Those of us brought up to respect rational problem solving, see how polarization and resulting extremism has eroded US democracy. This deterioration preceded Trump, but Trump’s lack of respect for democratic norms of behavior has accelerated the risks to our democratic institutions.
To better understand the risks, this book, “How Democracies Die”, by Harvard experts Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a great guide. They provide a guide to how democracies around the world have been subverted within recent decades, without military coups, by democratically elected authoritarian leaders.
In example after example, they show how violations of democratic norms, without violations of laws, damage democratic guardrails such as a free press and an independent judiciary. Once those guardrails are damaged, those responsible are better able to revise laws and institutions to maim or kill democracy in their countries.
After providing international examples of how democracies were subverted (Chavez in Venezuela, Orban in Hungary, Fujimora in Peru and others), the authors examine “guardrails of democracy” in the US, explain how some of these have already deteriorated prior to Trump, and then explain how Trump’s authoritarian actions pose an unprecedented threat to remaining guardrails. The erosion of these guardrails, which started in the 1970’s with (ironically) reforms to the party primary systems and resulted in the polarization of both parties, accelerated in the 1990’s. Trump accelerates the erosion through his attacks on basic democratic norms, as explained below.
As I interview Trump supporters, I ask them if the President’s constant lying bothers them. (Take a listen to the interviews from Trump supporters in this blog.) The disturbing answer is that they are not bothered by his lying. (This includes Christians.) They believe all politicians lie and that the media lies (“fake news”). They admit that Trump is more obnoxious than most. When presented with examples of Trump’s serial lying, which go beyond previous political norms by any objective measure, they don’t deny that it occurs, but shrug it off with various excuses (“he doesn’t mean it”, etc.)
More significantly, they do not recognize the threat that Trump’s disregard of norms (beyond his lying) poses to the Office of the Presidency or to our democracy. They, like many others, do not understand or recognize that it is the “soft guardrails” of democracy, extra-legal norms including respect for institutions, and not just strict adherence to law, that have preserved our democracy over 200 years, and which are under threat now.
International Examples of Democratic Subversion
Examples of how democracies have died abroad from the book, are instructive. Coups or blatant seizures of power are now rare:
- Chavez was democratically elected, but used his populism which tapped into the anger of Venezuelans at what they called an “infected” democracy (similar to what I hear from Berrien County interviewees), to gradually take steps towards authoritarianism. First he blacklisted those who signed a recall petition from jobs in and out of government. Then he packed the supreme court. Arrests of opposition leaders, judges and media figures on dubious charges followed, with subversion of the media (eg. closing a major television station) next. Chavez abolished term limits. In 2012, wielding a now submissive media controlled by his government, and overt repression of the opposition, he won re-election despite his struggle with cancer and strong popular opposition. After Chavez died, his hand-chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, imprisoned opposition leaders, and, having lost control of congress, abolished it, in favor of a single-party constituent assembly.
- Peru’s Fujimori took advantage of a crisis gripping Peru – hyperinflation and success of guerrilla group, the Shining Path, which posed a threat to Peru’s survival. Fujimori was an outsider without the ability to sway the political establishment. After extreme battles with the legislature, starting with a public campaign of words where he used terms like which resisted his decrees, he went on the attack and abolished the congress.
- The Orban government in Hungary used a 2/3 majority in parliament in 2010 to rewrite its constitution to lock in its advantage, gerrymandered the country’s electoral districts to maximize seats, banned campaign advertising in private media while limiting it to the public station it controlled. The result was that although the ruling vote share shrank to 44% in 2014, it still retained a 2/3 majority in the legislature. Similarly, the Orban government packed the courts to get around judicial safeguards, and changed the rules so it could appoint judges.
- Both Hitler and Mussolini came to power when the establishment looked the other way, and abdicated to them. In Mussolini’s case, the Italian King, who had the loyalty of the Italian Army, refused to put down Mussolini’s rebellion, when it would have been an easy task. In both cases, the establishment took a chance that these demagogues would restore order and then submit to the establishment. Of course, both cemented their hold on power and eliminated the establishment.
