America's institutions weren't designed to resist a modern strongman. That leaves civil society.
- By Daron AcemogluDaron Acemoglu is a co-author with James A. Robinson of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.
In the second half of the 20th century, the main threat to democracy came from the men in uniform. Fledgling democracies such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Thailand, and Turkey were set back by dozens of military coups. For emerging democracies hoping to ward off such military interventions into domestic politics, Western European and American institutions, which vested all political authority in the hands of elected civilian governments, were offered as the model to follow. They were the best way to ensure that democracy, as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan famously put it, became “the only game in town.”
Far from most thinkers’ minds was whether Western institutions might be inviting a different threat to democracy — personal rule, in which civilian state institutions such as the bureaucracy and courts come under the direct control of the executive, and the lines between the state’s interests and those of the ruler begin to blur. Most believed personal rule was something that applied only to the worst of the tin-pot dictatorships, such as that of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, or Sani Abacha in Nigeria. The checks and balances built in the fabric of Western institutions, the thinking went, would withstand any such usurpation.
Yet today we are coming to discover that contemporary democracy has its own soft underbelly — not so much a weakness against a cabal of colonels conspiring a violent takeover of government, but the gutting of state institutions and the incipient establishment of a variant of personal rule. Examples of personal rule include Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Russia under Vladimir Putin, and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These differ from the Mobutus, arap Mois and the Abachas of the world, because they are engineered by democratically elected leaders and maintain a much higher degree of legitimacy among some segments of the population But they still showcase how this process can irreparably damage institutions and hollow out democracy. Now, these examples are poised to include America under Donald Trump.
Trump appears to share several political goals and strategies with Chavez, Putin, and Erdogan. Like them, he seems to have little respect for the rule of law or the independence of state institutions, which he has tended to treat as impediments to his ability to exercise power. Like them, he has a blurred vision of national and personal interests. Like them, he has little patience with criticism and a long-established strategy of rewarding loyalty, which can be seen in his high-level appointments to date. This is all topped by an unwavering belief in his abilities.
What makes America vulnerable to being blindsided by such a threat is our unwavering — and outdated — belief in the famed strength of our institutions. Of course, the United States has much better institutional foundations and a unique brand of checks and balances, which were entirely absent in Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey. But many of these still won’t be much help against the present threat. Not only are America’s institutions particularly ill-equipped, in this moment, to stand up against Trump; in some cases they may actually enable him.
The first bulwark against any sort of personalizing threat to U.S. institutions is the country’s vaunted separation of powers. The legislature, elected separately from the executive, is supposed to stop in its tracks any president attempting to exceed his authority; it has indeed acted in this fashion during frequent periods of divided government, and when lawmakers on the Hill could follow their own constituencies’ wishes and their own principles.
Their capacity to do this, however, is much less true today, thanks to a historic rise in polarization between Republicans and Democrats and a pronounced shift toward party discipline. Consequently, as political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal document in their book Polarized America, House members and senators are now very unlikely to deviate from their party line. Such a rise in partisanship comes at the worst possible time, just as these protections are needed most. But given how quickly the Republican Party has regrouped around Trump on most issues, it would be optimistic to imagine a principled resistance to his appointments and most policy initiatives from a Republican-dominated Congress.
And so it follows, in turn, that the check on presidential power from an independent judiciary, the second leg of the separation of powers stool, is also unlikely to hold up. In truth, judicial independence in the United States has always been somewhat precarious, dependent on norms much more than rules. The president not only appoints justices to the Supreme Court and top federal judges (a prerogative Trump appears set to fully utilize), but also controls the Department of Justice through his attorney general. Any institutional resistance to inappropriate nominees would only be offered up by Congress, which, as discussed, seems poised to take Trump’s machinations lying down. And so the judicial institutions, too, are headed toward pliancy.
