IS DEMOCRACY COMING TO AN END IN AMERICA?

This ought to be a frivolous question, but it no longer is. No less of an authority than President Barack Obama has issued the warning. In his final State of the Union Address in early 2016, he called on his fellow Americans to “fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.”

Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections has caused more observers to question the health of democracy in America, such as for example Professor Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the American government. However, the challenge to American democracy does not come from the election of an anti-establishment outsider, however outrageous he may be, but from a combination of two circumstances: the coming to power of a president with disrespect for democracy at a time when democratic institutions are already weakened.

What has eaten into the democratic foundations in America, more than anything else, is the power of money. The system is rigged in favour of the rich and of special interests. Washington perverts into collusion between big politics and big money. There is gridlock in government and anger in the heartlands. What is broken is finally we-feeling in the population and trust between people and government.

There are also other, if less dramatic, institutional distortions. During the last two or three administrations the balance of power between the main branches of government has been upset so that Congress has gradually lost authority. From one side, a politicised and unrestrained Supreme Court has usurped powers it should not have and made itself not just a guardian of law but a maker of law. From the other side, the Presidency has usurped other powers to govern without the collaboration of Congress such as in the widespread use of “signing statements” to limit his duties of implementing Congress’s laws and “executive orders” to govern without the consent of Congress.

The remarkable thing in the destruction of political equality and the pincer movement by the other powers against Congress, is that Congress itself is entirely passive. President Obama said that elected representatives are “trapped” by their dependency on raising ever more “dark money.” Congress has made itself an observer from the side-line to the deterioration of the Constitution.

Into this morass of institutional weakness steps a radical anti-politician. The inclinations of the person who becomes president, although constrained by checks-and-balances, matter enormously for the character of governance. American democracy is in need of repair. It has instead got a wrecker at the helm.

President Trump is not a man of democratic instinct. Of course, we observers from afar cannot know much about his true personality but it is to take him seriously to listen to what he says. He ran an outrageously ugly campaign based on anger, on fear of the other, on stimulating base mob instincts, on prejudice, on misogyny, on disregard of truth and facts, on disrespect for disagreement. He threatened his opponent with retribution and violence and held up the spectre of mass, possibly armed, action, having refused to commit himself to accepting the election result were it to go against him. He has been described, by competent expertise, as a world-class narcissist.

On the substance of his policies, we are starting to see the outlines, which are consistent with the persona we saw in the campaign.

  • A continuation in government from his habit in the campaign to disregard the truth and to use untruths as a method of working. The denial of truth and the propagandistic use of untruth is the method of dictatorship.
  • A systematic assault on the country’s free press. Journalists are collectively “dishonest” and what they produce is “fake news.” This is damaging. We are already into a Kafkaesque nightmare where the very meaning of truth and fact is being destroyed.
  • A continuation of disrespect for disagreement. An actress who speaks her mind gets clobbered, from the position of the Presidency, as “overrated” in her profession. A judge who rules according to the law, is branded a “so-called” judge. The White House spreads fear in the country.
  • An apparent uncontrollable urge to pick fights: with those who might disagree, of course, but also with his own administration and the intelligence services, and internationally with allies, such as the European Union, NATO and the neighbouring country of Mexico. A disregard for the duty of a powerful nation’s leader to make himself informed about matters he pronounces on. Washington spreads fear in the world.
  • A blustering use of executive orders, fortifying a precedent for governing without the collaboration of Congress. The deterioration of the Constitution continues.
  • And more drip-drip use of dictatorial methods. A lack of willingness to answer and inform, such as on his and his administration’s possible relations to an internationally aggressive Russia. Governance by prejudice, such as his (failed) attempt to ban all citizen from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

The administration is being ridiculed for being a mess. But that is to underestimate what is happening. This president came into office in an American democracy of institutional fragility. He has started to govern in ways that render the institutional foundations yet more fragile. The American polity needs an injection of trust but is getting ineffective and unsafe governance.

And whose fault is that? The American Constitution is designed to prevent any single president from doing much harm. But when President Obama says “fix our politics” he is really saying that the constitutional institutions are not what they should be. The Trump Presidency is unattractive, but it is Congress, finally, that is not doing its job.

ELECTIVE DICTATORSHIPS

In America and Britain, the world’s core democracies, the legislatures, Congress and Parliament, are the weak link in the system of governance and in danger of marginalising themselves towards irrelevance.

We the people elect lawmakers to make important decisions on our behalf. An executive is constituted to collaborate with the legislature in the preparation of policies and to put into effect the lawmakers’ decisions. Among several reasons for this double structure of governance is that it increases the likelihood that decisions are well prepared and that governance will be effective. That’s part of the case for democracy.

Dictatorships do not have a similar double structure. There the making of law and the implementation of law is in the same hands. That increases the risk not only of despotic policies, but also of badly prepared decisions slipping through because there is not enough scrutiny in the process.

A problem with the democratic double structure is that there tends to be a tug of war between the legislature and the executive about who should do what. The executive invariably wants to dominate. If that is allowed to happen, the benefit of double structure scrutiny may go lost and democracy pervert towards de facto dictatorship. It falls on the legislature to stand up to the executive’s inclination to dictate.

