This morning’s New York Times contains a disquieting submission from two Harvard government professors. They began
Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? With the possible exception of the Civil War, American democracy has never collapsed; indeed, no democracy as rich or as established as America’s ever has. Yet past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.
We have spent two decades studying the emergence and breakdown of democracy in Europe and Latin America. Our research points to several warning signs.
Pre-eminent among those warning signs is the emergence and electoral success of what the authors call “anti-democratic” politicians, who can be recognized by their failure–or refusal– to reject violence, willingness to curtail civil liberties, and their attacks on the legitimacy of elected governments. As they illustrate, Trump fits the bill.
Another warning sign is the weakening of democratic institutions and norms.
Among the unwritten rules that have sustained American democracy are partisan self-restraint and fair play. For much of our history, leaders of both parties resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage, effectively underutilizing the power conferred by those institutions. There existed a shared understanding, for example, that anti-majoritarian practices like the Senate filibuster would be used sparingly, that the Senate would defer (within reason) to the president in nominating Supreme Court justices, and that votes of extraordinary importance — like impeachment — required a bipartisan consensus. Such practices helped to avoid a descent into the kind of partisan fight to the death that destroyed many European democracies in the 1930s.
As the authors note, “partisan restraint” and other norms of democratic behavior have significantly eroded, replaced by naked power struggles.
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.
The erosion of these governing norms did not happen all at once; the signs of growing dysfunction have been visible–especially at the federal level–for decades. Although Trump did not cause the weakening of these safeguards, he was a clear beneficiary.
In the wake of November 8, pundits have scrambled to “explain” the election results. As James Fallows writes in “Despair and Hope in the Age of Trump,” most of those explanations are wrongheaded.
Fallows, too, underscores the importance of democratic norms, and the implications of Trump’s contempt for rules of any kind.
The American republic is based on rules but has always depended for its survival on norms—standards of behavior, conduct toward fellow citizens and especially critics and opponents that is decent beyond what the letter of the law dictates. Trump disdains them all. The American leaders I revere are sure enough of themselves to be modest, strong enough to entertain self-doubt. When I think of Republican Party civic virtues, I think of Eisenhower. But voters, or enough of them, have chosen Trump.
Fallows dismisses two popular explanations of that choice: the belief that this was a sweeping “change” election, and the theory that the vote reflected the “desperation and fury” of citizens living away from the liberal coasts. Change elections drive waves of incumbents out of office; as he notes, that didn’t happen. The “rage” theory is similarly wanting. As Fallows says, that theory misses
the optimism and determination that are intertwined with desolation and decay in the real “out there.” I can say that because I have been out there, reporting with my wife, Deb, in smaller-town America for much of the past four years….
A Pew study in 2014 found that only 25 percent of respondents were satisfied with the direction of national policy, but 60 percent were satisfied with events in their own communities. According to a Heartland Monitor report in 2016, two in three Americans said that good ideas for dealing with national social and economic challenges were coming from their towns. Fewer than one in three felt that good ideas were coming from national institutions. These results also underscore the sense my wife and I took unmistakably from our visits: that city by city, and at the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear, Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.
It really is the media.
Count me among those who have become convinced that the decline of responsible journalism, the proliferation of “fake news” sites and the increasing sophistication of propaganda (Russian or homegrown)–abetted by a dangerous lack of civic literacy– are largely to blame for the disconnect between citizens and their national government, and for the erosion of those all-important democratic norms.
Fallows’ concluding paragraph is profound.
Nearly a century ago, Walter Lippmann wrote that the challenge for democracies is that citizens necessarily base decisions on the “pictures in our heads,” the images of reality we construct for ourselves. The American public has just made a decision of the gravest consequence, largely based on distorted, frightening, and bigoted caricatures of reality that we all would recognize as caricature if applied to our own communities. Given the atrophy of old-line media with their quaint regard for truth, the addictive strength of social media and their unprecedented capacity to spread lies, and the cynicism of modern politics, will we ever be able to accurately match image with reality? The answer to that question will determine the answer to another: whether this election will be a dire but survivable challenge to American institutions or an irreversible step toward something else.