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American society, not democracy, is under threat

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
In civil times, a rational debate should be between the values of conservatism and progressivism. These are not civil times. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/efa82157df01d33fad52bc497260d920/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
In civil times, a rational debate should be between the values of conservatism and progressivism. These are not civil times. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Media attention remains riveted on which party will finally control the House of Representatives and analysis of Donald Trump's announcement in light of the 2024 presidential sweepstakes.

But the most critical conclusion from the Nov. 8 elections has gone unnoticed. Despite throaty warnings that democracy was endangered, it was not.

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Far worse, it is American society that is under threat. The election was a seeming rejection of left- and right-wing extremism, with many of those candidates defeated. However, the underlying causes of extremism were not exorcised. That is the crisis and THE clear and present danger confronting the nation.

In civil times, a rational debate should be between the values of conservatism and progressivism. These are not civil times. So both terms have been demonized as "Trumpism" and "wokeness."

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Trumpism is defined as the cynical pursuit of power no matter the cost. Other criteria essential to good governing, such as bringing able and honest officials into government; abiding by the rule of law; and following moral and ethical guidelines are subservient. Perhaps most dangerous, dismissing truth and fact that do not conform to contradictory ideas is inherent to Trumpism.

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Wokeness embraces extreme social, political, economic and cultural views that demand bigger and more restrictive government to mandate public behavior. Big government then destroys individual freedom. This intrusion of wokeness is the greatest danger to democracy.

No matter the future of its founder, a substantial Republican base accepts "Trumpism," with or without Trump. Likewise, perhaps a similar proportion of Democrats hold "woke" cultural, economic, political and social diversity and equality views. But the majority of Americans are moderate and of the center. Yet, the center lacks the influence and political power of the extreme left and right wings.

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The roots of the problem are deeply embedded in American society. Coarseness has always been present, as have incivility, intolerance and revolution from the Whiskey and Shays' rebellions to the Civil War and today's spike in violence. And the 1887 Electoral Count Act and the state of the primary system compound critical domestic political vulnerabilities. In the latter, as few people vote, extremes in both wings usually chose the candidates.

Candidates who are insufficiently Trump or woke loyalists are vulnerable to being "primaried," meaning a rival is selected whose ideology conforms with these constituents. In the Republican Party, fear of losing Trump's endorsement has maintained forced loyalty. Democrats do not have such a polarizing or influential individual. But primary challenges are not uncommon.

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Since money has been declared "free speech," in reality no limits in campaign contributions exist, including for Political Action Committees. A lion's share of contributions goes to paid advertisements. Election consultants exact a percentage fee, probably worth billions, across local, state and federal elections. The financial incentives to maintain this system are self-evident. And "dirty tricks" are always present. In some cases, Democrats contributed to extremist Republican candidates to ensure a victory.

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Fortunately, most Americans have common sense. While perhaps 3/4 of the public see the nation headed in the wrong direction -- and President Joe Biden has very low opinion ratings -- clearly, neutralizing "extremism" in any form was an important factor in this election. Sadly, not all the "crazies" lost. However, the trend is in the right direction.

That does not mean dissent, strong, contrary views and free speech should or will be curtailed. These are vital to a functioning republic. But racist, homophobic and otherwise grotesquely insane arguments must be detached from the political discourse.

Is it possible to restore civility, tolerance and empathy to society? If the Republicans retake the House, based on over 30 years of mutual political animosity, will impeachment and other hearings to punish the opposition be in order as retaliation for perceived Democratic provocations? Can this vicious cycle be broken?

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The only solution is that both parties must do serious soul searching. Yet is that possible? Are the wounds too deep? Despite having lost in 2020 and in the 2018 and 2020 by-elections, Trump still holds too much sway on the GOP that is now the TOP -- Trump's Own Party -- until some RINOs -- Republicans in Name Only -- take it back.

On the other side, does Biden have what it takes to bring the Democrats more to the center? But one outcome is clear. Until conservatives and progressives regard each other with dignity, respect and civility, and not as Trumpers or wokers, beware: American society is at great peril.

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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