American Democracy Is Dying, and This Election Isn’t Enough to Fix It
The foundation of our political system is broken. And repairing it will take more than just your vote.
U.S. prosperity and stability over the last two centuries has been built on the country’s unique brand of inclusive institutions. The United States has laws that protect private property, encourage innovation, and facilitate the functioning of the market while preventing it from being monopolized by a few. It has a political system which prevents the domination of one group over the rest of society, provides the people with a voice on how they should be governed, and enables most Americans to access education and share in the process of wealth creation. These institutions don’t function just because they are written on parchment paper. Our much-revered Constitution, Bill of Rights, and all of the protections for freedom of religion and speech and assembly and more that emanate from them only mean something because we have all agreed to respect them. The Supreme Court is a powerful body only because we have developed political norms that make it well-nigh impossible for presidents to cast its opinions aside when they please, as heads of government have done in so many other countries.
Two norms, in particular, combine to hold the whole system together: respect for the law, and an openness to the right of the people to organize, get engaged in politics, and demand from their representatives good governance and societal change when necessary. Our institutions are not, and have never been, perfect. They can create gridlock. They can also be captured: The vast American bureaucracy, the Congress, and even the Supreme Court are always vulnerable to undue influence by well-organized actors in society. But consensus on the norms undergirding them — a combination of respect and resilience — has ultimately given these institutions the flexibility necessary to endure despite periods of popular discontent. It was this consensus that allowed the United States to abolish slavery and enfranchise former slaves, shake off the dominance of the robber barons, limit monopoly, and later build the beginnings of a social safety net.
Today, our institutions and the underlying political norms are facing some of the most challenging times they have encountered in the modern era. American politics is in an iconoclastic phase, and the icons being targeted are the moral foundations of our democracy.
It is a recipe for political disaster that our system has largely brought on itself. First came the failures of omission. Our institutions and political system stood by during the last three decades as the economy made huge gains but most Americans benefited only a little or not at all. Both the bewildering array of new technologies and the rapid rise in international trade made us much richer than our parents’ generation, but also created massive dislocations, as millions of workers saw their jobs automated by machines or taken away by cheap imports or offshoring. The inaction of those with the power to make the gains shared more equally started chipping away at the foundations of a political system based on the belief that a rising tide should lift all boats.
Then came the failures of commission. It wasn’t news to anybody that large corporations and Wall Street, which had been pouring billions of dollars into political influence via lobbying and campaign finance, had an outsized voice in Washington. It nonetheless was jarring that in the midst of the severest recession since the Great Depression, the government sprang into action to save auto manufacturers and big banks (which were almost certainly the right moves to prevent the recession from metamorphosing into a depression), but did not deem it necessary to bring help to millions of households suffering joblessness, foreclosures, and debilitating uncertainty (which was as surely the wrong move both economically and, in hindsight, politically).
On top of all this came the Republican Party’s capitulation to Donald Trump. Building on the shoulders of other political sinners, who have similarly polarized society and debased the public discourse, Trump has managed to tear down the last vestiges of respect for American democratic institutions and an inclusive spirit in public life. He exploded the fissures of our economic, political, and social life with the curious force and strange attraction of his iconoclastic personality and the toxic energy of right-wing populist movements he courted.
We are now in the midst of the resulting whirlwind, which has been knocking down the unwritten laws of U.S. public life. The presidential campaign has seen Trump demonize his opponents, flaunt his rampant tax avoidance, make almost-overt calls to violent action, and relentlessly question the motives of institutions, such as the judiciary and the media, meant to keep unscrupulous businessmen and politicians, such as Trump himself, on the straight and narrow. He has declared that he would see his opponent jailed if elected. He has even pronounced that he may not recognize an electoral defeat. To top it off, Trump has trampled on the norms protecting the disadvantaged: women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and the disabled. He has done all this — and still been accepted as a legitimate candidate by the Grand Old Party.
In Why Nations Fail, James Robinson and I argue that inclusive institutions have a lot of staying power. They come with inherent checks on power and an openness that makes it difficult for them to be hijacked. Trump, however, has brought us to the brink of destroying the two political norms on which this system of inclusivity depends. That Trump has demonstrated a flagrant disrespect for the law is clear. But he has also accepted, and even encouraged, the right of the powerful to bully the less powerful, and by doing so, has endangered the openness that has been so crucial to our political system’s long-term survival. How could we expect, without this openness, people to continue to make demands for justice from politicians and businessmen more powerful than themselves? Without these demands, how can our institutions continue to evolve to accommodate changing needs, rather than collapsing?
Perhaps unwittingly, Donald Trump has thus created a critical test for our political system. Can we survive him? Can we rebuild?
Complacency is dangerous: History is full of examples of the collapse of institutions that at one time appeared to be robust. The once-inclusive institutions of Venetian Republic were captured, in the early 14th century, by an oligarchy of the richest merchants, which no longer allowed others to have a say in the republic’s key decisions and used its increased political power to further enrich itself — a warning, perhaps, about the increasing dominance of the rich in American politics. The Roman Republic, too, self-destructed via a series of civil wars in the first century BC, in part because some members of the republic stopped respecting the political norms that had been so central to its survival: namely, respect for democracy. The widening gulf between the rich and poor, and the growing size and duration of the military campaigns of the late Roman Republic, led some Roman citizens to feel disempowered and receptive to the promises of would-be tyrants.
It is the Roman example, perhaps, that we have to watch out for most. The damage to the norms of respect for democracy and rule of law that Donald Trump has wrought and the incipient slide in the public’s trust in institutions will not be blotted out by a Clinton victory on Tuesday. But it’s equally important to not forget the pre-Trump sins of omission and commission by our political elites, the Democratic Party included. They also played a role in corroding public trust by giving the impression that the political system is incapable of identifying and responding to the problems of our age and that our leaders are less concerned about the plight of Americans at large than about campaign contributions and the interests of big businesses, unions, and other organized interests.
The test facing our inclusive institutions is a difficult one, but there is still no need to lurch from complacence to despair. The challenges faced by Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party, the progressive movement, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt were no less severe, and the society in which they were situated was no less polarized. But they had one thing going for them. They started with a clearheaded diagnosis of the problems. Post-election, this must be our first step, too.
At the root of our problems is our inability to create shared prosperity and the unwillingness of the political system to discuss and tackle this problem. To equal our modern-day challenge, our institutions therefore need to show that they can make the gains from new technologies and trade more widely shared; build a much stronger and more rational social safety net; reform our tax and entitlement system; reduce the increasingly onerous red tape confronting small businesses; improve our badly failing educational system (if necessary over the objections of teachers unions); start investing in our long-neglected infrastructure; and at last, recognize some of the most debilitating problems facing our society’s most disadvantaged, including violence in our inner cities and mass incarceration in our prisons. All this needs to be done without further deepening the polarization that laid the tracks for Donald Trump’s rise. It’s a tall order, though not an impossible one. And it will require that American elites recognize that the battle to save American democracy won’t be over on Tuesday, regardless of the outcome of the vote.
Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Contributor