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:
- Trump is a man with undemocratic instincts and inclinations.
- He holds the enormous powers of the presidency and is showing ruthlessness in their use.
- 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.
- 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.