Settembre 15, 2017

On the Fate of Democracy in Trump’s United States of America

Donald Trump speaking at GPAC 2011. Photo: Cage Skidmore

Democracy is under threat in what Americans like to think of as “the world’s oldest democracy.” The most obvious threat is President Donald Trump. He uses rhetoric threatening rule of law, public order, and social solidarity; he calls into question the democratic credentials of his own election; his administration is overtly hostile to transparency, accountability, and the separation of powers; he flirts with authoritarian impulses on a weekly basis. But while Trump is the most obvious threat, it is a mistake to treat him as the gravest threat and it is a mistake to personalize the instability of the United States’ democracy. Our Trumpian moment is much more deeply American and much more deeply entrenched—and so much more deeply threatening—than Trump himself. The best hope Americans have is that Trump’s excesses rip the carefully maintained veil away from the eyes of ever more of us and highlight the cracks in the foundations of our country.

One of the gravest threats to democracy in the United States is the sustained attack on elections and representation. Long before the prospects of a Trump presidency were haunting us, Republican officials throughout the country were pushing restrictions on the power of the people to vote. In this respect Trump harnessed an already building wave, recruiting the noxious Kris Kobach into his administration and forming the fraudulent Voter Fraud Commission. Voter identification laws—laughably premised on curtailing a non-existent epidemic of in-person voter fraud—restrict the most fundamental political right. These laws tragically but intentionally have their greatest impact on the most vulnerable members of society, disproportionately people of color and the poor.

Voter ID laws are accompanied by a host of partners in crime, often committed and abetted by members of both major parties: partisan and racial gerrymandering, restricting early voting, requiring even earlier voter registration, felon disenfranchisement, and reducing physical voting locations. Most recently we have seen the threat of foreign manipulation in our civic society, voting records, and voting machines, with so far only a tepid response. This is not even to mention the influence on our democracy of dark money in elections, advertisements, and media. It is simply becoming harder and harder for Americans to form independent opinions, to vote, and to bend the government to their voice. These tactics have an especially ugly and vicious hue in light of the history of similar white supremacist schemes during (and before, and since) Jim Crow, Trump’s flagrant affinity for white supremacy, and the surge of explicit white supremacism in the public sphere.

A nation that permits such tactics to proceed, whether by acclaim or neglect, is not a democratic nation. Such a nation shows its disregard for the fundamental premise of democracy: that everyone who is subject to the law should have equal say in its formation. The United States has always had an uneasy—more often actively acrimonious—relationship to this idea. It holds a prominent place in our ideals and collective self-conception, proudly proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. It was then immediately trampled on by the Constitution, which secured democracy only for white men. Many of the most famous moments in our history are part of the story of reclaiming and strengthening the right to vote: the passage of the 14th Amendment following the Civil War, the passage of the 19th Amendment following the efforts of the suffragists, the Civil Rights movement. Many of the most important moments in our history are the other side of that story: “Redemption” and Jim Crow and mass incarceration.

The anti-democratic character of the United States in 2017, whether in the persona of the president or in the constant attack on voting rights, is not an aberration. It is part and parcel with the American story, which has always been more complicated than the simple, steady march towards progress of our educational propaganda. At best the American story is two steps forward and one back—or three.  A nation that truly valued democracy as fundamental to its character would go far beyond refraining from attacking voting rights. This is not simply about an institutional structure under attack; it is about an institutional structure that has never been healthy to begin with, promises never kept, ideals never realized.

 A democratic nation would automatically register every one of its citizens to vote: it would seek out its people and desire their input. A democratic nation would make voting easy: it would make voting quick, it would make election days into holidays, it would expand elections beyond one day, it would allow a great deal of early voting, and it would provide assistance to those who require it. It would, in short, celebrate and promote citizens’ voices and votes. A nation that is threatened by the voice of its people is not worthy of our allegiance or admiration.

