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Opinion | Whoever the Democratic Candidate Is, Americans Have Already Lost


I watched the debate from a pub in Ireland. A man sitting next to me pegged me for a Yank. “Sorry about all that — screwed no matter what you do,” he said before the final minutes of the debate ended. I nodded, accepting his sympathies for my condition as an American during a week when it has been hard to be an American.

It is only when I am not in America that I feel my American-ness. From the moment that blue passport cover places me in a different line at customs, my citizenship speaks louder than my race, gender or religion. Maybe I had to watch that debate from outside of the U.S. to fully appreciate what was happening to us, Americans.

A survey of the political commentariat shows a consensus forming: Joe Biden is fighting the final rounds of a match that the refs won’t call but probably should. Usually, after reading all of the news and polls, I turn to the everyday political discourse, which often diverges from that of the professional political watchers. What should scare Biden loyalists is that this time, the two agree. Even the most die-hard Democratic voters can see Biden’s decline for what it is — an opening for Donald Trump to win his second presidential term.

A few days after that disastrous debate, the Supreme Court finally weighed in on presidential immunity. There is no other way to read its decision than as a signal that whoever owns the Republican Party also owns the power to break the law. Whether he wins or loses, Trump owns the G.O.P., lock, stock and barrel. I’m not sure the country has fully accepted what that means.

When the Supreme Court decision was announced I had moved on to Greece. Again, it felt like a portentous place to be as the United States moved closer to an autocracy than it has been since perhaps Reconstruction. Greece prides itself as the birthplace of deliberative democracy. As you walk through the ancient ruins, the biggest ideas to transform human society don’t look very big. The buildings where they were debated are crumbling. Modern development dwarfs what were once massive structures to Western ideology. Despite standing for more than 2,000 years, these relics of early democracy feel fragile.

Americans don’t build monuments as well made as the ancient Greeks built. The idea has always been that our democratic ideas are the real monuments. The statues and artifice of political memory should never be stronger than those ideas. Sometimes we have made our monuments cheaply, as if to say that having perfected the means of democracy — if not its platonic ideal — we don’t need to bother with strong foundations and materials.

But Greece is a testament to what happens when we think ideas are so taken for granted that they do not need defending. That small country is fighting its way out of a decades-long economic slump and years of political unrest. A nation that was so central to the ideas of democracy can today be described as politically unstable. Voters have lost faith in their country’s ability to hold fair elections. Political violence has become more common.

Americans continue to insist that Jan. 6 was an anomaly, but we are naïve about the strength of our institutions. Too many of us, academics and laypeople alike, rely too heavily on historical precedent to safeguard our electoral present. What a nation like Greece shows is that Jan. 6 is an anomaly only once before it becomes routine.

However poorly Biden performed at that debate (and he was embarrassing), debates are theater. However ill equipped the Democratic Party is to provide an heir apparent — and they are embarrassingly unprepared for this predictable eventuality — their dysfunction is not the clear and present danger. The Supreme Court’s decision on presidential immunity is a harbinger of not just the court’s growing power but of Democrats’ inability to mount a populist defense. This conservative bloc on the court reflects years of undemocratic political maneuvering, from Mitch McConnell stealing a seat to the political activism of Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas. Their decisions are not only codifying minority interests, they are a show of strength for a Republican Party that has no intention of ever ceding power to majority will again.

If you take your eye off the ball of democracy for any length of time, no amount of history will save you.

Americans have taken our eyes off the ball. I have not wanted to make that call. It is an easy thing to say. Too easy. Critical thinkers too often toss about pronouncements about the demise of democracy when they lose a political battle or just want to seem erudite. It can make professional critics sound like Chicken Little, always claiming the end is near until no one cares to hear our squawking.

But it is time to squawk. It is not just that my side — the ideas I believe in like bodily autonomy, economic justice and diversity — are losing in the marketplace of ideas. It is that many of the ideas that I believe in absolutely kill in the marketplace of ideas, and it does not matter. The majority of Americans want women to have access to safe abortion care. The majority of Americans want strong social welfare programs. They want affordable housing and safe schools and sensible gun control. My ideas are winning but our electoral politics no longer care about representing the winning ideas.

The post-debate analysis quickly devolved into a reality-show catfight. Smart people are placing bets on their favorite candidate for “Survivor: The POTUS Edition.” I hate contrived reality-show competitions and I hate this one most of all. Should it be Kamala Harris? Some other dark horse candidate? What about a brokered Democratic convention? How exciting!

Except, it is only exciting for people who won’t lose no matter who wins the White House.

As for the rest of America, it has already lost.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2022. She is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science and the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and was a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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