system.  Partisan intemperance can lead to crippling polarization, gridlock in Congress, and the kind of policy paralysis inimical to political stability and national security.

Political parties serve such useful purposes as organizing elections and recruiting candidates, but partisanship as such is not a public good.  We are witnessing the damage extreme partisanship can do to the proper functioning of government and our standing in the world.

Lesson 3:  Leading by Example 

It’s something parents and teachers know intuitively.  But there is  one person in America whose behavior—words, tweets,  and demeanor—sets an example for the whole country.

President Trump is impeachable for setting a terrible example as well as other high crimes and misdemeanors.  He takes no responsibility for the bad behavior of members of his own inner circle and White House staff (think Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Rudi Giuliani, Stephen Miller, Edward Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry, among others).

The potential damage is by no means confined to individuals close to the President. The even greater danger is the damage Trump’s behavior is doing to the social fabric and moral character of America.

Lesson 4:  Power Corrupts

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”—Lord Acton.  Money is power.

Alexander Hamilton advocated for a “commercial republic”—in its extreme form, a self-contradiction.  As an ideology rather than an  economic theory, capitalism is anathema.  Unregulated capitalism is  absolutely incompatible with democracy.

Wealth has grown greatly in the decade just ended; one report in early 2019 found that income inequality is higher than at any time in the last 50 years. The 2017 tax cut further accelerated this trend. The personal wealth of American billionaires grew to the tune of $500 billion in 2019, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Everything in America has a price. Even Congress.  Without drastic campaign finance reform democracy in America is on the auction block and votes in Congress will continue to go to the highest bidder.

Lesson 5:  Civil Society Is Under Threat 

What’s at stake in the 2020 election cycle is the “civil” in civil society.  In his classic study, “Democracy in America” (1835), Alexis de Tocqueville extolled the civic-mindedness of the people.  “In the United States,” he wrote, hardly anybody talks of the beauty of virtue, but they maintain that virtue is useful and prove it every day.”  In another passage, he opined that “America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

In the absence of a political culture based on civility, democracy is unthinkable, untenable, and unsustainable.  Donald Trump displays zero civility.  He sets a terrible example.  He’s  the antithesis of the golden rule.  Mitch McConnell is his shameless apologist and enabler.

Lesson 6:  It’s OK to Change Your Mind 

We all make mistakes.  When we vote for a president, we think we are doing the right thing at the time—not just by voting, but by voting for the right man or woman.  We learn a lot about a president or any other incumbent for that matter by observing how they conduct in office.

As voters, our job isn’t done once we’ve cast a ballot.  In fact, it’s just beginning. It’s our responsibility to pay attention and if an incumbent, whether a mayor or governor or senator, is not acting in the public interest, not honoring his or her oath of office, then it is our duty as citizens to change our mind.  When the incumbent is the president of the United States, it is imperative because, given the power of the presidency for good or evil, making the same mistake twice can prove fatal for the republic.

If you voted for Donald Trump in 2016, for example, it does not mean you’re a bad person.  A lot of decent people voted for Trump.  At the same time, it’s not something to be proud of, given what we now know about his respect for the truth, for women, or his own staff, or, above all, for the U.S. Constitution.  What is not OK is to vote for him again in 2020.


Thomas Magstadt is the author of five books, including a college textbook (Understanding Politics, 12th edition) and a book on American foreign policy (An Empire If You Can Keep It: Power and Principle in American Foreign Policy).  Magstadt was a  Fulbright scholar (Czech Republic); former CIA foreign intelligence analyst; and taught national security and comparative politics courses at the U.S. Air War College.