Malbreaux: Camelot and Democracy

Longing for the Kennedys and the days of America’s past glory.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 2/17/17 12:30am

In a 1963 interview with Life magazine, the newly widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy reflected on her husband’s days in the White House. “At night before we’d go to sleep, Jack liked to play some records; and the song he loved the most came at the end of this record.” The record she referred to was the soundtrack of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s broadway musical, Camelot.

“Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment that was known / As Camelot.”

“There will be great presidents … But there’ll never be another Camelot … This was Camelot … Let’s not forget,” Jackie Kennedy said.

The splendor of King Arthur’s fictional realm is comparable to the magnificence that described the Kennedy Era. Unofficially, it was America’s royal family, with its most prominent member commanding from the great white mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue. At his side was the gracious and exquisite wife, descended from a lineage of wealthy socialites from the Hamptons. Together, they symbolized an America that previous first couples could not. Their lives pointed to an optimistic vision of the future, a vision in which theories of exceptionalism were finally realized. In the Kennedy era, the American empire seemed to be an unstoppable force for good, yearning to bring peace and prosperity to every corner of the world.

Most importantly, though, America was the foremost exemplary democracy. The different parts of the system would work harmoniously to create equal opportunity for every social class and racial group. The postwar expansion period was the largest economic boom up to that point, with standards of living — even for blacks, women and the poor — rising across the board. Political capital slowly shifted away from the hands of white males, as social justice movements gave minority populations new voting power. And even in the fog of the Cold War, the United States still commanded a nuclear arsenal unlike anything the world had ever seen. In short, Kennedy’s empire was vast, prosperous and protected, just like the fictional Camelot.

But like any good fairytale, there is a point where reality begins to destroy the facade of perfection. The head of the world’s empire of democracy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963. Five years later, Robert F. Kennedy, his younger brother and a leading candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1968, was killed in Los Angeles, California.

Indeed, the American public (at least, some of it) reflects wistfully on the Kennedy days, especially since the current president is the antithesis of grace and poise. The office of the presidency is insulted, daily, by a man — President Donald Trump — who refuses to respect the institutions made long before him. He is a man who cannot comprehend the importance of the words uttered at the bully pulpit. Our president is now a man who refuses to even tell the truth. This is not just the deterioration of the president’s office. This, in all likelihood, is the degradation of American democracy.

Larry Diamond’s article in the Journal of Democracy best captures the threat facing Western democracy. He calls this new authoritarian trend “democratic recession.” Diamond describes an alarming trend in rate of global democratic growth. Around 2006, “the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt.” Since then, “there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119,” resulting in a decline in both “electoral and liberal democracy.” Particularly dangerous is that the United States lacks immunity to these global trends. Diamond cites legislative gridlock and polarization as signs of democratic recession, along with falling approval rates of Congress, low civic participation and low transparency around the impact of money in politics.

Diamond’s article was written in 2015, which means it does not account for democratic recession exacerbated by a Trump presidency. But if the past month has revealed anything, it is that democratic recession could very well turn into a democratic depression. The people whose very values and aspirations are recognized in a democracy must save the institution from demise. While the constitution provides a stringent system of checks and balances, if enough politicians form coalitions that dispense with the rules, anything is fair game. Republicans lawmakers remain relatively lax on Trump’s first disastrous month in office. They have not pressed him to release his tax returns, nor have they tried to discredit any of his outrageous statements. Obvious signs of potential conflicts of interest for Trump, notably his refusal to establish a blind trust, are blithely pushed under the rug. Even serious matters of national security, such as Michael Flynn’s communication with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., are not enough to merit serious investigation, according to Jason Chaffetz, the Republican congressman whose committee would lead any such investigation.

If America still longs for the days of Camelot — for the days of an exceptional America — it must first ask itself if it has reached the point of no longer being exceptional. American exceptionalism has become, at times, a partisan issue, making it harder or even impossible to discuss this matter. But one thing is certain: the current trend cannot continue. Unless Congress becomes serious about checking the executive branch, or people actually exercise their civic duty, then it is only inevitable that future generations will one day look back in sober remembrance of the “one brief shining moment” there was an America.