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Column: Our system is bending, but not breaking

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 7/3/2020 10:20:23 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 10:20:11 PM

This Independence Day comes at a time of great challenge in the history of our 244-year-old democratic republic. But amid the challenges, it is a good time to reflect on what we have not lost.

Many, I quite vocally among them, bemoan the president’s nearly daily assaults on decency and the institutions of democracy. The killing of George Floyd ignited a national examination of the culture and practices of police, along with the tenacious racism that has led to the ongoing physical and emotional abuse of Black and brown Americans. The caging of children on the border leads many of us to wonder whether we have lost sight entirely of the nation’s founding principles. Even before the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19, wealth inequality renders hollow any true promise of opportunity. And yet ...

The system is holding. While it is prudent to maintain vigilance against the authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump and many in his circle, there is no authoritarianism. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have drawn overreaction, but arguably less severe that the reactions to protests in earlier eras. Yes, too much tear gas, too many people roughed up, too many rubber bullets. But nothing like Kent State in 1970. And, unlike previous periods of excessive police force, this time there is a passionate national response demanding change.

While Trump blows his dog whistle and shares “White Power!” tweets, a remarkable group of women of color are leading vice presidential possibilities. While knee-jerk nationalism still thrives, Colin Kaepernick has gone from pariah to role model in many civic and corporate circles.

The mechanisms of government are still working. The recent Supreme Court decisions are not quite cause for progressive celebration, but they are signals of sanity. Chief Justice John Roberts may eventually pose a threat to abortion rights, but he has chosen a judicious approach to both reproductive choice and gay rights. Republicans in Congress are obstructive, but bipartisan efforts to mitigate economic catastrophe have been useful, if not ideal.

An unfit president talked about using the active duty military to “crack down” on protestors, but military leaders would have none of it, and his bluster had no effect. While there is some cause to criticize government officials who seem unwilling to constrain or expose the president’s behavior, there is also good cause to appreciate the long view: that civil order and a functioning government require discretion, loyalty to a point, and not constant political insurrection.

The president’s lies and preposterous tweets about “fake news” and the “deep state” are indeed the stuff of wannabe fascists. But it is all bluff and bombast. Despite his rhetoric and occasional threats of lawsuits or prior restraint, The New York Times and others in print and electronic media do remarkable reporting every day. A few reporters are insulted or kept out of press briefings, but none are arrested or inhibited from publishing the truth.

Trump’s ill-advised and uninformed forays into foreign relations are startling and dangerous, but our diplomats and intelligence agencies continue to function well enough to mitigate the risk. I suspect that we hear very little of the behind-the-scenes work being done to keep some semblance of order until the tweet-storm era draws to a close. We have not entered another significant conflict. The hawks who hoped to use Trump to advance their aggressive agenda have had their wings clipped. Misguided or corrupt deeds are being exposed by people who care about the country and world.

Republican efforts to suppress voting are disappointing, but the voting rights efforts led by folks like Stacey Abrams are likely to increase voter turnout significantly. For every negative force at work in the country there is an equal or greater counterforce.

It is a time to celebrate the prescient genius of those who envisioned a nation with an aspiration for liberty and justice for all. The balance of powers has not tipped precipitously, despite an executive branch that is temporarily defiant. The freedoms of the press and expression are not fettered despite claims of “fake news” and daily bullying from the bully pulpit. The justice system, despite the current attorney general, is mediating our democracy every day.

The brilliance of our system is that it is not rigid — it is resilient. Even under the considerable strain of an arguably corrupt and certainly incompetent administration, the country bends in discomfort but does not break.

Happy Fourth of July!

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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