Unwritten US Democratic Guardrails
After Reconstruction and the establishment of the single-party segregationist South, and prior to the 1970’s, American democratic institutions benefited from strong “guardrails of democracy”. Most notably, Franklin Roosevelt, in 1936, at the apex of his power, was thwarted by both Democrats and Republicans when he attempted to pack (enlarge) the Supreme Court, which was knocking down his New Deal programs. After he was rebuffed, the Court itself changed tack and was less obstructionist, killing the Court packing scheme.
Checks and balances worked well from the 1880’s through the 1960’s. Note that the rules supporting checks and balances were unwritten and based on cross-party respect that has now been diminished by extreme partisanship. Executive power, which can be constitutionally expanded based on executive decrees, war-making powers, and direct appeals to the people without concern for facts, had been exercised with restraint. In the Congress, Senators cultivated norms of courtesy and reciprocity, which encouraged dialogue and non-partisanship when needed. The filibuster was used sparingly as well although available to all Senators. Finally, as an unwritten rule, congressional prerogative to block Presidential nominations for the Supreme Court and other critical decisions, have not been exercised. Only nine Cabinet appointments were blocked between 1800 and 2005, and more than 90% of Supreme Court nominees were approved. Finally impeachment was used sparingly based on the norm (now eroded with Clinton) that if the Senate was unlikely to convict, then the House should not impeach.
Here are examples during this stable era, where democratic norms were upheld by bi-partisan coalitions when challenged:
- Roosevelt’s disregard of the “two-term” norm resulted in a Constitutional amendment (the 22nd) to prohibit more than two terms in 1947.
- McCarthyism was rejected by the Republicans after it lost its usefulness, especially when he began to attack the Eisenhower administration. (Up to that point, it was used by Republicans, such as Nixon, to paint Democrats as aligned with Communism without regard for truth.)
- Nixon’s Watergate break-in, along with allied anti-Democratic activities such as wiretapping Democrats and journalists, creation of “an enemies list”, using the IRS as a weapon, and vituperative treatment of the Press, some of which were criminal, resulted in Nixon’s impeachment. Both parties participated in condemning his actions.
The Breakdown of Democratic Guardrails In Recent Decades
As the “Post-War Two Party Consensus” broke down in the aftermath of Johnson’s Civil Rights revolution, the establishment of Great Society Programs that became associated with the Civil Rights Agenda, and in the aftermath of the divisive Vietnam War, guardrails suffered. Some key breakdowns occurred:
- In the aftermath of the divisive 1968 primaries, Humphrey’s nomination was pushed through the Democratic convention on the first ballot by party leaders despite the unhappiness of anti-war delegates. In the aftermath, a divided Democratic party created a commission, headed by McGovern, which determined that more democracy was needed in the Party. For the first time, the primary system became the main route to the nomination, weakening the moderating influence of party regulars. The result was the nomination of left-leaning candidate George McGovern in 1972, who lost dramatically to Richard Nixon that year. When the Republicans similarly reformed, a moderating guardrail on extreme party politics was weakened.
- With Newt Gingrich, the vision of politics as warfare took over the Republican party. He was at odds with the Republican establishment of that time, which viewed compromise as part of the system. Gingrich used harsher language to describe Democrats. Congress was “corrupt” and “sick”. Democrats were unpatriotic and immoral. With Bill Clinton, Gingrich engaged in hardball politics, shutting down the Government twice by refusing compromises in budget negotiations. The use of the filibuster rose dramatically, indicating an erosion of good will as this last resort tactic became used more frequently.
- The establishment of Kenneth Starr as Special Counsel to investigate the dubious Whitewater scandal (nothing was ever found), with authority to remain active for the entire Clinton term, illustrated the “politics is war” mantra that had taken over Republicans.
- Finally Clinton’s impeachment, on grounds which clearly did not merit removal from office, were the most extreme example of the erosion of moderating norms in the US Democratic process.
