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Can American Democracy Survive?

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.

“Which world is ‘natural’? That which existed before or the world of war? 
Both are natural if both are within the realm of one’s experience.”
- Czesław Miłosz​ The Captive Mind, 1953

It was a political eternity ago.

In 2016, several political commentators (myself included) warned about the potential consequences of electing a presidential candidate who relied on authoritarian tactics and appeals — mass rallies of adoring crowds, nationalist slogans, race-based electoral strategies, and promises of strong leadership and repressive policies to solve the country’s problems. As the popularity of that candidate, Donald Trump, rose, there was serious alarm that America’s citizenry might choose an outcome damaging to American democracy and world security.*

Trump’s victory, determined by a close and unpopular outcome, was greeted with both shock and acceptance. According to tradition, it was the only possible reaction. The serving president from the opposition party welcomed Trump to the Oval Office, signaling a peaceful transition to power. The editorial boards of America’s newspapers, nearly all of which had advocated Trump’s defeat, now appealed to readers to accept the electorate's decision. That the “will of the people” in a presidential election was so distorted by its antique Electoral College system — with the “winner” losing by nearly 3 million votes in the national tally — had no bearing on the matter. Nor the fact that the republic’s Founders had established this unusual system to protect against the people selecting an inexperienced, unfit demagogue to national office. Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017.

How should we evaluate the last two years? Have the authoritarian dangers been realized? Were the warnings overwrought? And if not, how do we ensure the survival of American democracy?

The New Normal

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz​ pointed out that one’s experience determines what is “natural.” The extremes of what he endured as a captive citizen in Warsaw during the horrendous Nazi occupation in World War II became normal for his daily existence and what came before was not more or less “natural.” And, as during the war, this became the case with the subsequent political rule. His country’s takeover by Soviet communism and Stalinist repression became the “natural” order of things, one to which intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike became captive and accommodated in various ways.

Trump’s presidency has not resulted in war (at least not yet); nor has a traditional authoritarian takeover of power been undertaken. Congress has legislated. Courts have ruled. Citizens have demonstrated. The media has reported. State, local and special elections took place in which the opposition party made gains. The warning about Trump as an “authoritarian” or any comparison with Miłosz​'s observation of the normalization of the extreme might appear absurd. 

Yet, is it? The historical abnormality of Donald Trump’s presidency is an accepted fact and thus “natural,” leaving a permanent imprint on the country’s national experience. Politics and media revolve around his constant lies, his erratic and crude behavior, and his “populist” and disruptive policies. All of it overwhelms the political senses on a daily basis, a situation everyone has become a captive to and thus must accommodate. 

In this setting, quite a lot has become “natural.”

The president of the United States organizes mass rallies in which he: regularly divides the country into (mostly white) supporters and (mostly non-white) opponents; attacks the media as “enemies of the people”; praises political violence and encourages political imprisonment; accuses a conspiratorial “deep state” of organizing against his election and presidency; uses racial slurs, maligns ethnic groups, and vilifies immigrants; attacks the opposition party as treasonous; expresses personal affinity with and even love for murderous dictators; claims credit for saving the country from nuclear war, national disaster, and civilizational decline; and elicits sequential chants of mass appreciation for his leadership and personal identification with the nation (“Trump, Trump, Trump” and “USA, USA, USA”).

What else is “natural”? Trump treats any challenge to his authority or rule as a threat meant to delegitimize him and disenfranchise his supporters. Most notably, he has promoted conspiracy theories involving the former president, his former Democratic opponent, his own top officials, and a “deep state” cabal within the FBI, Justice Department, and intelligence agencies — all allegedly collaborating with the enemy media. Supposedly, they each separately and/or together plotted illegal and treasonous acts to sabotage his election and, secondly, his presidency. The Special Counsel’s office investigation into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election was engineered by these conspirators to carry out a “witch hunt” against Trump (by investigating the many connections between his campaign and the Russian government). And, instead of directing the Republican-led Congress to investigate election interference by a hostile foreign power, Trump has asked his Congressional supporters to investigate ever stranger variations of these “deep state” conspiracy theories.**

Meanwhile, public trust in the election system, federal law enforcement and U.S. intelligence agencies have been effectively undermined.

