How Democracy in America Can Survive Trump

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835 that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Tocqueville’s observation, broadly accurate over the past two centuries, is facing perhaps its most severe test today.

In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy.” In 2018, Freedom House offered a more dire assessment: “[D]emocratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”

Declining participation and confidence in government are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics and institutions. During his campaign and first year in office, Trump’s core constituency cheered him on as he attacked fundamental elements of liberal democracy, including media freedom, judicial independence, and a pluralist civil society. 

What about the rest of us? How resilient is democracy in the United States, and how broad is its base of support? Compared with the situation in newly anti-democratic countries—for example, in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, where neo-authoritarian leaders have already succeeded in undermining the media, the courts, and civil society—democratic institutions in the United States may seem resilient.  

But this is cold comfort to Americans who know their democracy is ailing. Experts are divided on whether the illness reflects an ongoing struggle between liberal democracy and anti-democratic forces, or, more darkly, a long-term trend toward democratic deconsolidation. In my own research, I have reviewed the attacks on elements and institutions of democracy during the first year of the Trump administration, and assessed the evidence of resilience in the media, the judiciary and law enforcement, democratic norms and principles, the electoral process, civil society, state and local government, the federal civil service, and Congress. 

The Trump attacks are unprecedented, the outcome uncertain, and the stakes high. An effective resistance agenda should start with an understanding of Trump’s assault on democratic institutions during his first year, and how those institutions have performed in response.

DONALD TRUMP HAS GONE beyond previous presidents in attacking the mainstream media, undermining its objectivity, distorting truth, and proliferating falsehoods. The media response has been strong but uneven, and damage has been done. There has been a surge in investigative reporting, a rise in readership, and a slight increase in public trust, but by breaking norms of presidential communication and using social media to circumvent mainstream channels, Trump has mastered new methods of commanding attention, polarized the media, and attacked truth and fact. In addition, the Trump presidency has stimulated and benefited from the expansion of partisan media outlets such as Fox News and Breitbart, which provide echo chambers for the administration and project its unfiltered message to the Trump political base.

The federal judiciary is similarly under attack. Trump has extended his influence over the judiciary by nominating 77 judges in his first year, some of whom are unqualified and ideologically extreme. He has criticized the federal judiciary as an institution and individual judges for failing to support his agenda. Some federal courts have played a role in restraining the president from exceeding his constitutional authority and in defending the rule of law in cases involving travel and immigration, minority rights, environmental protection, and political gerrymandering. The long-term danger is that Trump-appointed judges will become rubber stamps for anti-pluralist and anti-democratic policies.

The most dramatic Trump threat to liberal democracy—and the most significant evidence of pushback so far—involves federal law enforcement. The president has sought to derail any investigation of his presidential campaign or his administration in connection with Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and he has lied about his efforts to do so. The fact that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has withstood these threats, at least so far, is evidence of the resilience of core institutions. Mueller has produced enough evidence suggestive of serious wrongdoing that another effort by Trump to fire or block him could well start an impeachment process on grounds of obstruction of justice. A constitutional crisis similar to Richard Nixon’s would be precipitated if Trump fired Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who, as acting attorney general, appointed him, but the situation would be more dangerous than Watergate if the Republican Congress refused to exercise its constitutional power of impeachment.

Other targets of the Trump presidency are longstanding norms of presidential conduct and the principles of transparency and accountability. Trump has appointed family members to sensitive positions, refused to release his tax returns, failed to meet conflict-of-interest standards and mixed government and personal business activities. This has created a growing public perception that the Trump administration is a breeding ground for corruption, favoritism, and further erosion of trust in the political system, as reflected in an opinion survey conducted by Transparency International in November 2017. Beyond these norms of presidential conduct, Trump has removed the normative guardrails of liberal democracy by denigrating rather than engaging his opponents—for example, by accusing Democrats of “treason” when they did not applaud his State of the Union address.

