Stress Tests

Alan Zendell, December 12, 2020

Stress tests have been used ever since people have been building and manufacturing things to assure their safety and soundness. Would you get on an airplane if you didn’t know that every piece of the fuselage, engines, and hydraulic systems that keep the plane airborne and stable had been thoroughly tested and inspected? Stress tests evaluate the performance of every part of an aircraft down to the bolts that hold it together under forces that greatly exceed what they have to bear in normal use. That’s why planes don’t come apart seven miles above the ground.

The same is true for our cars and trucks, our phones and computers, our kids’ toys, the containers in which our food is stored and cooked. The point of stress tests is to determine how much abuse a thing can withstand before it breaks or spoils or catches fire. Our doctors administer stress tests to our hearts, our athletic trainers to our muscles and tendons. Without them we would have no confidence that the things we depend on were safe and durable.

We normally don’t think of our political systems in those terms. Designing and performing stress tests on a national or global scale is neither feasible nor practical. Yet, like every other system we depend on, they occasionally get out of whack if we don’t occasionally adjust and correct them. Planners and strategists use computers to simulate reality, but those models can only estimate how things might turn out. No simulation can accurately evaluate the strength of our systems.

Instead, human nature, competing ideologies, economic challenges, and forces beyond our control, like natural disasters and climate change impose the stresses that test our systems’ viability. Our Constitution did not prohibit slavery or define democracy the way we think of it today. It did not distinguish between an oligarchy and a republic directly responsive to the majority of citizens. It did not address the ongoing struggle for racial, economic, and gender equality.

Thus, we endured five years of civil war, a decades-long fight to assure that all Americans could vote and prosper, and a centuries-long debate over human rights and entitlements. All of those things represented ongoing stress tests to our great experiment in democracy, but hyperpartisanship and all-encompassing lust for power turned out to be the greatest threats to our nation. Not since 1860 has our republic been under the potentially back-breaking stress it has under Trumpism.

For many Americans, the struggle between the norms we’ve become accustomed to and the radical populism led by a charismatic, unprincipled leader like Trump has been a terrifying experience. We knew it would end this way from the first day of his administration. What a shock after we naively believed that the election of Barack Obama twelve years ago represented a kind of national maturation, a clear shift toward inclusion and a kinder, gentler future.

Trump, abetted by Roger Ailes and Fox News, revealed that our society was still fragmented by chasms. A shocking number of Americans were angry and mistrustful, feeling abandoned and left out by establishment politics. Trump’s deliberate strategy of divisiveness widened those differences, and the unregulated flow of misinformation and lies through the internet and social media, combined with our national epidemic of intellectual laziness brought us to the breaking point.

It’s happened before. The Civil War, the labor riots of the 1890s and 1920s, the Great Depression, Vietnam and Watergate, nine-eleven, all tested us, but for Americans not old enough to remember or who forgot their history lessons, five years of Trumpism have felt like we were careening toward the edge of a cliff without brakes. It was terrifying, and it was inevitable.

There will always be movements and demagogues who threaten our futures. Our democracy must undergo the stress tests they pose to keep from going off the rails. Without them, we cannot be confident our republic will survive.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court reminded us of the basic wisdom of our founders and reassured us that the integrity of our judicial system, the principal bulwark against the kind of chaos and anarchy fostered by Trump, is alive and well. A Court that many feared might have been polarized and corrupted by Trump proved what John Roberts wrote – there are no Clinton judges, Bush judges, Obama judges, or Trump judges. There are only very talented people of principle who believe in the rule of law, whose loyalty is to the Constitution.

When you step on the treadmill in your doctor’s office, you don’t know if your heart will survive the stress. But without testing it, you can’t have confidence in its strength and durability. When the test is over, you apply the results to lead a healthier life. Now that the Supreme Court has righted the ship of state, temporarily, it’s up to all of us to diagnose and treat the disease that has been eating through our society like a cancer.

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