In Trump’s speeches and statements through social media and the general media, it is now also normal for the president to spread misinformation, lies and conspiracy theories in a manner framing the country’s political reality and discourse around falsehoods. While the general media seeks to maintain its independent role as “fact checker,” it is unable to keep pace with a president insistent on creating his own alternate reality. 

Such clearly authoritarian phenomena -- and more -- are now an entrenched part of American democracy. 

Minority Rule as “The Will of the People”

Democracy is based on the consent of the governed, which is generally determined by a majority or at least a significant plurality that obtains majority public support to govern. Donald Trump, however, asserts that the minority support of the population he received in the 2016 election (46 percent of those who voted) grants him a mandate to act as he likes and to transform radically both domestic and foreign policies and long-standing institutions without consideration to the large majority of the electorate who voted against him (54 percent) or the plurality that voted for his major party opponent (48 percent).

Since his election, Trump’s support in national opinion polls generally has been less than his 2016 result, despite a favorable economy that usually boosts presidential approval ratings. The policies Trump has imposed by executive order, such as a weakening of the Affordable Care Act and environmental and labor protections, or those enacted by Congress, such as the tax cut that largely benefitted corporations and the wealthy, have been opposed by clear majorities in national polling. Some, such as separating thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the border and imprisoning them in cages, were opposed by a substantial majority.

Donald Trump is not unaware of these facts. Yet, at no point has he acted to increase that base of support by adopting less extreme positions, stances or policies. Instead, Trump aggressively seeks to maintain the capacity to govern with a consolidated minority base of the citizenry, intensifying his most demagogic and xenophobic appeals with the approach of the mid-term elections. 

Legitimation, Accommodation, Consolidation 

The nation’s strangest political accommodation, thus far, is to a presidential electoral result in which a hostile foreign power played a significant role affecting the outcome on behalf of a preferred candidate who advocated policies favorable to that foreign power. 

The American intelligence community, a bipartisan report of the Senate Permanent Committee on Intelligence, and the U.S. Justice Department all determined, both prior to and after the November 2016 elections, that Vladimir Putin‘s Russian intelligence services carried out a massive active measures campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump. The Special Counsel’s office has issued multiple indictments detailing the extent and reach of Russia’s intelligence agencies and their surrogate actors. The full extent of the Russian government’s efforts to influence the election, American politics, and American policy have yet to be revealed, but there is strong indication that the influence operation had a determinative impact.***

The reaction to all this, before and now, has been strangely muted. The issue still under investigation is not whether Russia may have succeeded in determining the outcome of the election, nor even that Trump campaign officials sought to collude with the Russian government in the effort. Both of these things are generally accepted, as is the use by the Trump campaign of Russian intelligence-generated propaganda to win an election. The only issues of significance at this point are whether or not the Trump campaign consciously acted to “collude” or “conspire” with Russian government officials in the effort and if there was any obstruction of the investigation. It is unclear — indeed doubtful —that even this would impact Republican support for the president.

Authoritarian political figures, currently and historically, can only assume and exercise power with the aid of institutions that legitimate and accommodate them. And they can only continue to exercise and maintain power through a full accommodation of their power. The Republican Party's accomodation came early and is now full.

After Trump announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in June 2015, he was repeatedly dismissed as a serious candidate by party leaders and criticized for his bigoted views, racist statements, crude and impolitic behavior, and “anti-conservative” platform against immigration, free trade and foreign intervention. Yet it soon became clear that Trump had built a base of popular support within the Republican Party based precisely on those views, statements, behaviors and positions. Worse, Trump’s popularity grew with the extremism and authoritarian style of his pledges (to ban all Muslims from the country; to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants; to appoint only generals and corporate executives “to get things done”; among others).

At no point did Republican Party leaders and elected officials act decisively to stop Trump’s political rise. Nor generally have they acted to restrict his exercise of power once in office. Rather, just as in the election, he has gained more institutional support the more he has bent the Republican Party to his own image and platform.

The justifications for accommodating Donald Trump were many, but the initial one was the most consequential and led to all others. It was that Trump was not the candidate of the opposition party. House Speaker Paul Ryan stated the view of many Republicans that he supported anyone who “could prevent another Democratic administration.” Therefore, even a candidate transforming one’s own political party into a personal instrument for a new authoritarian politics — such a candidate was preferable to the opposition candidate winning. 

