One of the political scientists whose work I follow is Thomas Mann. Mann, a Democrat, has received numerous awards during a distinguished career, but he may be best known for his collaborations with Norman Ornstein, who served in Republican administrations. Their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks documented the radicalization of the Republican Party and received a good deal of publicity.
Mann has a recent commentary on the Brookings website, in which he characterizes the election of Donald Trump as an “existential moment” The lede sets out the nature and extent of that moment’s challenge:
His candidacy, campaign, victory and actions halfway through the transition to governing, heretofore unimaginable, pose a genuine threat to the well-being of our country and the sustainability of our democracy.
As I write, the immediate concerns are the president-elect’s reactions to the Russian cyber attacks on the Clinton campaign; his refusal to takes steps to deal responsibly with the massive conflicts of interest his businesses pose to his conduct of his presidency; his designation of a prominent white nationalist as his chief political strategist and a trio of unlikely appointees to lead the National Security Council team in the White House who appear to lack the personal qualities essential to their critical role; a breathtaking contempt for the media evidenced by his refusal to hold press conferences and his Orwellian reliance on tweets and rallies to communicate with the public; and an assemblage of Cabinet nominees characterized mostly (though not entirely) by their inexperience in public policy and their contempt for the missions of their departments.
In the remainder of the article, Mann considers whether our traditional checks and balances-the rule of law, a free press, an institutionally responsible Congress, a vigorous federal system, and a vibrant civil society–are healthy enough to provide the counterbalance that will be required. He is not sanguine about the rule of law.
Trump’s choice for Attorney General was rejected by the Senate for a federal judgeship because of racist comments and has a history as a prosecutor more interested in prosecuting African Americans for pursuing voting rights than those trying to suppress their votes. His White House Counsel was Tom DeLay’s ethics counsel and demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law as chair of the Federal Election Commission. The courts play an equally essential role. The egregious partisan politicization of judicial appointments, which reached a nadir with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented refusal to even consider Merrick Garland’s nomination to fill the Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of President Obama’s tenure, has weakened the capacity of the courts to fulfill its responsibilities in the face of attacks on the fabric of our democracy.
The free press, as Mann notes and we all know, is in disarray (to put it as kindly as possible). We live in a “post-truth” media environment, surrounded by spin, propaganda and fake news. If the press is our watchdog, it has been de-fanged.
Congress? Mann points out that the “silence of Republican congressional leaders to the frequent abuses of democratic norms during the general election campaign and transition” has been deafening.
The risk of party loyalty trumping institutional responsibility naturally arises with unified party government during a time of extreme polarization. A devil’s bargain of accepting illiberal politics in return for radical policies appears to have been struck.
What about federalism? Can “states’ rights” be mobilized to constrain the incoming Trump Administration? Mann holds out some hope, but ultimately concludes
And yet the nationalization of elections and with it the rise of party-line voting has led to a majority of strong, unified Republican governments in the states, some of which have demonstrated little sympathy for the democratic rules of the game. For starters, think Kansas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. The latter has just pulled off the most outrageous power grab in recent history, designed to reduce sharply the authority of the newly elected Democratic governor before he takes office.
As many commenters on this blog have noted, and as Mann concludes, it really is up to us.
The final wall of defense against the erosion of democracy in America rests with civil society, the feature of our country Tocqueville was most impressed with. Community organizations, businesses, nonprofit organizations of all types, including think tanks that engage in fact-based policy analysis and embrace the democratic norms essential to the preservation of our way of life. The objective is not artificial bipartisan agreement, but forthright articulation of the importance of truth, the legitimacy of government and political opposition, and the nurturance of public support for the difficult work of governance. It is in this sector of American society in which citizens can organize, private-sector leaders can speak up in the face of abuses of public authority, and extreme, anti-democratic forces can be resisted.
I hope we’re up to the task.
Happy New Year….