WHO IN THE WORLD WILL DEFEND DEMOCRACY?

There is such a thing as the free world where citizens enjoy liberty, rule of law, and mutual trust. That world is now adrift in self-doubt. Democracies need to come together in defense of liberty, but they are not finding their voice. The European Union should lead but is divided and unable. America should lead but is retreating into narrow self-interest. The energy is on the side of assertive autocracy. That needs to be confronted, but who will do it?

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Read the article here.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – IN NEED OF A HEALTH CHECK

America has had many odd presidents and democracy has survived them all. Normally it should not matter; presidents come and go and the Constitution prevails. But these are not normal times. The constitutional system and the political culture are weakened. In at most seven years, President Trump will be gone. The question is how much lasting damage will have been done by then.

Read the full article here.

WAS MACHIAVELLI A DEMOCRAT? IS HE RELEVANT TODAY?

Relevant, perhaps, but a democrat? Was he not the author of a book of tyranny? Perhaps not quite.

In The Prince, the most famous how-to about governing ever composed, Niccolò Machiavelli speaks to the man set to govern the state of Florence. His message is straightforward: if you are to govern, you better be effective.

Well, exactly who he is addressing himself to, and why, and what he means to say, is a bit of a mystery. He does preface his tract with a letter to “the Magnificent Lorenzo de’ Medici,” but when he started to write it he did not know that Lorenzo would be selected by the Pope (in 1513) to be the new Florentine leader after the collapse (in all but name) of the Republic. Perhaps he wanted to flatter the young and inexperienced prince to get himself a job, but it is likely that his friends advised him to hold back and that he never presented his text to Lorenzo or anyone else in his circle. Perhaps his intention was not at all useful advice but rather to confuse the autocrat with inconsistent and counterproductive ideas and thus entice him to failure. Machiavelli was after all a man of and for the Republic who had every reason to resent the new regime. Or perhaps not. Although a man of the Republic, he was also desperate for job and position, and in need of income, and probably very ready to compromise on his principles if he could get himself back into government service. He wrote the tract quickly, finishing it the year after he was deposed from his post as second chancellor to the Republic, having endured a spell in prison and under torture. Could it be that he wrote it in anger, or to get some resentment off his chest? We do not know. However it came about, it is a tract full of mystery and contradictions.

Machiavelli had good reasons to occupy himself with effectiveness. Italy in general and Florence in particular were in decline, suffering from internal disarray and threatened and to some degree subjugated by foreign powers. That, he thought, was the result of weak and inept governing. So when he reflected on the doings of the new the prince and the need for effective rule, what he had in mind might have been less the glory of the prince and more the standing of the state. Even if not a Republic, Florence was still Florence and needed the order of being governed. His message, then, was one of effectiveness for a purpose. He thought that effective rule was necessary if the ruler were to have any chance of winning the goodwill of the people and hence for the cohesion of the ruler and the ruled that would make for a solid state. It is in the interest of those who are ruled that the rule they are exposed to works. Otherwise, not only the state but also the lives of its citizens are in peril.

For Machiavelli, then, effective rule is a noble ambition. But it is also, in another piece to his puzzle, a difficult ambition. The world is not an easy place, people are not easy to deal with, the times were brutal and turbulent. Rule in such a way as to create order is difficult.

From this comes his many and well known recommendations for ruthlessness on the part of the ruler. There is no escaping his cynicism on the use of hard means, to put it carefully, but was he an apologist for tyranny? The reason, or at least one reason, he was a man of the Republic, was that under republican rule, where there is a division of power and where those in power are answerable to at least some of the people, there is ideally no need for tyranny. He also thought that kind of rule was the best basis for a stable state. Although republican rule is not democratic, that is as close to democratic thinking as was available at the time.

However, in the setting in which he reflected and wrote, republican rule was not going to happen. The problem to hand, then, was how to secure effective rule when power was in the hands of a ruler whose position rested not on the institutions and conventions of the state, but on a foreign authority (that of the Pope). The prince had been parachuted in by the enemy, yet that same prince was the only hope. That kind of ruler does not have the luxury of being able to trust that the people trust him. It is to rule under those circumstances, or so we may think, that Machiavelli’s hardest recommendations apply.

