Can American democracy survive a Trump presidency?

The real danger is not Trump but the person who cleans up the mess he leaves behind

History turns backwards

For decades, the Freedom House think tank has tracked which countries are democracies and which aren’t. For a long time it seemed there was mostly good news. It began in Portugal in 1974, when the Portuguese people toppled their military rulers and forged a new democracy. Freedom House duly recorded this switch. And year after year more such switches came. Military dictators in Spain, Chile and South Korea lost power, followed by communists across the Warsaw Pact countries, and then Africa’s anti-colonial hereos turned post-colonial tyrants began to be dispatched.

Democracy marched on until 2006, when something disturbing happened:

…the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states).

What initially appeared to be a stagnation now looks like a contraction. Freedom Houses’ most recent report noted that:

…the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year — 72 — was the largest since the 10-year slide began.

I tell you this to illustrate that we are in a time when democracy is tending to falter. To date this has mostly meant the reversion to authoritarian rule in countries that democratised in the waves that followed the fall of Portugal’s military government. But given the apparent direction of travel, it would be a mistake to feel complacent about more established democracies.

An autocrat at heart

Indeed, it is the most established democracy of all that I am currently most concerned about. That is in large part a result of Donald Trump having a realistic chance of becoming its president. He may be the nominee of a party that traditionally stands for small government conservatism but he is an authoritarian plain and simple. He betrays this predilection with his admiration for autocrats like Vladamir Putin. It is reflected in his evident attraction to violence, be that inciting punch ups at his rallies or suggesting the American military torture captives and executes children. He vilifies the press and advocates using strengthened libel laws to silence them – a classic technique of autocrats who can’t stand to hear about their nakedness. He has a sorry record of corruption that hints at an alarming disregard for the law. He called for his opponent to be jailed and refused to agree to be bound by the election result.  And most alarmingly there is his unmistakably racist rhetoric and willingness to associate with racists and conspiracy theorists. It is thus reasonable to fret as Vox‘s editor Ezra Klein has done that Trump “…is not running to be America’s president so much as its dictator.

If that is his intention, what are his prospects of success? Some are deeply worried. Andrew Sullivan wrote back in May that:

In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.

And also of:

…the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

Their constitution to the rescue?

There is a more sanguine view. Trump may try to behave as an autocrat but the America’s system of government is loaded up with check and balances to prevent that. Politico’s Zachary Karabell reassures us that:

The American presidency is an office of vast powers that are also maddeningly constrained for anyone with dictatorial aspirations. We also know that Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s bears little resemblance to the United States of the 2010s. Before we get too breathless about impending fascism and the end of America as we know it, we need to stop and consider just how hard it might be for a president to bulldoze through the multiple hurdles to unilateral action.

Trump’s own offspring have taken this tack. Donald Trump jnr demonstrated that he has inherited his father’s odd way of speaking but not his talent for creating emotionally compelling arguments by suggesting:

For those who say: ‘Oh he’s so dangerous’, there is nothing dangerous about it.

He is going to have the greatest system of checks and balances in place watching him.

Even Sullivan suggests:

…this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order.

I am not going to deny that the courts and legislature are more powerful in America than more or less anywhere else in the developed world, and that as a result an American president enjoys less freedom of action than say a British Prime Minister.

But this is only partially reassuring. Sullivan correctly identifies the risk that these check and balances might not operate:

Were Trump to win the White House, the defenses against him would be weak. He would likely bring a GOP majority in the House, and Republicans in the Senate would be subjected to almighty popular fury if they stood in his way. The 4-4 stalemate in the Supreme Court would break in Trump’s favor.

Even if these safeguards do operate there are ways around them. For example, if President Trump cannot introduce more powerful libel laws, he could instead instruct his justice department to launch anti-trust investigations into media organisations that displease him. He has already threatened to do as much.

The gridlocked road to Trumpism

At a more fundamental level, I actually fear that America’s systems of checks and balance make its democracy more rather than less vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump.

For starters, it may have contributed to the dissatisfaction that enabled his rise. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that American democracy is in a state of decay because of a phenomenon he calls ‘vetocracy‘.

The U.S. political system has far more of these checks and balances, or what political scientists call “veto points,” than other contemporary democracies, raising the costs of collective action and in some cases make it impossible altogether. In earlier periods of U.S. history, when one party or another was dominant, this system served to moderate the will of the majority and force it to pay greater attention to minorities than it otherwise might have. But in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

Which is bad, firstly because it leads to weak and ineffective governments:

In parliamentary systems, a great deal of legislation is formulated by the executive branch with heavy technocratic input from the permanent civil service. Ministries are accountable to parliament, and hence ultimately to voters, through the ministers who head them, but this type of hierarchical system can take a longer-term strategic view and produce much more coherent legislation.

Such a system is utterly foreign to the political culture in Washington, where Congress jealously guards its right to legislate — even though the often incoherent product is what helps produce a large, sprawling, and less accountable government. Congress’ multiple committees frequently produce duplicate and overlapping programs or create several agencies with similar purposes. The Pentagon, for example, operates under nearly 500 mandates to report annually to Congress on various issues. These never expire, and executing them consumes huge amounts of time and energy. Congress has created about 50 separate programs for worker retraining and 82 separate projects to improve teacher quality.

It is also produces plenty of opportunities for soft corruption:

The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity.

