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Monitoring the Quality of US Democracy

Quality matters in all things. Quality of processes, Quality of controls, even the Quality of Democracy. After the January 6th storming of the US capitol, the weight of history demands we all take stock. (warning: contains politics)

Monitoring the Quality of Democracy in the US: Flaggin a Trend towards Authoritarianism

James O. Westgard, PhD and Sten A Westgard, MS
January 13, 2021

Prelude to a Screed

We know readers of Westgard Web expect articles and discussions to focus on medical and laboratory issues, such as the COVID19 pandemic that is again reaching a peak following the holiday season.  On January 12th, 2021, the US reported 229,603 new cases and over 4,400 deaths, raising the death toll to more than 380,000, hurtling recklessly toward 400,000.  In the week past, the average COVID19 death tolls was more than a 9/11 every day. And yet the pandemic is not the only crisis we face. 

The health of our Democracy is also in crisis. Given the recent insurrection incited by President Trump, which was also an unprecedented super-spreader event, there is a need to grapple with the challenges to US Democracy.  We can no longer pretend to be the “shining city on a hill” that provides an example of Democracy for the rest of the world.  Instead, we are a country struggling to maintain its own Democracy. 

We have reached a moment where everyone needs to be accountable. To have it on the record what values we stand for and what we are committed to. So we're here to let you know where the Westgards stand.

Read no further if you object to hearing political views.  On the other hand, you may be surprised to find we have strong feelings about issues other than quality. 

Reliving 2020

2020 began with an impeachment trial of President Donald Trump and today, January 13th, 2021 has begun with a second.  Trump has now won the distinction as the only President to ever be impeached twice in one term in office.

The first impeachment was over President Trump’s “perfect” call to Ukraine President Zelensky, where in exchange for military aid that was already authorized by Congress, he stated “I would like you to do us a favor though,” asking for an investigation that would provide damaging information against his Presidential opponent Joseph Biden. The House impeached, but the Senate refused to take the charges seriously, refused to call witnesses for the trial, and didn’t convict because, without witnesses, there was insufficient evidence. 

The second impeachment began on the 13th, as the result of Trump’s incitement of a crowd estimated as 8,000 supporters to riot and storm the US Capitol – which meets the textbook definition of an insurrection. Captured on television, January 6, 2021, will be a defining moments we remember forever.  History will record this as a pivotal event where the President of the US betrayed his constitutional duties by disrupting the counting of electoral votes by the US Congress in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joseph Biden as the new President of the US.  Prior to the riot, President Trump addressed his followers at the “Stop the Steal” rally by lying about a “rigged election” and exhorted them, “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.”  Earlier, Rudy Guiliani advised the crowd to deal with the offending electors with “trial by combat.”  Michael Flynn (pardoned former felon) had also urged that Trump supporters be the foot soldiers who would free the country and bleed for freedom.  This was the immediate prelude to the storm, but these same themes ran strong in social media threads leading up to the march. 

Recalculating Georgia’s Votes

It didn’t matter that more than 60 election lawsuits had been dismissed across the country, all finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud.  In addition, Trump had earlier urged the State of Georgia election officials to overturn its certification of votes. In a conversation longer than an hour, January 2, 2021, a conversation recorded, Trump asked the officials to “find 11,780 votes.” He urged them to “Get this thing straightened out fast,” and recommended “there is nothing wrong with saying that, you know, that you’ve recalculated.”  Such a lie is a normal for Trump; the Washington Post Fact Checker has counted more than 30,000 lies and misleading statements he has uttered while in office.  And Trump expects others to follow his example, like “Lying Ted Cruz” who embraced Trump’s lies by opposing the certification of the Electoral College vote. 

Reassigning Electoral Votes

This constant lying nurtured the “big lie” that finally challenged our democratic government -  the constant rhetoric about “rigged elections” during the campaign, claiming he could only lose if the election were rigged.  When Trump lost, he had already convinced his followers that it could only happen because there was widespread fraud.  More than 74,000,000 voted for Trump. But more than 81,000,000 voted for Biden. Nevertheless, the resentment in defeat has been building.  In the two months following the election, Trump spent time fanning the flames of (false) fraud and inciting his followers to action, focusing on overturning the Electoral College vote. He refused to concede, instead he continued to widen the divide in our country.  He made his followers believe they could reassign electoral votes or cancel the electoral voting to preserve his Presidency (they can’t, they didn’t). The January 6 riot was the outcome, an action that was predictable and had been predicted by many.  That riot should also have been anticipated by our government officials in Washington (in fact it was). It could have been prevented and contained with proper planning by the Capitol Police and Department of Defense (it wasn't).  It should also be noted that these rioters were handled with kid gloves compared to the force level deployed against Black Lives Matter protestors in the summer of 2020.  We are lucky the violence left only 5 dead.  It could have been much worse and it might be in the near future if there isn’t better planning to prevent violence at Biden’s Inauguration.  Keep in mind, this is not an event that has happened just once; the Capitol building of Michigan was invaded by an armed militia in 2020. 