Of course democracy goes far beyond voting and elections; the sort of democracy that explains our ideals and contributes to the legitimacy of governance is a much more robust combination of institutional features and public culture. Our Trumpian moment includes attacks on democracy in all its aspects. One of Trump’s most famous memes is the infectious idea of fake news. Independent media is one of the bedrocks of democracy. It is necessary for a far-flung citizenry to know what its government is doing, to take a perspective on the government that is their own and not imposed on them by the very government they are watching, to keep the government closely tethered to its legitimate purposes and the public good, to keep the government accountable. Democracy is not simply about aggregating preferences but about the constant project of shaping a public, for which information and critique and debate are all indispensable. Attacks on an independent media are attacks on democracy because they are attacks on the ability of the people to stand apart from and above their own government.

Democracy is also about the citizens’ sense of justice. Trump’s core supporters are increasingly undemocratic. Not only do they endorse restricting the vote, some prominent members are openly authoritarian, fascist, or monarchist. One of the paradoxes of democracy is that it can only be sustained over the long term by a society that allows free expression and debate, including debate on the value and nature of democracy itself. Trump’s statements and actions offer permission for the veiled undemocratic and antiegalitarian sentiments of significant proportions of our citizenry to rise to the front. A new media landscape also amplifies these voices, not least of all Trump’s own Twitter account, and has accentuated, spread, and connected a variety of fringe views.

I noted at the start that the anti-democratic elements of the United States’ current predicament were much more deeply entrenched and threatening than Trump himself. Ultimately this is because they are failures not only of our public culture, our individual attitudes towards democracy, or our ability to live up to our own ideals. The threats to democracy are a result of our most basic political institutions and so answering those threats will require passing new laws and even Constitutional amendments. These more fundamental institutional failures also partly explain the attitudinal and cultural failures, for people react with fear, anger, and resentment when they feel powerless. The most basic failures of our system are failures to empower the people in their own lives.

Political scientists have noted that many peculiar features of the American system of government combine to make change even more difficult than in other democracies. These include features like winner-take-all, single-member districts, non-transferable votes, the filibuster, and the Electoral College. Not all of these necessarily need wholesale rejection but all of them need to be called into question. For a system that began drenched in the blood of grave injustices, specifically designed to enslave and oppress wide swaths of the population and to secure the advantages of the few, resistance to change is not a good feature. Grappling with our failures is made yet harder by our institutional culture. Yet these features are often deeply embedded in our institutions, whether by the Constitution itself, long-established jurisprudence, or legislation. This is not simply about getting Trump out of office; it is about a basic reimagining and reclaiming of what democracy looks like in the United States. This sort of change will not be easy but it is necessary for the United States to have a democratic and just future.

Democracy is a project that can never be complete and many Americans have been too complacent. Too many of us conceive of democracy as primarily about a set of formal institutional rights that are written on paper, heedless of whether they are fairly granted in practice, ignoring whether the preconditions for equal say are met, and failing to respect, protect, and cultivate the institutional ecology necessary for democracy to flourish. Other Americans have never been complacent because they have never had the promise of democracy or equal respect fulfilled. The question is whether apathy, cynicism, fear, and greed can be overcome to make the kind of serious changes that a true commitment to democracy requires. Is there hope yet for the American project?

Admitting your own failure is accepting a demand placed on you.

For many Americans—especially those who benefit most from its inequities, so especially white people and the upper class—seeing the failure is a first step in the long, difficult process of admitting failure and accepting the demands of repair. A silver-lining in the cloud hanging over American democracy is the thin hope that the starkly anti-democratic elements of Trump’s movement and this moment lay bare the fundamental failures of our system. The difficulty and pain of seeing failure may finally be overcome by the blaring signals sent by the racist, aristocratic, chintzy affront of our current leader and his sycophants. This is a bare hope indeed, for even more glaring injustices such as videos of police officers executing unarmed black men and escaping without consequence have failed to open the eyes and hearts of many.

Even now some fitful efforts, including some bipartisan efforts, are under way to challenge voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and even single-member districts. A system as large and complex as a modern state may have trends but is never univocal. The question is whether we can harness the way that Trump has exposed the weaknesses and failures in our system of government for improvement. The worry is that we write off the current moment as a spasm of irrationality or racism or fear or economic anxiety, a one-off reaction to unique circumstances that doesn’t reveal anything important about our country. The hope is that we can find the courage and strength as a people to take responsibility for our past and our future.

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About N. P. Adams

N. P. Adams

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