A common thread has run through conversations I’ve had with several people appalled by the results of this election and the imminent prospect of a Trump Presidency, namely the assertion that our democratic “institutions” will somehow serve to protect us from the consequences of elevating a fickle, inattentive, autocratic personality to the pinnacle of our American government; that his despotic impulses can be checked or mitigated by our system of laws and structural impediments to the heedless exercise of power.
The problem with that comforting assumption is that our institutions have historically and necessarily relied upon an element of good faith and self-restraint by those acting within our two-party system. As pointed out in a disquieting article in today’s New York Times, the actions of a radicalized, thoroughly unrepentant Republican Party during the past eight years (and beyond) have cast real doubt on the continuing validity of that assumption. What that means from a practical standpoint is that with the elevation of an autocrat like Trump to the Executive Branch, Democracy as we know it to have existed in this country may be in peril, particularly if the country experiences a serious crisis.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are both Professors of Government at Harvard University. Having spent two decades studying and teaching about the fates of democratic (small “d”) countries in Europe and Latin America, they are in a position to recognize the emergence of economic, social and political conditions that have preceded to the destruction and dissolution of these democracies. The threat facing American Democracy in the wake of Trump’s election, they suggest, is a serious one.
The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a “litmus test” to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.
Despite having risen to fame under the glossy veneer of the entertainment industry, Trump as both campaigner and President-elect fulfills all of these criteria. And in fact the entertainment value of his candidacy which prompted the blanket media coverage he enjoyed, served to distance many Americans from what he was actually saying, which was by any standard of normalcy, alarming.
His encouragement of his followers to violently suppress those protesting his rhetoric, his refusal to disavow the extreme racists who loudly voiced their support, his innuendo and threats to harm his opponent and his casual targeting of the press all paint him with the cold certitude of an autocrat convinced of his own greatness and the inherent inferiority of groups and individuals who opposed him. Anyone who expected him to act differently after the campaign ended was quickly proved wrong:
This anti-democratic behavior has continued since the election. With the false claim that he lost the popular vote because of “millions of people who voted illegally,” Mr. Trump openly challenged the legitimacy of the electoral process. At the same time, he has been remarkably dismissive of United States intelligence agencies’ reports of Russian hacking to tilt the election in his favor.
Why did enough Americans gravitate towards this type of person to elect him President? The authors believe the answer to that question was the first indication that our institutions, such as the party nominating system and the news media—which we had grown to assume would naturally filter out a contaminant like Trump—could and would fail to protect us. And that failure in itself is a loud and clear warning to those who would trust in the capacity of our other “institutions,” such as the limitations on power inherent to our Constitutional government.
Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms. Like a pickup basketball game without a referee, democracies work best when unwritten rules of the game, known and respected by all players, ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation. Norms serve as the soft guardrails of democracy, preventing political competition from spiraling into a chaotic, no-holds-barred conflict.
The authors observe that these “norms” have been blatantly challenged, eroded, or repudiated by the Republican Party since the Clinton Administration and that this repudiation reached its apogee in the creation of the “Tea Party” and the GOP’s virulent obstruction to any initiative put forward by the Obama Administration during the past eight years:
House Republicans’ impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 abandoned the idea of bipartisan consensus on impeachment. The filibuster, once a rarity, has become a routine tool of legislative obstruction. As the political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have shown, the decline of partisan restraint has rendered our democratic institutions increasingly dysfunctional. Republicans’ 2011 refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which put America’s credit rating at risk for partisan gain, and the Senate’s refusal this year to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — in essence, allowing the Republicans to steal a Supreme Court seat — offer an alarming glimpse at political life in the absence of partisan restraint.
Holding the country hostage to ideology-based ultimatums such as refusal to raise the debt ceiling or refusal to nominate a Supreme Court Justice were not simple political machinations, but a deliberate willingness to put the fate of our Republic at stake in the pursuance of one-sided absolute power with no regard for the opposition or the people it represents. It is this type of willful disregard that has led to what the authors see as an increasing risk to all our institutions.
The abandonment of the norms of restraint and comity that have kept our country from descending into the dysfunction that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930’s has now extended to our state governments. We see it happening in North Carolina at this very moment when a GOP-dominant legislature is actively stripping the power of a Governor whose election they disagree with. This is anything but “politics as usual” and its end result is to further corrode our democracy.
The authors believe this wholesale abandonment of democratic comity and its enabling by the GOP will permit the Trump Administration to ignore and run roughshod over what we assume are traditional checks and balances built in to our system. From dispensing with the traditional role of the news media in favor of a didactic Twitter feed, to his “victory tour” and public rallies to inflame supporters, Trump has already displayed a willful insouciance towards any restraint on his power. And this is all before he has assumed the office.
Democracies also depend on both parties accepting the legitimacy of the opposition. This has been an attribute of American democracy since the 19th century, disrupted only by the Civil War. However the Republican Party through its media infrastructure began as early as the 1990’s to wage a systematic campaign to de-legitimize liberals and Democrats, a strategy which, again, culminated in that Party’s opposition to the nation’s first African-American President.
The risk that we see is the election of a President who feels himself unbound by democratic norms, coupled with a toxic political environment deliberately fostered by the Republican Party in which such norms have been habitually trashed and continue to be trashed in the name of political expediency. The authors refrain from examples but it is not difficult to imagine them, particularly after the drastic measures in both surveillance, security and intimidation of dissent taken by the Bush Administration and its media allies after the events of 9/11.
This is a unique and dangerous confluence that America has never faced before, one which the authors feel the Republic can survive, but one which, in the event of a serious crisis, could leave our democratic institutions in tatters:
It is less clear, however, how democracy would fare in a crisis. In the event of a war, a major terrorist attack or large-scale riots or protests — all of which are entirely possible — a president with authoritarian tendencies and institutions that have come unmoored could pose a serious threat to American democracy. We must be vigilant. The warning signs are real.
Hold onto your asses folks, its about to get real….no one ever wants to pay attention until it’s too late.