Donald Trump and the Crisis of American Democracy

Our long national nightmare is, one might hope, almost over. Hopefully it does not prove to be just beginning… and hopefully it does not prove to be a precursor of bigger and longer nightmares to come.

We are, at long last, coming to the end of one of the most bitter, divisive, and depressing presidential elections in recent memory, between the two most disliked candidates on record, and it would be fruitful at this time to stop and figure out how we got here. What does Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party mean for the party and the nation? How is it that one of the two major parties’ nominees for President came to be a bloviating gasbag with policy proposals that thinking people almost unanimously agree portend disaster and who showed every sign of being the closest America has come to electing Hitler himself, how did the Republican elites show so much impotence in the face of his movement, and how did the prospect of his election prove to be a terrifyingly real, if somewhat distant, possibility even in the weekend before the election? Is it a party’s base wresting control of the party away from the elites and going against every modicum of common sense the elites try to warn them about? Is it the natural conclusion of those same elites feeding that same base a steady diet of racism and xenophobia, creating a monster they don’t deserve any sympathy for losing control over? Is it the result of a bipartisan revolt over the influence of money in politics that’s attracted Republicans to a man rich enough not to need to be bought and Democrats to the people-powered campaign of a Bernie Sanders, or is it simply a group of Americans falling in love with a charismatic strongman?

The truth is, as completely unexpected as the rise of Donald Trump may have been at the time, in many ways it is but the culmination of the trends rendering our democracy increasingly dysfunctional over the past decade and a half. It is the result of the increasing polarization of the country during the Bush era, creating two sides increasingly unable to speak to one another and increasingly punishing their own respective parties for not being sufficiently devoted to the cause, rendering it increasingly impossible to get elected as anything other than a complete ideologue, resulting in the complete gridlock of the Obama era, where it takes control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60% of the Senate to get anything done, and as proven by the fate of Obamacare, even that might not be enough if one house is only barely in control, and without it America lurches to the edge of crisis after crisis before Congress finally agrees to do the bare minimum to keep the country afloat (or in some cases, the President unilaterally sidesteps Congress and issues executive orders to get his way). Our Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ vision suffers as all sides look to exploit every loophole they can to get their way or prevent the other side from getting theirs. The only way for anything to change is if one has the resources to push it through by brute force, meaning monied interests’ control over the system has only deepened, and the Presidency gains more and more power as presidents use executive orders to do what Congress won’t do for them. Whether Donald Trump is the ultimate expression of the Republican base’s desires, or simply the result of people demanding a commanding presence to break through the gridlock, it is the natural evolution of this state of affairs, and it suggests that Trump is not necessarily a unique phenomenon but something that will only get worse if nothing is done to stop it.

In a way, what we’re seeing is the realization of a major flaw inherent in our Constitution, one foreseen by the Founding Fathers and whose escape from being quite so obvious as now is nothing short of miraculous (and partly rooted in some of the darker ghosts of American history). The Founding Fathers did not intend for political parties to form at all. They distrusted political parties and “factionalism” as a destabilizing force and believed people should vote for the person, not the party. As political science was almost nonexistent at the time, though, they had no real grasp of the forces that lead to the creation of parties and ended up forming parties almost literally before the ink was dry on the Constitution, over, somewhat ironically, the adoption of the Constitution itself.

The Founders were also, somewhat surprisingly, distrustful of too much democracy, fearing that it would lead to the outbreak of “mob rule” of the sort the French Revolution would soon seem to provide. At the time, most states restricted the right to vote to white male landowners, and partly out of a desire to keep the states primary to the federal government, the Founders restricted even their participation in the workings of the federal government. Only the House of Representatives was directly elected by the people; for over a century Senators were chosen by state legislatures, who also determined for themselves how members of the Electoral College to select the President would be chosen. Our modern-day commitment to democracy uber alles for as much of the adult population as possible is at odds with the values underlying the Constitution. The system of checks and balances underlying our government doesn’t work as the Founders intended when the President, the House, and the Senate are all chosen by the people.

That shift has direct consequences for our current malaise. Yale political scientist Juan Linz spent much of his career arguing that the great difference between dysfunctional Latin American democracies and relatively stable European ones had nothing to do with any cultural differences between them and everything to do with the form their respective governments took. European nations tend to have parliamentary systems where the prime minister is elected by the Parliament and so must have Parliament’s support; if the prime minister loses that support, the governing coalition either elects a new prime minister, forms a new coalition, or potentially holds a new election. Latin American systems, by contrast, tend to be modeled on the American system of a directly elected President separate from the Congress, meaning when the President and Congress disagree they can both claim to have the backing of the people and there is no obvious principle with which to resolve the dispute that would be terribly convincing. (Not for nothing were the democracies set up following and since World War II, often installed by America itself, usually parliamentary systems.)