But America’s weakest point when it comes to resisting personal rule may lie in the executive’s unique relationship with the institution that makes up the very heart of government: the bureaucracy itself. In many other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, where most of the bureaucracy and high-level positions in the judiciary are non-partisan civil servants, state institutions can go about the business of governing while remaining mostly immune to executive attempts to establish personal rule. Not so much in the United States, where Trump is appointing his people to oversee 4,000 high-level posts in the civil service and the judiciary, essentially shaping a bureaucracy ready to do his personal bidding. This is the sort of power that the likes Chavez, Putin, and Erdogan had to acquire more slowly. (Erdogan, for example, is still locked in an epic struggle to change the Turkish Constitution to officially assume the powers of an executive presidency, even if he has already acquired many of those powers in practice.)
Why is the United States so defenseless in the face of the Trump threat? Because, to a large extent, the Founding Fathers wanted it this way. As Woody Holton recounts in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, despite the emphasis on the separation of power in the Federalist Papers, the main struggle that Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington were engaged in was to build a strong federal government and reduce the excessive powers granted to the states in the Articles of Confederation, which had left the country in close to complete chaos. The separation of powers was meant only as a counterbalance to this strong presidency.
In this, they succeeded, but only partially. The U.S. president is indeed hugely powerful in the extent to which he can shape not only foreign but also domestic policy, especially if he can get Congress behind him. However, his hands are tied when it comes to the states’ rights, a concession that the framers had to give to powerful state representatives to garner enough support for the Constitution. This is the reason why some of the strongest resistance shaping up to Trump’s policies is already coming from states like New York and California, where governors have pledged to stand against his immigration policies.
But over time, the federal government has grown, as it has accrued, by necessity and choice, ever more responsibility in domestic and international politics. States, by contrast, have far less power than they did at the end of the 18th century. Massachusetts and Vermont can resist federal policies, creating, perhaps, little liberal policy bubbles. They can have very little impact, however, on the personalization of the country’s most powerful levers of government, including the federal judiciary, dozens of major agencies, trade and fiscal policy, and foreign affairs. Nor can they do much to influence the perception of the new direction of U.S. politics in the minds of Americans and the world.
This leaves us with the one true defense we have, which Hamilton, Madison, and Washington neither designed nor much approved of: civil society’s vigilance and protest. In fact, this is not unique to the United States. What is written in a constitution can take a nation only so far unless society is willing to act to protect it. Every constitutional design has its loopholes, and every age brings its new challenges, which even farsighted constitutional designers cannot anticipate.
The lack – and in fact active discouragement — of direct social participation in politics is the Achilles’ heel of most nascent democracies. Many leaders of newly emerging nations in the 20th century, who professed as their goal the foundation of a democratic regime, all but prevented the formation of civil society, free media, and bottom-up participation in politics; their only use for it was mobilizing core supporters as a defense against other leaders seeking to usurp or contest power. This strategy effectively condemned their democracies to permanent weakness.
We saw this at work in Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey, where decades, if not centuries, of unfree media and prostrate civil society ensured there was no effective defense against the rise of personal rule. The U.S. tradition of free, rambunctious journalism, exemplified by the muckrakers and vibrant protest movements going back to Populists and Progressives should help us.
Yet there are reasons to be concerned that this last brake on executive power may, too, fail. Trump is in the process of being accepted and legitimized by American elites and the wider public. Just the knowledge that he will be the country’s next president confers upon him a huge amount of authority and respect. We avidly follow his appointments, his interviews, and his stream of consciousness on Twitter. Many pundits and public intellectuals are trying to see the silver lining, hoping against hope that he will govern as a moderate Republican. Many of my fellow economists are eager to give him advice so that he does not follow through on his disastrous pre-election economic plans.
When the previously unthinkable becomes normalized, it is easy for many to lose, or at the very least ignore, their moral compass. How quickly Trump’s brand of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, off-the-cuff foreign policymaking, and systematic mixing of family and state are becoming accepted is more than a cause for passing concern.
We have to keep reminding ourselves that we do not live in normal times, that the future of our much cherished institutions depends not on others but on ourselves, and that we are all individually responsible for our institutions. If we lose them to a would-be strongman, we have only ourselves to blame. We are the last defense.
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