Reckoning with Reality

These happenings were hardly surprising, given the rise of authoritarianism during Trump’s presidency.  The problem is not over, as many politicians jockey to appeal to Trump’s followers and will happily continue in that direction if they can ride that mob’s fury into power.  Many politicians are calling for unity, including those who fostered the current divisions and helped to foment the storming of the Capitol. But unity cannot occur without fundamental changes. 

The United States is not. There are now two realities seen by its citizens. When listening to the voices of the rioters as they tell their stories about involvement, they are clearly influenced by the right wing media, Fox News, NewsMax, InfoWars, Breitbart, Daily Caller, and OneAmerica News Network (OANN), where QAnon conspiracy theories are indulged and amplified.  There can be no agreement on what reality is without reckoning with the actual truth. That may not be possible as long as the right wing media continues to play the same tune.  “Fake news” has been another of Trump’s big lies. It serves the purpose of inoculating the followers against any contradictory news. Truth, in Trump World, is not objective. It is only what Trump wants the truth to be.

Reconciliation with Repentance

One of the astounding contradictions during this period has been the complicity of the Religious Right with Trump’s un-Christian character, policies, and actions.  Even after this week’s riot, Trump’s Religious Right supporters are rationalizing that it has been good to go along and gain a seat at the table, favorable government rulings, and appointments of conservative judges.  Likewise, Corporate America has, up until now, as Mick Mulvaney stated “signed up for lower taxes and less regulation.”  As a former White House chief of staff to the President, Mulvaney supported all of Trump’s policies and actions.  Then he became Ambassador to Ireland. This week he resigned his position because “we never signed up for this.”  Similarly, one of Trump’s religious supporters, Mike Evans, admitted that evangelicals are in a “Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment”  because of their alliance with Trump.  Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran minister who preached that real Christianity requires speaking truth to power and pointed out the consequences of not doing so: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching and forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, and communion without forgiveness.”

In that context, there must be accountability for Trump’s actions, rather than the cheap grace of just letting his term expire.  The other options are (1) for Trump to resign, (2) for the Vice-President and Cabinet to exercise the 25th amendment and remove Trump from office, or (3) for the Congress to impeach Trump for the second time.  Option 1 is extremely unlikely to happen. Option 2 won’t happen – Pence refused to invoke the 25th.  That leaves the third option, a second impeachment, as the most viable action to ensure there are consequences for Trump’s actions. 

Impeachment is actually be a good option for Republicans nurturing 2024 ambitions and thinking about their party’s future, as it could end Trump’s future political influence. A successfully impeached Trump would be prohibited from ever running for public office again.  It would also provide a second chance for Senators to demonstrate their repentance and become accountable for their earlier inactions, rather than enjoying the cheap grace of doing nothing.

For Trump’s many accomplices, there should be no forgiveness without repentance and accountability. There should be consequences for those 140 representatives and 12 senators who advertised (and raised money) their opposition to the certification of electors.  Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley should resign (unlikely) and be disbarred (much more achievable).  Mitch McConnell, headed now into a diminished role as Senate minority Leader, but he should own his long complicity with Trump.  Kevin McCarthy, the Minority Leader in the House, opposed certification both before and after the riot, then urged unity and now wants to avoid impeachment because it will deepen the divisions he himself helped create.  

There also is a long list of lawyers who should be disbarred, starting with William Barr, the Attorney General, who resigned just two weeks ago, and should include prominent enablers such as Rudy Guiliani and Sydney Powell, to mention only a few.

In the closing days of this Presidential term, we should also pay attention to those who received certificates of corruption, which is what we should truly call the Trump pardons, more of which are expected for accomplices and family members.  We already know about Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Alex van der Zwann, Roger Stone, Duncan Hunter, Chris Collis, Steve Stockman, Charles Kushner, to name a few of those officially certified as corrupt.  There is no honor in a Medal of Freedom given to the likes of Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan.    

Revitalizing Democracy

Timothy Snyder provides some guidance on preserving Democracy in a book “On Tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth Century.”   It’s a little book, but not as easy reading as his book “Our Malady: Lessons from a hospital diary” that I discussed in an earlier essay on “Untruth and Consequences” which considered the need for truth in relation to the quality of healthcare.