The obvious exception to Linz’s analysis was the United States itself, which seemed to be a model of stability with its presidential system, but Linz’s theory was that America’s success could be chalked up to the diffuse, “big-tent” nature of American political parties that could accommodate many different ideologies under the same roof, something that frustrated many political scientists for many years as they looked wistfully at Britain’s ideologically-coherent parties without recognizing what a disaster it would be in America’s system of checks, balances, and separation of powers. In the American context, though, ideologically diffuse parties meant individual congressmen and Senators could vote their conscience and control of any branch of government by either party didn’t actually mean much – parties were themselves coalitions, and each caucus in each house had enough of a diversity of ideologies that coalitions could form that could keep the government more or less stable and moving in a single direction across the legislative and executive branches. This is no longer the case, and the result is providing chilling evidence for Linz’s theories.

That it was the case for so long, preventing the Founders’ fears about the impact of political parties from being realized, can be chalked up to three dark undercurrents of American history: corruption, race, and voter apathy. The party system that emerged after the Founding generation left power, by the time Electoral College members became largely determined by popular vote, was centered more around people’s feelings about Andrew Jackson than any actual issues, and the main issue dominating American politics was the slavery issue and the main fault line was the Mason-Dixon Line, and both parties tried to appeal to voters on both sides of the line. Although the Republican Party was founded around opposition to slavery, by the time Reconstruction was over both parties were increasingly dominated by the spoils system Jackson had started, and American politics was dominated by political machines who turned out the vote for their respective parties, whose ranks were mostly filled by people hoping to gain patronage positions if their side won. In other words, for most of the nineteenth century American politics had little to do with ideology; both sides may have stuck close by their own team, but actual issues were all but irrelevant in the post-Reconstruction era. It also helped that until Woodrow Wilson and World War I came along, the power of the Presidency was rather limited, and Congress was arguably more powerful; as in a parliamentary system, Congress could act on behalf of the people without conflict, especially once the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the direct election of Senators.

After World War II, race again began muddying the boundaries between the parties as the civil rights movement rose to prominence. The one constant of post-Civil War politics was Southern whites’ distrust of the party of Lincoln, but as integrationists became more and more prominent in the Democratic Party, it became increasingly fragmented, to the point that Southerners twice ran rival presidential tickets upon deciding the official Democratic nominee wasn’t sufficiently pro-segregation. Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968 created the final break between the South and the Democrats, turning the “Solid South” into today’s Republican stronghold. At about the same time, the modern primary system began to take shape, as the people, having already taken control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress, proceeded to wrench control over the selection of nominees for President away from party bosses. Before small cabals in “smoke-filled rooms” decided amongst themselves who the best candidate would be that could strike a balance between serving their interests and getting elected, meaning even after the post-Wilson expansion of presidential power the President still operated at some level of remove from pure popular will. Now the President had to appeal to a subset of the people from the very start – and more, the people were now engaged in every level of the process, becoming the underlying force behind the parties themselves rather than simply taking what the parties gave them, and pressuring parties and politicians to adopt their favored positions. The thorough democratization of American politics was complete, and the parties inevitably became levers for two different factions of the popular will, utterly ideologically opposed to one another, trying to pull the country in opposite directions.

In the popular imagination, our problems have obvious, commonsense solutions that don’t get enacted solely because corrupt politicians don’t enact them. Democrats think they’re in fealty to big business and other rich contributors; Republicans think they’re too addicted to power and big government. It escapes partisans on both sides that one side’s “commonsense solution” is another’s unacceptable giveaway to special interests. Democrats dismiss Republicans’ concerns as the result of being misled by big corporations and blinded by the culture war and a relentless message of patriotism, too stupid to realize that Republican policies are only keeping them down; Republicans dismiss Democrats’ concerns as being misled by the “liberal media” and ivory-tower elites and looking for a handout, too selfish to realize that Democratic policies only hold the country back. Only on Capitol Hill do people from each side of each issue meet and understand where each side is coming from, or even acknowledge that the other side exists. (Theoretically, the same could happen for party bases on the Internet, but it hasn’t happened and human psychology makes it unlikely to happen, and believe me I’ve tried.) Once they come down from the hill and present the result to the partisans back in the cave, they risk being accused of “selling out their principles” and replaced with someone less “corrupt”. It’s a truism that people don’t like Congress but like their own congressperson. What’s not as recognized is that the inverse is true: a congressperson that tries to do what’s necessary to improve the working of Congress as a whole finds their constituents turning against them. People agree that Congress does nothing, but don’t agree on what they should be doing – and prefer doing nothing to doing anything that the other side wants. The hard truth is that getting what you want means throwing some bones to what the other side wants, but people don’t believe there’s anyone legitimate or worth appeasing on the other side at all.