Those of us who are concerned today with the future of democratic government have much the same reasons to occupy ourselves with effectiveness. Democracy is challenged and in some ways in decline in quality and delivery. Movements of anti-politics and anger are taking hold. The core democracies of Britain and America are in a terrible way, in crises of identity and gridlocked governance. Their predicament is not unlike that of Machiavelli’s Florentine Republic: the constitutional institutions function poorly, in Britain and America’s case in particular their national assemblies, Parliament in Westminster and Congress in Washington. Cohesion of the rulers and the ruled is much wanting, as is goodwill from people to governors. Admirable constitutions are falling into disrespect and are weakened by internal divisions, lack of confidence and poor leadership. External powers of non-democratic persuasions are asserting themselves. In Europe, authoritarian Russia, with customary paranoia, is busy stirring up disorder in the democratic part of the continent, and winning admiration for “strong government” in particular in some of the younger democracies. In China, a re-constituted People’s Republic is on a mission to make totalitarianism work, racking up followers in democratic countries who either admire authoritarian force or hate democracy, or both. However you read The Prince, it is a reminder that the elementary condition of good government is effective government. We today need to be reminded that this is as true of democratic government as of any other kind. The purpose of democracy, after all, is not to be democratic but to provide for safe and effective government.

For more on Machiavelli, read Erica Benner: Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom.

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA – TOWARDS COLLAPSE?

The question is not frivolous: could democracy come to an end in America? Before our eyes, we are seeing functioning democracies disintegrating in, for example, Turkey and Venezuela, and democracy failing to take hold in, for example, Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, South Sudan and possible Tunisia where it for a while looked to be succeeding. “On more than seventy occasions [in the 20th Century] democracy collapsed and gave way to an authoritarian regime” (Robert A. Dahl: On Democracy, p. 145). Could it happen in America?

The question is being taken seriously. The most recent outgoing President, Barack Obama, in his final State of the Union Address, warned of “democracy grinding to a halt.”

It is being taken seriously by scholars. In a new book, How Democracies Fail, two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, find that democratic failure usually happens by gradual slide, rather than any sudden crash, under more or less cynical leaders who have come to power through elections. If elected leaders govern in disrespect of democratic principles, democracy is in danger. Danger comes from the top.

Leaders, they argue, are a danger to democracy if they have weak commitment to democratic rules, if they deny opponents legitimacy, if they tolerate violence, and if they show willingness to curb civil liberties or press freedom. These are the warning signs.

In the American case, they argue, no President except Richard Nixon has governed so as to ring even one of these warning bells. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is exercising presidential power in a way that meets all four warnings.

Other books coming out at about the same time add to the concern. David Frum, a Republican who worked for President George W. Bush, warns, in Trupocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, that Trump has brought “thuggery, crookedness and dictatorship into the very core of the American state, .. in a regime of deceit and brutishness.” In Fire and Fury, the journalist Michael Wolff draws an intimate portrait of a White House in the grip of ignorance, hatred and downright stupidity.

These books argue that the Trump presidency puts American democracy in danger. It might seem far fetched that a single president might put democracy in peril. The American Constitution, after all, is one of robust institutions that check each other and that has weathered many a previous storm.

But their warning is perhaps not as outlandish as one might first think, for two reasons. First, for all the checks and balances, the Presidency holds enormous powers. When an incumbent puts these powers into a relentless campaign of verbal and symbolic violence against anyone he sees to cross him, there is danger. Any semblance of speaking truth to power is now so costly that freedom of speech, and of the press, is curtailed.

Secondly, American democracy was on a path of decline before Mr. Trump became president. For my part, I warned of that decline in an op ed in the Washington Post already in 2014. President Obama issued his warning of democracy “grinding to a halt” a year before Trump was President and when no one through he wold be. My warning, and I think also that of Mr. Obama, was of a gradual weakening of the fabric of democracy. Mr. Obama spoke of a weaker democratic culture, of polarisation, mutual disrespect and an absence of trust and tolerance. My attention was on a weakening of the authority of Congress and of Congress’s ability to see itself and work as an institution, rather than just an arena of partisan battle.

The reason the warnings against the Trump presidency are valid is not simply that Mr. Trump is an unpalatable human being. They are valid for a particular combination of reasons that are coming together at this time:

  1. Trump is a man with undemocratic instincts and inclinations.
  2. He holds the enormous powers of the presidency and is showing ruthlessness in their use.
  3. This is against the backdrop of a political culture of divisiveness and distrust in which confidence in democracy and democratic values has been in decline.
  4. And against the backdrop of a Congress without authority. In the system of checks and balances, it is Congress that must check the President. So far, however, Congress has mainly given a brutish president free reins.

CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 2

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to assure that neither executive nor Congress is able to rule without the consent of the other. In Mr. Trump’s presidency, this balance of power is challenged.

However, checks and balances is not the Constitution’s only job. The country needs to be governed and the Constitution should provide for good governance. The duty of government, said George Washington, the first president, in his first inaugural address, is “the discernment and pursuit of the public good.”

