The DemoThreat (DTUnit) Scale of Threats to Democracy
by Robert M. Herzog
I am convulsed by the agonies of our times. The assaults on common sense, freedom, dignity, and decency that erupt daily, whether you want to look left or right. The attacks on the US system of democracy, of facilitating the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities, is under assault. Feeling kind of helpless about what to do about it, I thought at least we could begin like any good therapy by observation, to measure the relative levels of the various threats. Take a look, and try creating your own score, and let me know what it is.
As a long time commentator on the intersection of US politics and culture, such as in my book Views from the Side Mirror, I think we are at a precarious time, and need to assess the nature and potential danger to our democracy. I hope you find this approach useful and of interest.
The Scoville Scale is a measure of how hot a pepper is. It indicates relative heat, based on how many times you have to dilute a solution of a given pepper until it becomes neutral. If you think a jalapeno is hot at 10,000 Scoville Heat Units (would need to be diluted 10,000 times before you wouldn’t register any heat), you might want to avoid the habanero, at 350,000 Units, or the Carolina Reaper, at 2.2 million. !!
We now are in a hyper hot era of politics, with little common ground among groups, and intense pressures on core democratic principles, to facilitate the will of the majority while protecting the rights of minorities. They come from what are labeled the left and the right, although those labels may be less useful now than those who a. generally believe and support the current US system, societal and cultural norms, or b. don’t.
Regardless of label, it’s clear that there are threats to the functioning of our democracy. In an attempt to classify them, not by political orientation per se but by level of threat, I’ve created the DemoThreat scale to measure the threats to our democracy and its institutions, from specific actions, events, trends, people, whatever is going on. I call them DemoThreat Units, or DTUs.
For starters, we can establish a range, with 1 being totally benign, to 1,000,000, meaning the overthrow of governing democratic institutions. Of course, the original Scoville Units topped out at around that 350,000 level, until ever hotter varieties were cultivated. So we may think we’ve seen it all, until we haven’t.
We can start with something notorious and obvious, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. While outlandish and outrageous, in and of itself it didn’t do anything structural or permanent. So let’s measure its baseline at 100,000 DTUs. You of course can differ one way or the other, and are welcome to your own interpretation. The revelations of the Jan. 6 Committee indicate deeper levels of organized threats on multiple fronts, which could increase the attack’s score.
The destruction of the Supreme Court as a credible arbiter of the issues before it, I would argue, is a far more profound threat to the essence of our Democratic institutions. Since Bush v. Gore, anointing the son of a President by justices appointed by Daddy, the Court has increasingly abandoned any pretense of judicial propriety. On virtually any issue of significance that has political implications, there is little doubt as to how the justices will vote.
With the complete loss of balance on the court, the roll call of decisions, on abortion, guns, voting rights, the power of money, will increasingly erode not only the issues addressed but the core system of checks and balances that was predicated on a separation of powers. The court has become a potent mouthpiece for a right wing agenda that represents a well-organized minority of the country with a long term zealous agenda imposing its will on a majority that lacks a potent political party to represent it and tears itself apart rather than unify against the gross threats it faces.
So, for the Court — 500,000 DTUs. Individual case decisions, such as Texas abortion, or going back to Citizens United, and looking forward to more purely political decisions, could range from 100,000 to 350,000. As for overturning Roe: !!!
A balanced assessment of DTU candidates would also include the grotesque absurdities of woke cancel culture. Denying people the right to speak, knocking people out of office based on accusations alone, a rigid orthodoxy that disregards open democratic processes while further alienating and emboldening a backlash — I’d put that in the 250,000 DTU range. With the chances they will breed hotter versions. Add another 150,000 for the impact of further diminishing Democrats retaining control of Congress, leaving us vulnerable to big points consequences of an authoritarian party consolidating its power.
Donald Trump? Mitch McConnell? The Republican Party? The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict? Denying climate change? How do you score them?
Universities cancelling speakers? Changing the name of a school named for Abraham Lincoln? Self-destructive calls to defund police instead of retraining them? Trigger warnings banning books and open discourse?
Create your own DTU scale. Share it. When eating a too-hot pepper, they say drink some milk or eat some rice to ease the pain. So think of ways to neutralize the DTUs. If not, we run the danger of becoming overwhelmed or inured to them.
Until we hit the 1,000,000 mark.
See my other works here on Medium, and PLEASE follow me here. You can read more prescient commentaries from the past 20 years about America, how we got to where we are and what we can do about it, in my book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon. I’d love to hear what you think about it. https://amzn.to/2H4SmDz. And more of my writing, fiction, stories, film and such, at https://www.thezog.com/ where you can sign up as well. Let me know what you think, and what you’re thinking!