The result is that gridlock is now entrenched in our system. No longer torn between the party on one hand and the base on the other, today they are one and the same. Further fueled by cable news, talk radio, and ideological web sites, and increasingly distant from those on the other side as the parties increasingly reflect racial and urban-vs-rural divides and as congressmen get fewer opportunities to form relationships across the aisle, each side sees their positions as the only acceptable, even the only American positions, and that the other side is corrupt and their followers are deluded. For each side, compromise is unacceptable, and anyone who dares to vote for anything floated by the other side is a traitor – meaning any position that doesn’t conform to the two great forces doesn’t even get any sort of hearing to begin with, because any moderate gets swiftly weeded out, doomed to defeat in the primaries. If either side has any power to stop the other from getting their way, even a mere 40 votes in the Senate, then nothing whatsoever will get done as both sides dig in. The problem is compounded by the loss of the tools once used by party elites to compel votes, the earmarks, patronage, and lack of transparency so dismissed as hallmarks of corruption but which haven’t been replaced by any mechanism to stop small groups of congressmen, or even a single Senator, to grandstand for the sake of impressing their base or furthering their own political advancement. If there were a multitude of parties this might not be so big a problem – any ideology that might have relevant ideas would have a seat at the table, and without two parties on exact opposite ends of one another it would be easier to find common ground – but our system effectively precludes that, for reasons obvious to anyone who followed the 2000 election. So our democracy lurches ever forward to the brink, and if nothing is done to correct its course the result will either be the election of a Trump-esque strongman, one who will set out to push whatever their side wants no matter who gets trampled underfoot in the process, or all-out civil war, if not both – and either would likely be the death of the Republic.

All this would play out exactly as the Founders feared – the rise of factions resulting in the dissolution of the Republic – and we would do well to recall their wisdom. We no longer believe there is such a thing as “too much” democracy and have come to accept the advent of parties as inevitable, things our Constitution is not designed for. If we are to keep our democracy from plunging into the abyss, we must remember their wisdom while reflecting today’s values.

I urge my fellow Americans concerned about the direction of the country to call for a constitutional convention to update the structure of our government to reclaim the Founders’ wisdom while reflecting our values – crafting a government designed from the start under the assumption that the people will determine as many of its members as possible and recognizing the inevitability of parties, encouraging compromise between factions while strengthening the system of checks and balances for today’s society – or short of that, to form a movement to demand reforms to our democracy within the Constitution to better encourage compromise and finding the best ideas to move the country forward.

I don’t know what shape such a revitalized government would take, and I’m not confident that anyone selected to attend the convention would have anywhere near as much wisdom as the Founders, especially considering the concerning likelihood that anyone with such wisdom would be cast aside in favor of groups with axes to grind hoping to engrave their favored positions in the Constitution, but the necessity to at least confront the problem is undeniable, and I hope that by stating the issue in this way I can invite concerned Americans on both sides of the aisle, all of which consider themselves concerned about America’s well-being, to confront the issue and work together to start working towards a solution. Over the next few days and weeks I will present some specific ideas about flaws in the system and ways to resolve them – even without a convention, though some modification to the Constitution may still be warranted in order for those changes to be as effective as one would hope.

In 1787 the Founders saw an America in crisis – disrespected by the great world powers, unable to raise money to pay its debts, unable to do anything to ease squabbling between the states – and realized that large-scale reform would be needed for the republic to survive, for the Revolution to prove to be more than a Pyrrhic victory. We now find ourselves facing a crisis that may be every bit as big a threat to the survival of the Republic as what the Founders faced, and however we choose to solve it, we need people from left, right, center, and elsewhere to rise to the occasion and find solutions to the great challenge of our time, no matter what that might entail.

One Comment

  1. Walt Gekko
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 5:42 am | Permalink

    The real problem in the eyes of many has been the Koch Brothers, who have in some cases made it clear to many Republicans if they don’t do exactly what they want they risk being “primaried” where only Republicans can vote and where they would likely lose such. That has been a big problem for a long time as well.

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