The Trump presidency has benefited from an electoral process that was broken long before the 2016 election. The Electoral College that propelled Donald Trump into office despite his loss of the popular vote is a dangerous remnant of the compromise made to protect the institution of slavery at the time the Constitution was written. Trump benefited from a 2010 Supreme Court decision that invalidated the regulation of political spending and opened the floodgates for wealthy individuals and corporations to exercise untrammeled influence over the political process. Despite these inherited advantages, once in the White House, Trump leveled a spurious attack on “voter fraud” and created a national commission to investigate it. His effort to disenfranchise millions of voters was resisted at the state level, and the commission was dismantled.

Trump has attacked civil society by stirring up racial and religious animosity, stimulating social and cultural division, and undercutting civic activism. His anti-pluralist statements have encouraged extremists, denigrated minorities, discouraged moderates, and increased political polarization. But civil society across the political spectrum has proven resilient, pushing back against Trump’s attacks on pluralism, reaching new levels of civic activism, and increasing political participation in off-year elections and the fielding of candidates for the 2018 congressional elections.

State and local governments have been a key source of resistance to Trump initiatives, particularly on environmental, immigration, and voting issues, with varying degrees of intensity along partisan lines. But some state governments have also promoted anti-pluralist politics, making it difficult for racial or political minorities to participate by imposing restrictive voting requirements and allowing partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts. There is resistance to these practices in the federal courts, where judges have struck down new voting restrictions and invalidated gerrymandering practices.

The Trump administration has decimated the professional civil service in many federal departments and agencies, promoting partisanship and undermining morale and efficiency, particularly in the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency. In the face of these attacks, some federal civil servants have responded by speaking up about policies with which they disagree, disclosing information about wrongdoing or the abuse of power, and resigning in protest. Despite these protests and resignations, cabinet members and agency heads have remained silent in the face of presidential assaults on the integrity of their departments.

As a result of political polarization and one-party control, Congress has not played its constitutional role in checking and balancing executive power during the Trump presidency. The Republican majority has done little to resist Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions and has spurned bipartisan consultation. A few individual members of Congress and some congressional committees have shown a degree of institutional independence and concern about potential overreaches of presidential power. Congress ranks lowest in public opinion polls on the level of public trust in government institutions, with a rock-bottom 13 percent approval rating.

WHAT LESSONS CAN BE drawn from the first year of the Trump administration about the potential resilience of liberal democracy in the United States? A key question going forward is whether the popular revulsion against Trump will focus on his assaults on democracy—or will spill over into even deeper distrust of democratic politics and government. How Trump’s critics perform in defending democratic institutions and dispelling this distrust will determine whether post-Trump America brings an era of democratic renewal.

Long before the election of Donald Trump, democratic institutions were in trouble and vulnerable to attack. For more than a decade, there has been growing discontent and a steady deterioration of public support for the U.S. system of democratic governance. Political polarization and differing partisan perceptions of government are the main contributors to this trend. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously announced in 2010 that his main legislative goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president, signaling that Republican obstruction and legislative gridlock would hobble the Obama presidency. 

The electoral process has been weakened by the influence of unregulated campaign spending and an increase in state-level voting restrictions and legislative gerrymandering. The result has been a weakening of public belief in the ability of the courts, Congress, and the Constitution to be effective in checking and resisting abuses of power by the executive, and a drop in the percentage of people who agree that the United States fully or mostly lives up to democratic standards.

Trump has exacerbated and accelerated the degradation of liberal democratic institutions. By repeatedly lying and manipulating factual reality, he has promoted the view that there is no objective truth. By attacking and insulting opponents, he has degraded public discussion of issues and politicized the institutions that are normally seen as nonpartisan guardrails of democracy. The federal courts, the media, law enforcement agencies, and the federal civil service have all been attacked by the president as partisan when they have resisted his agenda.

The president’s attack on the FBI in its ongoing Russia investigation into potential collusion and obstruction of justice is a case study of how Trump politicizes nonpartisan institutions and undermines the rule of law. Trump’s attacks have been aimed at altering the public’s perception of an agency previously held in high regard as professional and nonpartisan.