Snyder describes four stages of untruth. 

The first is hostility to verifiable reality, which is evidenced in Trumps ongoing, voluminous, continual lying.

The second stage is endless repetition, such as Trump’s “big lie” that the election was rigged. 

The third stage is magical thinking with internal contradictions. For example, the election was rigged and Trump lost, but down-ballot Republicans actually did better and increased their seats in the House. These representatives do not believe their own election success was rigged, just the election of Biden.

The fourth stage is misplaced faith, which is evident when you listen to those conversations with the Trumpers who stormed Congress. Faith has replaced facts to create an alternative reality defined solely by the “dear leader”.

One problem is how to stop the lying so that truth is knowable.  There’s no simple answer here, but let us suggest some small possible steps that might make a difference.  Turn off Fox TV and Radio; if playing in public spaces, ask that they tune into a real news program or the cartoon network. If playing by your friends and families, ask to switch to sports or music.  Read newspapers that have ethical reporters who check and verify their sources. Make use of your scientific perspective and investigative approach as a laboratorian to examine and evaluate information, particularly political claims. When you encounter propaganda, QAnon and the like, calmly and politely inform others that you don’t think it is true.  Argue the facts if possible. In your imagination you can punch them in the nose if all else fails – but in reality we must turn the other cheek. We cannot win by using mob tactics against a mob. We win when we treat others humanely, and awaken the humanity within them.

From a quality management perspective, there are serious process problems with the voting process, both to facilitate greater participation and greater security.  But it goes much deeper.  The gerrymandering of congressional districts causes inequality in voting that can render the actual voting process meaningless.  At no point in the last 20 years has a Republican candidate for the Presidency won the popular vote. (Remember that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote over Trump, likewise Al Gore won over George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Obama won both the popular and electoral vote.)  If we continue to see that a minority of voters can overrule the majority of voters, simply because of where certain state lines fall, faith in the election process is further eroded.

Despite it all, we are optimistic that these problems can be solved.  The current divide makes it extremely difficult, but our representatives in Washington can begin to do what is right for the country, rather than what is right for themselves.  This impeachment is not just accountability for Trump, it can be the beginning of the redemption of our political process.

Sadly, this really is US!

 During the past four years, as Trump’s actions became more and more authoritarian and more and more shocking, casting aside norms of behavior and government, many Americans have “gone along to get along”.  Many others have protested, “This is not us,” that Trump’s behavior, policies, and actions do not represent our country. 

It is time to admit the truth, that the last four years does represent a significant portion of the country, large enough to win the electoral vote for President in 2016, though not a majority that can win the popular vote.  Given the effects of gerrymandering to control congressional districts, a minority of voters controls the majority of our government. To maintain such control, it becomes critical to suppress the vote as much as possible, by “cleansing” the voter rolls, making it more difficult to vote (fewer voting stations in populous areas, creating long lines to vote, no time off work to vote), challenging any mechanisms that make it easier to vote (such as vote by mail, absentee ballots), providing misinformation to confuse voters, even threatening voters, all to minimize the number of votes that are cast and allow a minority to govern the majority.  This is the sad state of our Democracy, where control of power has become the goal, rather than serving the will and needs of the people. 

The effect can be most readily seen by Trump’s handling of the COVID19 pandemic.   As revealed in Bob Woodward’s book, Rage, Trump knew that the new coronavirus was a serious threat, much worse than the flu, but justified not being honest in communicating this to the public: “I want to always play it down.  I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”  And it was all downhill from there.  No face masks, social distancing, minimal efforts to isolate people and prevent the spread because that would affect the stock market, which was what Trump considered his most important measure of success (it isn’t). 

After the election, Trump made one appearance related to the pandemic where he claimed credit for the new vaccines, but also claimed that the approval of the vaccines was delayed until after the election -- so he would not get the positive attention he deserved. Then he spent his remaining time in office stoking the fears of what a new Biden administration would bring, rather than assuring the rapid vaccine distribution and inoculation. Our vaccinations are already behind, a vacuum of leadership at the national level, and a patchwork of state by state plans.

But, laboratory friends, we need not look outside our walls to find challenges to face …  Look at the CDC failure with COVID19 testing.  And the CLIA delays of LDTs.  And the early problems with FDA Emergency Use Approval (EUA) process The limited availability of personal protection equipment. The supply chain problems.

Here in our own laboratories,  we have many problems to address. 

But it is cheap grace to blame all our problems on the government and not hold Trump accountable.  

That's where the Westgards stand. Now you know.