It has become standard among observers of American politics that Washington is “dysfunctional.” The Constitution, then, is challenged not only in its ability to check power but also to provide governance.

The Constitution may well stand the test of Mr. Trump’s attempted power grab. That is not assured but is at least possible.

Whether it can be rebooted to do the job of providing good governance is more doubtful. The Washington system has been grinding into gridlock for a long time, and this problem is made more severe by the new chaotic presidency.

There is no single cause of Washington’s dysfunction. But one strong factor is the escalating power of money in political processes. The transgression of private money into democratic politics causes elected representatives to become beholden to the givers of money. American politics have become mega-expensive – actually have deliberately been made mega-expensive for the purpose of making money the ultimate political tool. Candidates and representatives cannot (mostly) hope to win or retain office without raising large amounts of money from sponsors. Sponsors are increasingly organised in PACs, super-PACs and otherwise. In this structure of sponsorship sits the power to decide who will be elected – those the money is willing to sponsor – and what policies they can promote and support when elected – those that are acceptable to the money. The result is Congressional gridlock. President Obama explained the problem with clarity in his final State of the Union Address: elected representatives are “trapped” by “black money” and not free to make policies for the public good.

The two main criteria of good governance are effectiveness and fairness. In a democracy in which money trumps votes, governance suffers on both criteria. There will not be necessary governance if it collides with organised monied interests. Such governance as there is, will be biased in favour of organised monied interests. You could not have a better description of Washington’s dysfunction.

While Congress is the institution to look to for the checking of presidential usurpation of power, the Supreme Court is the institution that needs shaking up to control the power of money. The Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such limitations on the political use of private money as have existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is, by convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion.

How could the Supreme Court be checked? None other than Congress could do it. Is a dysfunctional and demoralised Congress, “trapped” by the workings of “black money,” going to take on the Supreme Court? Not likely.

THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION ON TRIAL, PART 1

The Trump presidency is testing the American Constitution. Mr. Trump is going about the business of being president in bizarre and troubling ways. He started by showing an intention to govern by presidential decree and issuing presidential orders right and left. That did not go well. Many of his orders were ill prepared, many have been of little consequence, some have been slapped down by the courts.

It should, however, have gone worse. He set out to govern without Congress as an equitable partner. Congress did react, for example by turning down his initial health care “reform.” But Congress as such has not stood up to a president who has tried to side-line and diminish it as an institution.

Then followed a parade of executive incompetence and irregularity – in appointments, in a failure to make appointments and fill essential posts, in stimulating internal demoralising and chaos in the White House and the broader executive branch, in the spreading of misleading and untruthful “information,” in the boastful leaking by the president himself of sensitive security information to a foreign adversary, in an attempt to make the FBI an instrument of the president personally, in the firing of the FBI director who refused to comply, in various presidential actions to interfere with and pervert the course of justice.

The constitutional system has not failed to react. Congressional committees are investigating possible wrongdoings by the president and his team. The Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the same wrongdoings within a framework of criminal justice.

There should, however, have been more reaction. There is a power struggle going on. That struggle is for an imperial (if incompetent) presidency and against Congress. It is a messy and ugly power struggle, but unless the president’s usurpation of power is resisted, facts will be established on the ground and Congress will be further diminished. Congress has for years allowed itself to slip towards irrelevance. It is now as if a president with lust for power is exploiting Congress’s confusion about itself to govern unconstitutionally.

The pride of the American Constitution is “checks and balances.” It is designed to check the president so that he/she cannot attain despotic power. The framers assumed that presidents may incline to despotism and that such risks need to be controlled. It is possible, perhaps probable, that the Constitution will stand this test up against the kind of president the framers feared. But it is not assured. Mr. Trump has already lashed out against the Constitution itself as “archaic” and “a bad thing for the country,” and blamed it for the chaotic state of this presidency. A possible scenario is that Congress asserts itself to check the president, that the president takes this as an attack on himself and his mandate and fights back, and that the country is plunged into deeper constitutional crisis.

It is the responsibility of Congress to check the president. Congress may still do that. But so far, Congress has not risen above party politics to assert itself as an institution. Members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are still allowing the president to hold the initiative and mainly responding strategically by what is expedient for their own standing and electoral prospects. That’s what members of Congress must do, but it is not all they should do.

When a president persists in ruling against rather than with Congress, a time comes when Congress must stand up and act as an institution with independent judgement that goes beyond political expediency. Whether Congress would so do, is for now an open question. It is today a weakened institution which may not be able to harness the necessary collective will. An unpalatable president may win the power struggle and prevail over a further diminished Congress.