In response to these attacks, the institutions of American democracy have demonstrated varying degrees of resistance and potential for resilience. Those that have been most resilient, like civil society, are strong and innately capable of defense, while others, like the electoral process, have been weakened by partisan manipulation and are unlikely to be resilient unless reformed. The greatest resilience has been demonstrated by the strongest institutions, civil society and state and local government, and the greatest vulnerability by the weakest, the electoral process and norms of presidential conduct. Several institutions vulnerable to presidential attack, like the media, have shown significant levels of resistance, while others with inherent institutional strengths, like Congress, have exhibited little to none.

What makes some liberal democratic institutions strong and others weak? The history of American political culture has shaped a broad and diverse civil society with a tradition of political activism, often in opposition to government. Tocqueville pointed out two centuries ago that Americans make up for their skepticism about government with their commitment to civic engagement. Political culture in the United States has created a system of state and local government which serves to check and balance federal power, sometimes constructively, as over the past year, and sometimes destructively, as during the post-Reconstruction period and the civil rights revolution. 

At the same time, American political culture has created a weak electoral process, plagued by historical anomalies such as the Electoral College, multiple state and local jurisdictions, unregulated campaign funding, legislative gerrymandering, and state restrictions on voting. Presidential norms are vulnerable because they are not written into law and are no match for a president who overrides them. Congress has been badly weakened by political polarization, despite its express constitutional powers.

The most surprising resistance to presidential attack during the first year of the Trump presidency has come from four institutions with significant political vulnerabilities that make them ready targets for an anti-democratic president—the media, the federal judiciary, law enforcement, and the federal civil service. 

The mainstream media, as noted, have done surprisingly well, and could emerge stronger for Trump’s assaults. The federal judiciary is vulnerable because the president is reshaping the courts by exercising his power to appoint new judges, but parts of the judiciary have been resistant over the past year to the administration’s anti-pluralist agenda on immigration, minority rights, and partisan gerrymandering. Similar resistance to the president’s attack on the rule of law in seeking to end or control the special counsel’s investigation has come from within the Justice Department and the FBI. And the federal civil service, despite senior positions filled by political appointees or left empty, generally has maintained its professionalism and resisted the administration’s effort to denigrate its work.

It is too soon to tell how the institutions of American democracy will perform beyond the first year of the Trump presidency. Flaws in these institutions predating the Trump presidency have been exacerbated by Trump’s attacks. But U.S. public opinion continues to reflect strong opposition to concentrations of authority in the presidency, and this should provide a basis for continuing resistance. There is an opening for Democrats to mobilize public support in defense of constitutional norms and the rule of law in the 2018 congressional elections, and a surge of new Democratic candidates and court-ordered cutbacks in gerrymandering make it possible to bring about change.

The bottom line is that American democracy has shown a potential for resilience during Trump’s first year. When compared with other backsliding democracies where neo-authoritarian leaders—such as Orban in Hungary, KaczyÅ„ski in Poland, and ErdoÄŸan in Turkey—have destroyed the independence and functioning of pluralist institutions, the situation in the United States is better.  

HOW CAN WE RECLAIM and revive our ailing democracy? Building resistance to the Trump attacks is a good start, but it’s not sufficient. The Trump presidency is a symptom not a cause of what ails us. There has been a sharp increase in democratic discontent over the last 15 years. An October 2017 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe that political polarization and democratic dysfunction have reached “a dangerous low point.” Three years earlier, in 2014, a Gallup Poll showed that 65 percent of Americans were “dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works,” a dramatic reversal from 68 percent satisfaction 12 years earlier in 2002.

The roots of this discontent can be found not just in extreme partisanship and legislative blockage, but in the social and economic revolutions of the last 50 years.

The cultural revolution of the 1960s created a world of individual rights and freedoms, transforming democratic society by strengthening pluralism and minority rights. But a counterrevolution turned the struggle for human rights and civil liberties into an endlessly divisive battle, in which the resurgent racism and xenophobia of the Trump era are the latest examples.

