We have arrived at a frightening place.
The Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a summary of classified documents which, they claim, proves that the FBI and the Justice Department served Democratic interests in their surveillance of a member of the Trump campaign.
The same Republicans initially refused to allow the committee’s Democratic members to release a rebuttal which accused the majority of spreading false and misleading information in order to undermine the Mueller investigation. They later approved it and sent it to the White House for review before it could be declassified.
For its part, the White House ignored the pleas of top officials of the FBI and Justice that release of the cherry-picked, classified particulars would gravely diminish their ability to protect the nation.
President Donald Trump himself boasted that the memo sealed his argument that the leaders of both the FBI and DOJ, Trump appointees, have acted “disgracefully” in their partisan attempt to destroy his presidency. The memo went public.
How could congressional members so blatantly put party above country, even at the cost of undermining crucial elements of the government in a desperate attempt to protect an administration whose likely collusion with a hostile power and whose willingness to obstruct justice is becoming ever more evident?
A president slandering his own law enforcement agencies, while refusing to enforce sanctions against Russia which the Congress overwhelmingly passed? What can account for such reprehensible behavior?
It stems from the demise of a civic conscience, the ability to see the world beyond self, family and party, to value the common good.
The major agent responsible for this pathological condition is the communications network of the radical right. Wingnut radio, television and internet have shut down the civic conscience of scores of millions by delegitimizing our core institutions of authority and information (government, universities, mainline religion, the press) and cultivating hatred toward “the other” (liberals, immigrants, minorities, feminists).
A civic conscience is the linchpin of a healthy republic. Without it, one fails to see the impact that the words and deeds of our political leaders have upon our nation and world; one refuses to discuss the lethal consequences of a country awash in guns; one fails to appreciate the basic constitutional obligation that our government has to promote the general welfare and the myriad ways in which the departments and agencies of the government do just that; one sees taxes as an evil, rather than as the revenue provider which empowers government to carry out its mandate; one refuses to embrace the fundamental reality that we are a very diverse people and we are the richer as a nation for this.
Diversity is in our national DNA, beginning with our Declaration of Independence. The first “self-evident” truth that the signers affirmed to anchor this new nation was that “all men are created equal.”
To say that we have struggled to realize just how truly universal is that phrase’s extension would be a gross understatement. People who have endeavored to claim that the phrase knows no limits set by race or ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation have been ostracized, imprisoned, killed for their efforts.
But gradually we, as a nation, have been brought to accept that reality, to the point that a man who identifies as African-American could be twice elected president. And that achievement, together with the legal gains that the LGBT community has made in this century, fueled the backlash against diversity and authority that Trump rode into the White House.
To the extent that we can nurture a civic conscience in peoples across this land, one that relishes the common good that government, the academy and religion promote, one that affirms that we are indeed one people for all of our diversity, to that extent will we be able to save our democracy.
That is both our hope and our challenge.
Robert Emmett Curran of Richmond is professor emeritus of history at Georgetown University.