How Democracies Die: Trump and American Democracy

Trump’s long-term effect on American democracy: How worried should we be?

Retired mathematics professor Doug Mudar penned the above-named essay Monday on his blog “The Weekly Sift.” Its careful analysis reflects a well-ordered mind schooled by the rigors of earning a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Chicago. Mudar begins with a partial list of just a few of the many things that are concerning about the current regime.

To say the above is banana republic stuff and that Trump is authoritarian and undemocratic is an understatement. Still, the government hasn’t totally collapsed and much of it is fighting back. So how worried should we be? Will we get over Trump or are authoritarianism and dictatorship near? As Mudar notes we don’t need to speculate as the research on this question has been done by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book How Democracies Die.

One of the key findings of this research is that laws, constitutions, and political institutions aren’t enough to protect against autocrats. Instead, democracies only survive if certain norms are respected—for example not denying supreme court nominations a hearing, misusing the filibuster,  shutting down the government or threatening the world economy with debt ceiling brinkmanship. As Mudar puts it:

The Constitution never says that the President can’t order the FBI to investigate the candidate he just defeated, that he can’t tell big whopping lies on a regular basis, or that he has to give the public enough information to judge whether or not he is corrupt. Those aren’t rules, they’re just good practices.

While a list of the norms that Trump violates would fill volumes, Levitsky and Ziblatt point to two essential norms:

  • mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals”
  • forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives”

Without these restraints, mutual cooperation if you will, the tit for tat will continue. Mudar offers a poignant example of where this could lead:

The 12th Amendment specifies that the sealed votes of the Electoral College are sent to the President of the Senate, who counts them “in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives.” What if the President of the Senate, with the connivance of majorities in both houses, simply miscounted the votes and proclaimed someone else to be president?

There’s no provision for dealing with that scenario — and with innumerable similar situations — because the Founders never anticipated that our political leaders would go that far. And they wouldn’t. Or would they?

Next Mudar considers that the old model of democratic breakdown, the coup, has been replaced by a newer model. You maintain the outward appearance of democracy but attack voting rights, political rivals, journalists, and media that doesn’t spout the party line. To better explain all this Levitsky and Ziblatt use a soccer analogy to show how an elected president becomes an autocrat:

  • Capture the referees. In other words, get your people in charge of the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Anyone who used to be a neutral arbiter must become your partisan. You can do this in the judiciary, for example, by expanding the size of the Supreme Court and appointing your people to the new positions (as Roosevelt tried to do), or by impeaching judges who rule against you (as the Republican-controlled legislature is trying to do in Pennsylvania). (In North Carolina, the gerrymandered Republican majority in the legislature has done court-packing in reverse: It shrunk the size of the State Court of Appeals to prevent the new Democratic governor from filling the open seats.)
  • Sideline star players on the other side. “Opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and … religious or other cultural figures” are “sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.” With the referees already in your pocket, the carrots of government contracts and positions, or the sticks of ruinous regulations, taxes, and prosecutions can hollow out the institutions that otherwise might channel public opinion against you.
  • Rewrite the rules in your favor. We were already seeing a lot of rule-rewriting on the state level prior to Trump: Gerrymandering and voter suppression have locked in large Republican majorities in states (like North Carolina) where the voters are more-or-less evenly split between the parties. In last November’s election in Virginia, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates won the popular vote 53%-44%, but Republicans maintained a 51-49 majority. Combining a biased legal system with a lifetime ban on felon voting (as in Florida, where the Sentencing Project estimates that 20% of adult blacks can’t vote) can sideline a large chunk of the opposition electorate. In countries like Russia, field-tilting rules make it difficult for new parties to form, for genuine opposition candidates to get on the ballot, or for opposition voices to get their message out.

Once all this has transpired an autocrat can act with impunity without secret police and gulags. Of course, this takes time and while he is corrupting some referees others are standing up to oppose him. We might also get lucky that the aspiring dictator isn’t very talented or adept at taking control—as is the case with Trump. Hopefully, Trump will leave peacefully and we will enact new measures to protect ourselves in the future— forcing candidates to release their tax returns, divest from their companies, etc.

Mudar also gives a warning about a dystopian future:

So far, democracy has been protected by two main forces: The so-called “Deep State” (i.e., career government officials who are more committed to the missions of their organizations than to the orders they receive from the White House) and Trump’s overall unpopularity.

So, for example, career prosecutors — even if they are Republicans — have not been willing to sacrifice their integrity by manufacturing a case against Hillary Clinton, or ignoring evidence against Trump himself, just because he tweets that they should. Career EPA officials are refusing to become pawns of the fossil fuel industry no matter how much Scott Pruitt wants them to. Career economists at the Treasury didn’t concoct a bogus tax-cuts-pay-themselves analysis just because Steve Mnunchin promised they would.

That’s the Deep State in action: It’s not a conspiracy masterminded by some shadowy cabal. It’s the professional integrity of people who believe that their jobs mean more than just a paycheck or their bosses’ approval …

That’s both its strength and its weakness. You can’t kill the Deep State just by finding its leader and bribing, threatening, or imprisoning him or her. But conversely, it has no sense of strategy. It is made up of individuals, and individuals can be worn down. The Deep State has held its own for a little over a year, but can it hold for four years or eight?

But what if Trump got to replace one or two of the liberals on the Supreme Court or his popularity increased? It’s easy to imagine democracy crumbling altogether if:

the economy stays strong, the country avoids any new shooting wars or trade wars, and Trump’s victims — immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. — remain isolated. Much of the country then starts to say, “What was all that alarmism about?” When Jim Comey or Andrew McCabe winds up in jail, it seems like a one-off case rather than an assault on law enforcement.

Mudar thinks this will all come to a head in 2018. The outcome will depend on many factors including whether Democrats stay united against Trump, regain power despite gerrymandering and start to reestablish democratic norms. It also depends on whether Republicans will come to understand what is at stake and join the resistance or at least not oppose it. Mudar concludes with a chilling warning:

Long term, both parties need to figure out how to strengthen the norms of forbearance and tolerance, which were in trouble long before Trump arrived on the scene. Unless we can re-establish them, getting past Trump will not solve our problems. His failure, if it happens, might simply be a training example for new and better demagogues.

2 thoughts on “How Democracies Die: Trump and American Democracy

  1. Excellent article!

    I discovered something from my Hungarian-Foreign Words’ dictionary which is very important in grasping what democracy was always meant to be and never was.

    According to Paul Ehrlich-and I wholeheartedly agree- what we have is ‘kakistocracy’, the rule by the ignorant, not democracy.

    The sacked FBI boss, Comey, called the Trump rule such, too.

    So, what is true democracy?

    The popular definition is that it is the rule of the people, for the people, by the people.
    Such never existed, but even if it did, it would not necessarily be democracy.

    Such rule is only a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy to exist.
    The popular misconception is that democracy is the rule by ‘demos’, that is the people.

    But what I discovered is that to have a democracy in the Greek original definition, there is another necessary condition.

    That condition is called ‘demo’ in Greek.
    ‘Demo’ means ‘to build’.
    So it is not enough to have a rule by the people; they have to build something.

    To build what?

    This is where deciphering the ancient Hugarian wisdom comes handy.

    Chronologically Hungarian pre-historical wisdom, in which the Hungarian language was born, is much older than the the so called Greek ancient wisdom.

    According to Hungarian, the verb ‘to build’ means to make ‘immaculate’ or ‘flawless’.
    So, in this sense the only governance which we could call democracy would be one that aims for the freedom of everybody through systematically pursuing something like the relisation of The Declaration of Universal Human Rights.

    Show me one single democracy that does so.

    Such democracy would also be identical with what Marx defined as ‘communism’
    Again, one that has NEVER eventuated.
    One, that is:

    ‘An association where the free development of every individual is the condition for the free development of all.’
    Until we achieve this, we can only talk about kakistocracy not democracy!

  2. thanks for this. I always appreciate your insights. Agree with most of what you say. As for the best countries, the ones closest to true democracy, they are no doubt the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, New Zealand and a few others.

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