The market revolution of the 1980s enshrined the market as an engine of economic growth and national and global development. It also drastically reduced the role of government in regulating the economy, cutting back social support systems, paving the way for the rise of new economic elites and growing inequality, and breeding resentment among those left behind.

The internet revolution of the last two decades opened the floodgates of information, creating unlimited opportunities for peer-to-peer communication and bottom-up pressure for change. But it also spawned echo chambers and communication ghettos, reducing discourse across political divides and increasing polarization. Fake news and propaganda in a digital world have mixed easily with verified facts, and have often been more powerful than the facts because they confirm prejudices.

Backlash against these developments has turned into populist rebellion on two fronts, fueling the rise of Donald Trump. The first is economic rebellion by people left behind by the loss of jobs and the shutting down of industries, new technologies of production, and the forces of globalization from which elites have disproportionately benefited. The second is cultural rebellion by previously dominant groups, especially older white males, who have felt excluded from a civil rights culture intended to rectify centuries of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination.

The resilience of American democracy will depend on its capacity to respond to the populist rebellion and build a democracy reform movement that bridges the partisan gulf. 

This will require an agenda of economic and cultural inclusion that can appeal across the political spectrum. Economic inclusion should be based on policies that spread the gains from globalization in ways that have practical impact and are highly visible, such as tax credits to businesses that provide on-the-job training for dislocated workers; trade agreements that include domestic measures to benefit population groups that won’t otherwise benefit; health insurance; public education; infrastructure support; and similar measures to promote economic fairness for everyone. Cultural inclusion should be based on policies of preserving individual dignity and group identity while protecting minority rights, and developing a new narrative of pluralist democracy as a political and economic system preferable to authoritarianism for promoting individual rights and economic opportunity.

Beyond the economic and cultural issues at the root of our democratic discontent, the reform agenda must ultimately address the structural flaws in American democracy. The electoral process and Congress are in need of repair, the norms of presidential conduct must be revived, and the principles of compromise that have been guardrails of democracy should be restored. Recognizing what needs to be done is the first step toward testing Tocqueville’s thesis about America’s “ability to repair her faults.”

WHAT DOES THE ROAD BACK LOOK LIKE? It begins with a return to the first principles of liberal democracy. In Federalist Number 10, James Madison described the pre-constitutional situation of democratic dysfunction in words that could have been written today: “Complaints are everywhere heard from our citizens … that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided … by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” 

To escape this polarized state of anarchy, factions had to be harnessed by a pluralist system of checks and balances, and norms had to be developed to promote conflict management through political negotiation and compromise. When these restraints were later destroyed during the Civil War and Reconstruction, they had to be rebuilt, spurred on by the Depression and two world wars. When they were overridden by presidents who abused their power, most recently Richard Nixon, they were restored by public reaction, which in Nixon’s case led toward his impeachment.

Can the Trump presidency serve as a wake-up call to stimulate the reclaiming and rebuilding of American democracy? Three things will have to happen during the coming year and beyond. First, in order to win back Congress, Democrats will need to build coalitions that reach across political divides, bringing together discontented voters who demand economic fairness and opportunity and reduced inequality, and who can be persuaded to put aside differences on social and cultural issues to achieve these demands. Second, Republicans who have facilitated the Trump attacks on democracy will need to be punished at the polls for their role in promoting polarization and obstruction. The lesson of Federalist Number 10 is that democracy is destroyed by political parties that see issues as winner-take-all power struggles rather than mandates for democratic compromise.

Third, the country needs new leadership to bind up the wounds inflicted on American democracy, by restoring the principles of negotiation and implementing a democracy reform agenda. Leaders who emerge from the 2018 and 2020 elections must restore the effective right to vote, limit the disproportionate and corrupting role of money in politics, rebuild public institutions that have been defunded and privatized, and find areas of common ground among white and minority voters on the role of government as the guardian and promoter of economic fairness and equality of opportunity.  

The next president must rebuild a functioning democracy, an effective government, and an equitable economy, while treating the opposition with comity and dignity. It’s a tall order, but as Tocqueville might have observed had he lived through the full tumult of American history, we’ve done it before and can do it again.

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