Much of the nation is concerned about the idea that Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment could be used to disqualify Donald Trump from running for elected office again. Although the argument is compelling, disqualification will not end the threat to our democracy.
Although this constitutional debate is important, there is another conversation we should be having because there is a more fundamental problem that strikes at the heart of democracy itself. The problem is not Donald Trump per se. Rather, the problem lies in the body politic. within ourselves.
American democracy will only succeed if we the people believe in it. In a March 2023 poll, 20% of Americans on all sides of our current political spectrum supported secession. This would divide the nation into two new states, one liberal and the other conservative. At first glance, a small percentage. However, this seemingly innocuous number represents 66 million Americans! Furthermore, an early August 2023 CNN poll indicates that 58% of Americans (across all political viewpoints) have “little” or no confidence that “elections reflect the will of the public.” When more than half of the players in a game are disappointed with it, how much future does the game really have?
Furthermore, the August 2023 poll also reveals that only 61% of Americans believe President Joe Biden is the legitimate winner of the 2020 election; 38% no. When nearly 4 in 10 citizens question the legitimacy of the elected president, the bonds of union can be easily broken. Among those who voted for Trump in 2020, 75% doubted Biden’s victory. In a two-party system like ours, the system will not work if the supermajority of one party does not recognize the results of democratic elections. A healthy marriage requires commitment from both partners.
Dismissing Trump would be a necessary, important, and precedent-setting task. We must have the rule of law and the Constitution must remain the supreme law of the country. But make no mistake: Removing Trump will not end this crisis. Even if Trump is excluded, a large portion of voters will not believe it is a legitimate process. Even worse, the underlying problem will not be resolved. As the Republican primary debate in August showed, there are others who share Trump’s authoritarian impulses.
The solution is not easy. Barring a 9/11-style external existential crisis that would reignite patriotic fervor, only ordinary Americans can solve this dilemma. We must return to respectable political discourse. We cannot rely on others, such as the media, to do it for us or even to lead the way. Today’s big media, with few exceptions, are actually corporations whose main goal is to make a profit, not to educate and inform the public. Dividing and hyping serves their advantage, as they bring in more ratings and clicks, which in turn means more money for their shareholders. No, we cannot assign responsibility to others. We the people must bear this burden. It is our democracy and only we can save it.
This means that we may not make snap judgments about someone wearing a MAGA hat or a Bernie Sanders T-shirt. This means that we must listen to each other, and not just wait for a moment to insert our own opinions. This means that we must remember that we may not have the full picture of a problem. Which means we shouldn’t avoid talking to our “crazy uncle” on Thanksgiving. This means that we must remember that politics should not be infused into every aspect of our daily lives. This means we must break out of our information silos and also receive news from outlets allied with the other side. This means we should resist the urge to share political news or jokes on our social media – make it social, not political.
In short, we must work to achieve this – just as spouses must work to maintain the health of a marriage. If this is not the case, the marriage will either be toxic forever or will end in divorce. Either way, it will be children (and their children) who will suffer the most, as our democracy will essentially end.
Michael Zalma is a retired Army officer and professor of history at Valencia College.