It's Debatable

Can the United States’ Democratic Institutions Survive the 2020 Election Campaign?

Trampled institutional norms, a battle over the Supreme Court, and the possibility of Democratic retaliation could threaten the bedrock of American democracy.

The flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Sept. 24.
The flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC on Sept. 24. ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma. Are you and your family still hanging in there?

Emma Ashford: Well, I have two toddlers upstairs on Zoom doing a group singalong, so we’ll see if my sanity holds up through the whole column. Did you know Old MacDonald had a unicorn?

MK: Are you sure they didn’t say Old McConnell?

EA: I doubt the preschool set follows politics that closely. Lucky them!

Mitch McConnell may not have a unicorn, but he does indeed have a Supreme Court seat to fill. Of course, he did once promise to let the electorate decide on election-year appointments. But I doubt the gentleman from Kentucky is going to let a little rank hypocrisy get in the way of filling another Supreme Court seat.

From our point of view, though, it’s less than six weeks to election day, and foreign policy has been pushed even further down the agenda by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the epic battle to fill her seat. What do you think?

MK: Only six weeks (and three columns) to go until the big day. I still think this election won’t be decided on foreign policy. An August Gallup poll placed it sixth among issues that voters care about (after the economy, health care, Supreme Court appointments!, COVID-19, and violent crime). But it is getting some more coverage in the press, and I know many foreign governments are trying to anticipate what U.S. foreign policy will look like after the election. What is your take?

EA: You’re probably right, but I do find it interesting that Donald Trump is trying to recast himself as the peace candidate. He slammed Joe Biden on his support for the Iraq War and told an ABC town hall audience that “I’m bringing our troops back from Afghanistan. I’m bringing our troops back from Iraq. We’re almost out of almost every place.” Clearly, the president thinks that his base wants to hear that.

MK: There are many on the right and left calling for an end to “endless wars,” but it is not clear it is the majority. In the most recent poll I could find from Gallup on the war in Afghanistan, a majority of Americans thought the war was not a mistake and a large majority of Republicans said the war made the country safer. I think Trump’s popularity among Republican voters is not driven by anti-war sentiment but by other issues, like Supreme Court appointments.

EA: That’s interesting. I know that polling found 70-plus percent of veterans supported a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. And I’ve seen more recent polling of smaller samples of Americans that found a majority of respondents agreed. So I suspect that Trump was mostly worried about being seen about backing off of his 2016 promises. And he has some high-profile supporters—most notably Tucker Carlson at Fox News—who are pushing him to get more serious on his anti-war bona fides. Carlson said just recently that Biden and Kamala Harris will take us to war in Syria if they are elected, and he said that Trump’s announcement of a reduced footprint in Iraq should be a cause for “widespread celebration.”

MK: These divergent results underscore that the public doesn’t really have firm views on foreign policy and they are heavily influenced by elite opinion. It is also an interesting issue among experts, because positions don’t line up neatly by party. You have interventionist and isolationist wings on both sides. H.R. McMaster (Trump’s former national security advisor) and Antony Blinken (the Biden campaign’s top foreign-policy advisor) probably agree more with each other than with Sens. Rand Paul or Bernie Sanders, prominent politicians in their respective parties.

EA: It doesn’t line up by issue, either. I think both candidates are to some extent trying to portray themselves as opposed to pointless wars in the Middle East. That polls fairly well, after all. But on China, they’re both taking a tough line.

Did you see the president’s U.N. speech this week? Inflammatory doesn’t start to describe it!

MK: Why inflammatory?

EA: Well, he slammed China, accusing it of spreading the “plague,” and described the World Health Organization as “controlled” by China. He reiterated his line that countries should all seek what’s best for them and avoid cooperation. It’s a pretty provocative approach to take during a pandemic that is likely to require substantial global health cooperation. It made China’s Xi Jinping—who called for climate cooperation and said he opposed a new cold war—look reasonable in comparison, I thought.

MK: I find it amusing that people take Xi’s statements at face value. The Chinese Communist Party routinely lies to the international community about everything (the virus, their GDP numbers, ethnic cleansing in Tibet and now Xinjiang). Statements about Xi sounding better than Trump say more about the observer than either leader.

EA: Ouch! Look, I’m not saying I believe Xi Jinping or that I think his statements are truthful representations of what he intends to do. They’re probably not. But I think he showed at the General Assembly that he can play the game of global influence better than the Trump administration. Trump gave a grudging speech, yelled at everyone, and told them that he didn’t care about them. Xi showed up and gave a normal-sounding speech extolling the virtues of international cooperation. It might all be fake, but the delegates on Zoom lapped it up.

MK: It makes sense to be diplomatic in diplomatic settings. But losing a popularity contest at the U.N. doesn’t mean the U.S. government is wrong. The other issue that caused a diplomatic rift but on which the United States has the correct position is the snapback of Iran sanctions. Iran is clearly violating the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal. The deal gives any of the parties to the agreement the ability to snap back sanctions—this kind of reverse U.N. Security Council veto was an ingenious part of an otherwise flawed agreement—and the United States has exercised that option. Now the other parties to the agreement are essentially choosing the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism over Washington.