In Britain, the tug of war has become visible in the preparation for Brexit. The government initially insisted that it should be in charge (by “royal prerogative”) with little or no involvement of Parliament until the government had negotiated a new deal with the European Union. However, that attempt by the government to claim for itself powers that belong to Parliament, failed when the Supreme Court ruled that the government did not have the authority to trigger Brexit without a formal decision by Parliament.

However, the remarkable thing in this process was that Parliament itself was unable to stand up to the government’s assault. We had the undignified spectacle of individual MPs appearing on the evening news and demanding that the government involved Parliament, while Parliament itself had no voice in the matter. Only when a private citizen brought the matter before the courts, could they lay down the government’s duty to collaborate with Parliament.

The government responded with issuing a Brexit Bill, as it then had to, but continued the battle for dominance. The Bill is only 130 words long, with no detail, and Parliament was given only five days to deal with it. Again, the spectacle of individual MPs popping up to complain and demanding that the government gives them more time. But Parliament itself has no voice in deciding on its own procedure.

In America, Donald Trump was inaugurated into the presidency and set about issuing a flurry of “executive orders” with wide reaching consequences. In so doing, he was claiming for himself the authority (the American version of “prerogative”) to make new law without involving Congress. This turned into a case study in the risks inherent in decision making without scrutiny. One sweeping order suspended entry into the country of all refugees for 120 days, of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and of all citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days. This was a manifestly bad decision, with unforeseen consequences galore and bringing global condemnation down upon America, a result of the decision having been badly prepared or not prepared at all. It was also a despotic decision, setting aside established American law in the matters concerned.

The order on refugees was brought before the courts by civic groups and immediately set aside as unlawful, at least in part. The remarkable thing, however, as with Parliament in Britain, was that Congress itself had nothing to say about the executive’s usurpation of legislative power. Some members of Congress grumbled but Congress itself said nothing.

At the time of writing, the outcome of these tugs of war is unknown. Meanwhile, the respective governments come under criticism for being power hungry and ruling autocratically. That criticism is valid, but superficial. The executive will, if it can, grab power. It is for the legislature to prevent it. In both America and Britain, the weak link in the system of governance is a legislature, Congress and Parliament respectively, that does not assert itself and fails to do its constitutional job. It is when the legislature fails that democracy can pervert towards elective dictatorship.

A PRESIDENT SPEAKS

As the transfer approaches from a president who has graced the White House to one who is getting there by the basest of means, it is the time to remember, and celebrate, the former’s final State of the Union Address, delivered on the 12th of January 2016. Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” This, he said, was “the most important thing I want to say tonight.” He was delivering one of the most forthright presidential speeches ever, in hindsight one loaded with prophetic foreboding.

The last time a president warned the country in such stark terms was when Eisenhower, in his farewell speech in 1961, raised the specter of the military-industrial complex whose “economic, political, even spiritual” influence was “felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.” More than fifty year on, another outgoing president warns that democracy needs to be salvaged.

In Washington, explained the president, elected representatives are “trapped” by “imperatives” and “rancor” which they dislike but cannot get out of.

The imperative is that of raising money, “dark money” he had called it in his 2015 Address. That pulls everyone into the rancor of having to outshout each other.

When Washington is unable to act and turns into a shouting match, the next bastion to fall is trust. “A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens.”

The reason trust breaks down is that “those with money and power gain greater control over the decisions” that are made in Washington. “And then, as frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes.”

And further: “Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

The rejection of politics as usual in 2016 was a reaction against corruption and gridlock in Washington. Since Eisenhower’s warning, corporate America has added organisational power to its already formidable economic power. Through a vast network of partisan PACs, think-tanks, media organisations and lobbying groups, it has won control over the setting of political agendas. In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When big money is allowed to transgress into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once in office – that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big money and politics.

In the recent campaign, Mr. Trump could rightly call for the “swamp to be drained.” Those flocking to his side were the bearers of righteous anger. But it was Mr. Obama who had explained why. The holders of office in Washington, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good.

Again, the president was direct and radical. Since their representatives in Washington are trapped, “it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a President. We have to change the system. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”

In this election, it was perhaps the best funded candidate who lost, but both sides were bankrolled by outside interests, as were most of the other contests across the land. American elections are getting more expensive for every turn.

It ought to be possible for Congress to extricate itself from the trap it has fallen into. The members hate it: the never ending campaigning, the absence of civility, the constant raising of money, the kowtowing to richness, the looking over their shoulders to the moneymen when they vote. The people despise it, as they have now shown decisively. Democracy does not need mega-expensive campaigning. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money, it is money that chases politicians.

Again, in his remarkable speech, the president called it correctly. Appealing beyond Congress to all Americans: “Changes in our political process will only happen when the American people demand it.” Well, the election now over, it is to be hoped that it is understood in Washington that that is exactly what has been demanded.

In this speech, which, his usual eloquence notwithstanding, was raw with naked honesty about the state of democracy in America, Mr. Obama promised “that a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen.” Americans ignored Eisenhower. Be it that they now accepts Obama’s warning – and also his offer to continue working to “fix our politics.”