As Czeslaw Milosz relates in The Captive Mind, a negative justification for accommodation is usually insufficient. Positive justifications are needed. Accommodation quickly turns into belief in “the new faith”; in the “historical necessity” of following the leader or party who defeats the political enemy. Thus, Trump became “exactly the right leadership for our time” (as Ryan later stated). Milosz pointed out the difficulty with such justifications: they are only the beginning of the accommodation process. One must start to accept all that the leader says and does and adopt the same rhetoric (“fake news,” “enemy of the people,” “lock him/her up,” “invasion of illegal immigrants,” “Democrat mob,” “evil”). Trump becomes not just the right leader, but the best leader: “potentially the greatest presidency in history for the American people” (as Senator Orrin Hatch stated). It is all (historically and ideologically) justifiable.

The Damage Thus Far

To review: There is widespread normalization of an authoritarian candidate, Donald Trump, gaining the presidency of the United States. His election is treated as the legitimate expression of “the will of the people,” despite his minority national vote and the possibly decisive intervention of a hostile foreign power. The leader of the government relies (more and more) on authoritarian methods and rhetoric to rule and has undermined the public trust in elections and important government institutions. A partisan Supreme Court is validating restrictive electoral practices favoring one political party. That historic political party is being transformed into a mass-based movement championing ethnic chauvinism, “nationalism,” and adoration of the leader. Furthermore, in Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group (among others), there is the significant rise of a pro-state media given ever greater reach by the national government. The list is hardly complete.

None of this is “natural” for a modern democracy. All of the political behavior, actions, platform, and governance strategy of Trump, both during the campaign and as president, are familiar to those who study authoritarianism; they are common to past and current authoritarian leaders, not democratic ones. So, too, the accommodation and normalization of Trump’s politics and platform within the American system is more common to the rise of authoritarian regimes, not to the maintenance of democratic ones. We are becoming accustomed to the fact that authoritarian politics are now embedded in the United States, the oldest functioning democracy in the world. We should not be.

Perhaps more dangerous is that the world is being forced to become accustomed to all of it. Trump’s assertion of an America First doctrine is an integrative element of the nationalist and authoritarian platform he put forward as a candidate and is implementing through the executive power of the presidency. Trump has made America First a comprehensive doctrine to promote “national sovereignty” and “national interest” as the defining aspects for world order. It means the rejection of the rules-based liberal international order that was established and maintained by the United States and that has, notwithstanding many armed conflicts, kept the world peace for 70 years, greatly benefiting America’s security and prosperity. It also means (as elucidated in a National Security Doctrine) the return of an international system of national competition among Great Powers. Such a system has led to worldwide conflict in all previous history.

The U.S. is withdrawing from international treaties, bodies, institutions, trade systems, and arms control agreements and in doing so alienating itself from democratic alliances and leaders. Foreign policy is being re-oriented around the assertion of economic dominance and the management of Great Power relationships with Russia and China. In this effort, Trump has expressed affinity mainly for dictators as allies and a desire to form ententes and good relationships with dictatorships (such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and even North Korea). As a result, the United States is no longer “the leader of the free world” or a model for other nations that fosters democratic values and human rights.

Just as there has been accommodation to Trump’s domestic politics, there has been a general accommodation to Trump’s foreign politics within the Republican Party and among most foreign policy analysts: that it is a necessary corrective to post-Cold War internationalism; that it is the re-emergence of the “normal order of things” (realism); or, more absurdly, that the liberal international world order will survive the U.S.’s withdrawal from it.

Trump’s foreign policy is giving rise to a world setting in which democratic alliances and relationships weaken, authoritarian alliances are formed, human rights are no longer defended or protected, liberalism is no longer valued, “illiberalism” (dictatorship) advances, and smaller nations or groups of nations must accommodate to a “nationalist” United States and to large revisionist powers challenging U.S. dominance. This is happening also at a time when certain global issues, such as climate change and the related issue of armed conflict and migration, challenge the international system as never before. The strategy is perilous, not just for the U.S. (which will be weakened in the pursuit of it) but also for current democratic allies. The result can only be greater international insecurity.****

The Political Challenge Ahead

It is thus not alarmist to state that American democracy is in crisis and that, as a result, world democracy and security are both fragile. Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world and it is unclear if American democracy has the capacity to respond even to its own internal challenge.

Until recent weeks, it was widely expected that the opposition Democratic Party would make major gains in the 2018 mid-term elections, retaking the majority from the ruling Republican Party in the House of Representatives and possibly even the Senate. While the national election may indeed turn out to be a referendum on Trump — and in the next day it remains an urgent task to make sure such a referendum is as large as possible — it is also clear that early hopes of a “Blue tsunami” that would fundamentally transform American politics were wishful thinking. As the election nears, and Trump has “rallied the base” around his now-normalized authoritarian platform, the Republicans’ entrenched advantage has become clearer.

Even if there is a large national differential of voter support for Democrats over Republicans, the result is unlikely to be a significantly decisive Democratic majority that could exercise real countervailing power (such as the two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress achieved by radical Republicans in 1866 during Andrew Johnson’s recalcitrant presidency). There may be significant gains for Democrats. But current anti-democratic aspects of American democracy — extreme political gerrymandering, voter suppression and voter alienation —and the built-in anti-majoritarian aspects of America’s Constitution will limit such gains. The Democrats’ ability to act as an effective check on executive power will be similarly limited. Worse, the entrenchment of an authoritarian mass base support for the Trump Party means that most Republicans who gain election in this term (with the exception of just a handful of states) will be ever more loyal and accommodationist to Trump’s authoritarian politics and platform.

Regardless of the outcome, however, the challenge to American democracy will remain both large and ongoing. An authoritarian-minded and authoritarian-acting political figure has gained the power of the presidency and is changing the nature of the polity; his influence will not easily be dislodged. American institutions that once undergirded U.S. democracy to protect against such dangers — unions, civic organizations, religious groups, political parties that adhere to democratic norms— are weakened. The general society is divided both by partisanship and the authoritarian provocations of Trump and his party.

From past historical experience, we know what is necessary when a society is faced with an authoritarian challenge. Such knowledge has become obscured by partisanship, social divisions, and by the authoritarian provocations that are now permanently part of our daily lives. In fact, that knowledge has been put to use in the last two years of civic and even political reaction to the Trump era. The majority will has been expressed in many ways through large peaceful assemblies, petitioning of government, the increase in union organizing and labor action, the rise of ad hoc associations organizing broad civic and political opposition, the general success of new candidates of many types in elections, and the increased awareness of people of racism and misogyny and their effects. The citizenry has drawn on the strengths of American democracy in order to try to recapture it. 

Still, anyone experienced with authoritarian and totalitarian political regimes and their rise can see the dangers ahead.  It will be a difficult task both to build and to maintain the unity of a political majority around such a broad concept as defending U.S. democracy, achieving greater democracy, or even just preventing the consolidation of authoritarianism. It is an especially difficult task when that majority is made up of so many organizationally and ideologically disparate and differing parts and, additionally, is effectively stifled and limited by institutional means. The political forces promoting division will be high. Provocations that foster such division will be greater. 

But whenever the task appears too difficult it will be important to remember the main lessons of those that have and have not overcome authoritarian challenges in the past. These may seem reductionist, but they are not. When challenged by authoritarian threats, democracy is achieved or saved when a pro-democratic majority acts with enough unity and purpose to overcome those threats without fracturing. Authoritarianism is achieved and consolidated when democratic majorities fracture, allowing authoritarians and their minority political movements to come to power. Only a united anti-authoritarian majority coalition determined to assert itself will save U.S. democracy.

*****

* See my article “Trump and The Authoritarian Temptation,” July 5, 2016The Shanker Blog. Many writers focused on the study of authoritarianism and totalitarianism made similar warnings, such as Anne Applebaum, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Jeffrey Herf, Robert Kagan, Timothy Snyder, among many others.

** For a reasonable analysis of the total unlikelihood of the validity of these conspiracy theories see “The Tale of Two Narratives” by Gabriel Schoenfeld, Lawfare (October 18, 2018).

*** Regarding the Russian intervention’s determinative impact, see, e.g., “The Alarming Story That Won’t Go Away” by Eric Chenoweth in The American Interest (August/September, 2018). See also, Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s comprehensive study Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know  (Oxford University Press: 2018) and Jane Meyer’s review of it “How Russia Helped Swing the Election to Trump,” The New Yorker (October 1, 2018).

**** For a full discussion on the changing world order, see The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled Worldby Robert Kagan (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2018). It is summarized in the essay “Welcome to the Jungle” by Robert Kagan, The Washington Post (October 9, 2018).

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