EA: There’s been a lot of confusion about snapback, because it’s so full of nitty-gritty legal details. But perhaps an analogy would help: As I see it, last year, the United States got fed up with the nuclear deal, took its ball, and went home. Now Trump administration officials have decided that they still should get a say in how the game is played. It’s absurd.

I do think it is notable that the Europeans aren’t even suggesting the U.S. government might still get a say. I think in almost any other situation in the last 20 years, that wouldn’t be the case. It’s a testament to how badly U.S. influence has fared under the Trump administration. Rand Corp. had a great report recently that found American soft power has declined substantially in recent years; this is just Exhibit A.

But, speaking of things that are doing really badly since 2016, would you like to talk about the state of American democracy and institutions?

MK: Let’s do it. With the passing of the legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and news that Republicans plan to fill the seat before or just after the election, Democrats are talking about expanding the court, adding states like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union, and other retaliatory measures if they take power. The partisan fights seem more intense than usual, and some are warning about violence in the aftermath of the upcoming election. And this comes amid reports that scholars have rated the United States as backsliding toward autocracy.

I am more optimistic about where things stand, but maybe you want to begin by elaborating on the pessimistic view?

EA: Well, I’m certainly not running around screaming that Trump is Vladimir Putin’s puppet or anything. But I do think we have to take seriously some of the concerns that scholars are raising about democratic institutions in the United States. V-Dem, an academic project based in Sweden that rates various states on their democratic bona fides, recently suggested that the United States is undergoing “substantial autocratization.” Other academics—many of whom study these problems around the world—suggest similar things.

There’s a basic problem, which is that the United States has always been fairly undemocratic in form: There are lots of veto players and places where the popular will is translated into policy in an indirect way—the classic “republic, not democracy” problem. But then there’s been another shift over the last few years, where more and more institutions are captured by a minority of voters, and the institutions of the state itself are used in order to perpetuate their control. Nobody’s saying the United States is turning into Zimbabwe, but it’s a pattern we have seen before in other states that slid from democracy back to autocracy.

MK: There is a fundamental contradiction in the argument that Trump is a dictator-in-waiting. On one hand, his critics say that his administration is chaotic and lacks the ability to develop and implement clear strategies and policies. On the other, he is systematically working to dismantle the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Both charges can’t be true.

EA: Well, I think the word “systematically” is doing a lot of work there. Does it really matter if a more competent would-be autocrat would do a better job of dismantling institutions? Trump is doing plenty to delegitimize elections.

And much of this isn’t about Trump. As various observers have noted, if he successfully nominates a Supreme Court justice, then four of the nine seats on the court will have been filled by presidents who entered the White House after losing the popular vote. The structure of the Senate and wide-ranging gerrymandering have given one political party a substantive advantage in electoral politics; Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight estimates that the Senate is approximately 6 to 7 points more Republican than the voters. Isn’t that problematic?

MK: The rules of the game were set in 1789, and now some Democrats are complaining that they cannot win with these rules. The system was designed from the beginning as federalist and as a republic. It is not a tyranny of the majority; that is a strength, not a weakness. Rather than fight the rules, Democrats should focus their efforts on better competing with the rules as they are and look to do more to appeal to people outside of coastal, metropolitan areas.

EA: Look, much of this isn’t a new problem. Even the great scholar Juan Linz, when discussing the perils of presidentialism, included a carve-out for the United States, discussing how presidential systems can be democratic. But he also highlighted that it’s far easier for these systems to slide into autocracy in certain circumstances. And I really don’t think there’s a constitutional basis for rampant gerrymandering, for limited access to voting places, or for trying to delegitimize postal voting. All of those smack more of attempts to maintain the power of a minority.

MK: Americans should carefully nurture the country’s democracy. It is the United States’ greatest asset, and some practices, like the drawing of legislative districts, are badly in need of reform. I also agree that strong executives paired with weak legislatures can contribute to democratic backsliding. I even co-wrote an entire book on legislative strength around the world motivated by this precise concern.

But studying the issue only makes me more optimistic about where we stand. To be honest, I think a lot of the recent concern is driven by Trump Derangement Syndrome. V-Dem is a great project (I helped design the original survey and still serve as an occasional advisor) But, it relies on surveys of academic experts, and scholars have their biases. Most are on the left, they don’t like Trump, and they are downgrading the state of U.S. democracy accordingly. (Remember, many scholars incorrectly warned that George W. Bush was creating an imperial presidency, too.)

If Biden wins, I suspect the United States’ “democracy” score will suddenly improve, even if he packs the Supreme Court and adds new states to the union. In other words, it won’t be the country’s institutions that rapidly changed, only the mood of the survey participants.

EA: Isn’t that the problem? Everyone has been creating an imperial presidency for so long now that any leader or party with an inclination can turn it to decidedly undemocratic ends. Both sides bear some guilt; Trump is just the one exploiting it in an attempt to win reelection. On the upside, I suppose that McConnell wouldn’t be trying so hard to push through a replacement for Ginsburg if he thought that Trump was certain to win.

In any case, it’s a toss-up as to whether my derangement comes from Trump or the toddler sing-along. Though the two have some similarities: I’m worried that the wheels on the bus might just be falling off. Until next time?

MK: Sounds great. But I’d like to drive. My bus sounds safer.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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