When democracy ends

Not only does a presidential system that allows for divided government seem more prone to creating crisis, it seems less able to weather them than do more parliamentary models. In a seminal 1990 paper called the Perils of Presidentalism, Yale professor Juan J. Linz noted that:

the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government — but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.

And by ‘break down’ he means be replaced by a military junta so ambitious in its use of kidnapping, torture and murder that it turned ‘disappear’ into a noun. As in ‘even decades after the fall of the Pinochet regime the final resting places of over a thousand of the disappeared have yet to be found’.

So why is presidential democracy generally so difficult and why has America nonetheless managed it? Well Linz argued:

what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties-which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties-has something to do with it

Well Linz’s colleagues got their wish. America’s political parties have become way more polarised. There used to be Republican congressmen who were more liberal than some of their Democrat colleagues and Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. Such politicians have now gone extinct. It is unclear if Americans are following or leading their politicians but they are going in that direction too. The proportion of American voters who can be classified as consistently liberal or conservative has doubled in two decades. Research evidence now shows that Americans have stronger prejudices against people of different parties than they do people of different races. Thus the thing that has enabled America’s presidential democracy to endure is gone.

The potential crisis

Polarisation has already taken its toll on the functioning of the American government. To prevent Barack Obama enacting his agenda the Republicans and the conservative movement more generally have deployed every tool of obstruction conceivable: down the line voting against legislation, fillibusters, placing blocks on nominees, refusing to hold a vote on a nomination to the Supreme Court, legal challenges, governors refusing to implement pieces of legislation, government shutdowns and trying to use debt ceiling increases to leverage concessions.

Up to now Democrats have made less extensive use of these techniques than Republicans. That is presumably partly because they are more ideologically invested in the continued functioning of government than small-state conservatives are. But it must also surely be a factor that whilst Republican (primary) voters have come to see compromise as a betrayal, a majority of their Democrat counterparts still tell pollsters that they value it. A Trump presidency would likely negate both of those reasons.

Even assuming the Democrats are in a minority in Congress they can still do plenty to jam up the machinery of the Federal Government. The Republicans have shown them how to do it. And given the antipathy to Trump of many elected Republicans, he might also face resistance from his own party.

The resulting deadlocks might initially take a similar form to that seen during the Obama years, but things would be likely to escalate quickly because Trump is not like Obama.

Sullivan asks us to consider what would happen:

….if Trump’s policies are checked by other branches of government, how might he react? Just look at his response to the rules of the GOP nomination process. He’s not interested in rules. And he barely understands the Constitution. In one revealing moment earlier this year, when asked what he would do if the military refused to obey an illegal order to torture a prisoner, Trump simply insisted that the man would obey: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.”

I do not actually believe that Trump’s demagogic instincts would be enough to allow him to become the authoritarian leader he would like to be. I formed that conclusion reading an excellent long form piece for the Guardian by Christopher de Bellaigue on how Erdogan has bent Turkey to his will. Doing so required a great deal of skill, patience and discipline on his part. A political novice like Trump would almost certainly lack these. His flamboyance may serve him well on the glorified reality show that is an election campaign. However, the fact that he has neither built a proper ground organisation for his presidential campaign, nor yet found a way to avoid rising to every provocation the Clinton campaign devises, indicates he is very unlikely to be able to do the bureaucratic work to turn a democracy of a 200 year vintage into a dictatorship.

But being unable to construct an authoritarian state does not mean he cannot demolish a constitutional one. The real danger of a Trump victory is that he would be the catalyst for the kind of stalemate that Linz pinpoints as being so often fatal for presidential democracies. Trump might not entrench himself as a despot but instead  create the conditions that allow someone else to become one. Much as how in Russia, the crafty Putin followed the shambolic Yeltsin. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which the government is gridlocked or potentially even shutdown, and a President Trump is using his gift for drama to inflame the resulting divisions to the point they turn into social unrest. We can assume that if such instability came to pass it would exact a high economic price too. In such conditions, an American people who are poorer, less secure and less trusting in their institutions might conceivably do what many other people have done in such situations and turn to an authoritarian ruler who offers a modicum of stability – at least in the short term.

It is hard to say where this strongman might come from. Linz’s research highlighted the military as a source. The American armed forces have strong norms against enlisted men intervening in politics. However, a retired figure might find that path easier to walk. Especially as America has been led by former generals before. If you are worried about this possibility then it is disturbing that in an era of declining trust in American institutions, just about the only one gaining trust is the military. However, I suspect the more likely situation is the one represented by Hungary’s Viktor Orban: a previously democratic politician making the shift to being an autocrat.

Do I think this would be the inevitable result of a Trump presidency? No I do not. Maybe Trump would be a better president than this campaign has suggested. Maybe the constitution’s checks and balances would kick in and he would be prevented from doing lasting damage. But there is no guarantee that they would, or if they do that they will work as they are supposed to. Like the white blood cells of someone suffering from an autoimmune disease they may start to destroy the very thing they are supposed to protect.

We should not mistake the longevity of America’s presidential democracy for its immortality. Linz’s research indicates that it is an anomaly sustained by a factor that no longer exists. It would be a mistake to assume its survival and folly to gamble it by making Trump president. Already a:

…quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.

That could be a disaster not only for the US but the world. For better or worse, for much of the world America personifies democracy. If it turns its back on it, then the post 2006 retreat of democracy could turn into a rout. A man who does not believe in freedom should not under any circumstances become leader of the free world.

 

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