- Successors to Gingrich on the Republican side continued their “politics is war” conduct, with extreme politics ever more prevalent. Mitch McConnell exemplified the “win at all costs” mentality when he indicated that Republicans in the Senate would not let Obama succeed.
- Democrats disregarded the norm of approving judicial appointments during the Bush presidency, rejecting appointments and refusing to hold hearings, resulting in many vacant appointments.
- Bills introduced under “closed rules” without input from the minority party (the Democrats) or amendments skyrocketed.
- During the Obama administration, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, without Republican support, exemplified the reaction of Democrats to Republican intransience. Justified or not, acting on such a critical bill without the other Party, alienated the electorate, especially without an adequate sales job by Obama.
- The Tea Party, with its hostility to “insiders” and political norms, resulting in government shutdowns during the Obama era, exemplified and exaggerated the extremes of political warfare.
- Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let Obama pick a Supreme Court justice in 2016, upon the death of Anton Scalia, indicating the pick would have to wait for a new President, violated previous norms. (McConnell is the ultimate cynic. While not corrupt in the traditional sense, he is not a defender of our democratic norms.)
- The growth of gerrymandering on a broad scale, subverts voting patterns and representation in favor of those in power.
Trump’s Attack on Democratic Norms
Trump is the first President since Nixon, and has gone far beyond him verbally with four key behaviors that eminent political scientist Juan Linz found are indicators of authoritarian leaders who break down democratic regimes:
- Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.
- Trump repeatedly declared (before he won and after) that “the election is rigged”,
- falsely claimed 3.5 million votes as fraud despite the many studies that show the insignificance of voter fraud,
- has said he can pardon anyone he wants including those under investigation and himself,
- Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents:
- “Lock her up” was the ultimate in de-legitimization of a political opponent. Calling Hillary crooked, despite years and years of scrutiny she has endured with little concrete evidence of corruption, will ultimately weaken prohibitions against baseless accusations of opponents. The threat implied by “lock her up” weakens the prohibition against using state power to imprison opponents.
- Trump launched his recent political career by questioning Obama’s birthplace and standing as a US citizen. Even after Obama produced his birth certificate, Trump refused to concede Obama’s clear legitimacy, only doing so late in the election when not doing so would have lost Trump votes and stature.
- Toleration or encouragement of violence:
- Trump issued a veiled threat against Hillary when he hinted that second amendment supporters had the means to prevent her from appointing a judge who might remove the right to bear arms.
- Trump encouraged violence at his rallies, indicating he would pay legal fees for those who beat up protesters.
- Threatening the civil liberties of opponents:
- Trump has defined the media as “fake” and suggested libel laws be established to prevent fake news.
- Trump has threatened media opponents such as Jeff Bezos with unspecified action.
- alluded to a “deep state” which needs to be rooted out,
- has threatened Justice Department officials who are acting independently in the Mueller investigation,
- has demeaned the FBI because it is not sufficiently loyal to him,
- asked James Comey for loyalty to him,
- continues to attack the legitimacy of the media at every turn.
- established an Electoral Commission (now abandoned) whose purpose was to “suppress” non-existent voter fraud,
- supported suppressing the vote of the poor (who tend to vote Democratic) where possible.
The Danger to our Democracy
Trump’s threats against the FBI, the objectivity of the Justice Department, the media, support for voter suppression, have not yet turned into concrete actions, but they may. His disrespect for norms and lack of hesitation to challenge institutional arrangements which are long standing bulwarks of our democracy, are unprecedented. Look at his actions in undermining the unity of NATO, the legitimacy of WTO trade rules, and US agreements, and it is clear this is a leader who if unchecked, may undermine democratic norms and institutions. His disrespect for facts and truth are another indication of how far he may go in poisoning our body politic.
Will Republicans stand up to him and resist him if he oversteps democratic bounds? So far, Republican action is not encouraging. Only a defeat at the polls in 2020 will enable further damage to be avoided. And here it is not a foregone conclusion that Trump will be voted out in 2020, especially if Democrats go to the left as they seem to be doing instead of towards the center with a solid candidate who can attract disaffected Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats.