By David M. Faris
| (Informed Comment) | – –
Could Donald Trump destroy American democracy? While he muses carelessly about assassinating Hillary Clinton and frequently spitballs plainly illegal ideas like inviting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, it is less clear exactly how Trump would threaten the basic institutions of U.S. democracy. But with the real estate magnate and former reality-TV star still polling around 40% despite a litany of gaffes, embarrassments and provocations, it is imperative that we assess the threat.
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: U.S. democracy is robust enough that Trump would be unlikely to obliterate it overnight even if he tried. Americans continue to express overwhelming support for the idea of democracy, and the spectacle of a strongman usurping sovereign authority would likely be met with a mass mobilization that would make the Iraq War protests look like flash mobs.
But we should not be especially comforted that Trump will not try to ride an Abrams tank into the White House, bomb the Senate building and announce his appointment as President Winner For Life. As Oxford’s Nancy Bermeo argues, since the turn of the century countries have rarely gone from perfectly democratic to perfectly autocratic overnight via coups. A more frequent occurrence in the post-Cold War era has been for governments to become incrementally less free over time, resulting in what scholars have termed “hybrid regimes” – countries that feature an unsteady mixture of democratic and authoritarian practices.
This slower process is known as “democratic backsliding,” and there is fierce debate over its causes. What scholars do agree on, generally, is what constitutes a step backward for democratic function and legitimacy. There are many ingredients in the stew of representative democracy, and eliminating any of them – such as diminishing the independence of media organizations, restricting access to the ballot, or eliminating safeguards against the indefinite tenure of presidents – can ruin the dish.
Recent events in Turkey are a good example of the kind of slow motion democratic implosion of that a Trump presidency threatens. Turkish Prime Minister (and now President) Raccip Tayyep Erdogan has gradually chipped away at key features of Turkish democracy over the past 13 years, including restricting free speech, harassing members of the political opposition, and in the wake of July’s failed coup attempt, purging the judiciary of his opponents and critics. Trump’s open threats to news organizations and casual belittling of an unfriendly judge are therefore not just “gaffes” but, like Erdogan’s machinations, rather ominous warnings about his fundamental lack of respect for key institutions of democracy.
Could this really happen here? Americans have enjoyed well over a century and a half of uninterrupted democratic rule – (or more, depending on how you view the Civil War) and are justifiably confident about the basic integrity of the whole operation. But perhaps they shouldn’t be. Democracy is a much more fragile enterprise than most people understand. For most of modern history, before the word itself became de rigueur even in the capitals of the most flagrantly tyrannical societies, democracy has had more enemies – on both the right and the left – than friends.
Democracies are frustrating, slow-moving and imperfect even in the best of times – especially the U.S. version. They are nevertheless the only functional alternative to arbitrary rule by self-appointed elites. This is why they have increased in number in “waves” only to fall victim to backlash, disillusionment and authoritarian resurgence. There are a number of groups that maintain long-term data about democracy around the world, including the Polity Project at the Center For Systemic Peace. The most prominent and well known is Freedom House, which has since 1972 produced one of the most thorough accountings of the state of democracy in every country, with dozens of variables factoring into their calculations.
While the United States has always enjoyed the organization’s highest total ranking, we have also witnessed a little-talked-about decline in political rights since the turn of the century, largely attributable to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, ill treatment of minorities in the justice system and the post-Citizens United bacchanal of untraceable political spending.
As the U.S. has experienced this modest democratic decline, it has also become gripped with a deep and pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians. Trust in institutions is one of the critical ingredients of democratic legitimacy – the sense that authority in a democratic society is wielded rightly. Once the trust sutures have been torn out, it is very difficult to heal the wounds. Ask the Somalis, or the Syrians. The mundane magic of one political party dutifully packing up its belongings and departing peacefully from the halls of power to make way for another group is something that many citizens of the world have never experienced, and that many others now seem to take for granted.
What should particularly scare Americans who are concerned about the long-term future of our democracy is that large year-to-year declines in democracy scores are often preceded by a collapse of public support for democracy or institutions like the legislature. For example, 75% of Venezuelans reported satisfaction with democracy in 1996, but by 2003 that number had collapsed to 38%. Between 2003 and 2016, Venezuela proceeded to bleed out 11 points in its political rights score. In Turkey, the sharp decline in political rights since 2009 recorded by Freedom House was preceded by a precipitous drop in public confidence in Turkey’s government and legislature, as measured by the Eurobarometer.
Is something similar happening here? Gallup has tracked Americans’ attitudes about democracy for decades. Their data shows an unmistakable and precipitous drop in confidence and trust across a long list of institutions. Confidence in the Supreme Court has dropped from 50% in 2002 to 36% in 2016. Confidence in Congress has cratered from 29% in 2002 to 9% in 2016 while the presidency has gone from 58% to 36%.
Most problematically, only the military has maintained most of its public trust across this time period. Americans now express their automatic fealty to martial leaders while regarding nearly every other civic institution with contempt. It is dangerous that the institution most capable of eliminating democratic rule is now the only institution that commands public respect.
It is this context of frayed legitimacy and shattered trust that makes a Trump presidency particularly horrifying. He seems eager to chip away at core freedoms and democratic safeguards bit by bit. His penchant for banning unfriendly news organizations from his terrifying rallies, and his frequent jeremiads against journalists and judges suggest he would be perfectly comfortable using legal or extralegal means to shutter dissent and remake the judiciary in his image.
If American democracy was otherwise healthy, this menace would be marginal. But our democratic crisis is not only about Donald Trump. It is also about voters who – despite legitimate grievances about our political processes and policies –appear not to appreciate the importance of democratic rule, from a tiny but loud minority of Sanders supporters endorsing “Nazi-type change” to Trump voters willing to entrap Mexican immigrants in port-a-potties and forcibly ship them across the border. While one should be careful not to read too much into man-on-the-street shenanigans, there is no question that the mood on our political margins is dark.
The political theorist Matthew Flinders once wrote that “too many disaffected democrats take what politics delivers for granted.” Let us hope that democracy’s supporters are numerous enough to defeat both Trump and Trumpism – and to address the many shortcomings of American democracy that threaten its survival.
David M. Faris is a professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. He is also the director of Roosevelt’s interdisciplinary International Studies Program. His book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) focuses on the use of digital media by Egyptian opposition movements.