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Taking Democracy for Granted

[ 124 ] November 21, 2016 |

[This is a guest post by Valerie J. Bunce, the Aaron Binenkorb Chair of International Studies at Cornell University, and Mark R. Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics at Princeton University. Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva. ]

How might American democracy end? The United States would not be the first long-lasting government to collapse. Whether they supported communism or not, those who lived under it assumed, in Alexei Yurchak’s words, that communism was forever—until it was no more.   Developments in the United States bear an uncomfortable resemblance to those that fore-shadowed the decline of democracy elsewhere in the world (Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and earlier, Latin America in the 1960s and interwar Europe).

There are three pieces to the puzzle of why and how democracies fail. The first involves public opinion. In Russia, for example, growing public worries about crime and social disorder, economic collapse, and national security paved the way for the rise of a leader who promised political order, economic growth, and strong government—in short, making Russia great again. In many instances of democratic collapse, there was a decline in tolerance, as publics grew more polarized, more locked into their own views and into networks of like-minded people, and more distrustful of and angry at each other and the government. There was a thirst for new styles in politics, flamboyant rhetoric, and a willingness to gamble. Citizens voted for change; they did not vote to end democracy.

The second piece is dysfunctional political institutions. Just as the rise of Victor Orbán in Hungary was preceded by the collapse of the party system, so too was the rise of Hitler and Mussolini foreshadowed by prolonged parliamentary paralysis. In failing democracies, public trust in political institutions declines, and government can no longer fulfill the basic tasks expected of it. In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. Little wonder that trust in Congress has plummeted to the mid-20 percent level since 2010.  Mistrust of government is contagious, poisoning democratic processes. Echoing Trump’s rants about a “rigged system,” nearly a half of all registered voters believe that voter fraud occurs somewhat or very often in the United States, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The final piece of the puzzle is the role of politicians in terminating democracy. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, it is political leaders that end democracy, not angry publics or dysfunctional institutions. But how leaders have taken down democracy has changed over time. During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

The elections that bring these dangerous leaders to power typically feature an electorate composed of large numbers of alienated, floating voters. All of the candidates have unusually high unfavorability ratings (which depresses voter turnout, skewing the representativeness of the electorate), and the choice confronting voters boils down to supporting experienced but compromised establishment politicians or risky outsiders. Outsider-politicians exploit public disgust with politics, attack their opponents in personal rather than policy terms, make grandiose promises, and talk of a return to the good old days by restoring the culture, society, and status of the past.

Most important is their claim to defend the nation. This is a perfect issue for ambitious amateur politicians because it plays so well to public fears about national security, personal security, and cultural diversity. Being for the nation, like being for economic growth and against crime and polio, is a valence issue—there is only one acceptable position. The costs of nationalist tropes for democracy are many. They give candidates a license to avoid talking about policy. They silence the opposition, since it cannot possibly come out against the nation. They sow divisions among the public. But perhaps their greatest danger is that they give rise to the demand for strong leadership—leaders who will do anything to defend the nation from its enemies.

To those who view American politics as exceptional, Trump is an anomaly that is difficult to explain. To us, his politics are disconcertingly familiar.

Durer Revelation Four Riders.jpg

Revelation: Four Riders. By Albrecht Dürer.

 

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  1. Davis X. Machina says:

    How might American democracy end?

    Between the millstones of irony and cynicism.

  2. McAllen says:

    I’d like to echo a question I saw asked in a previous thread. Is there an example of a nation in the position we are in now, where all the pieces for the end of democracy were in place, that was able to preserve its democracy? If so, how was it done? What action did pro-democracy citizens take?

    • Ronan says:

      I don’t know about a direct comparison to the US, but there are plenty (I would imagine)of cases where the States institutions were threatened by radicals, but survived.
      Ireland’s the case I know best, where the argument could be made that they were threatened in the interwar years, but certainly in the late 60s early 70s the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as a possible existential threat (which is why when the British floated the idea of pulling out the Irish govt let it be know they wouldn’t be happy with such an event)
      Nothing is inevitable .

      • McAllen says:

        Nothing is inevitable

        This is important, and it’s something I’m trying to remember. Our fall into authoritarianism isn’t some immutable law of nature. It is people who are pushing it, and those people can be fought.

    • bexley says:

      India during the period when Indira Gandhi had declared a state of emergency? She had her political opponents arrested, was able to rule by decree, had a compliant judiciary and censored the press.

      She then decided to hold elections in 1977 and was smashed at the ballot box.

      Not an expert on the period so not really sure what her opponents did during the period and why she gave up emergency powers.

    • agorabum says:

      No one has ever been in such good economic shape, strong military shape, broad global power, and broad prosperity, with no major foreign threat, and lapsed into such idiocy before. Certainly not with under 5% unemployment and under 2% inflation.

      So we obviously have a critical problem where so many voted for an unqualified fraud, but we also don’t have a situation where the nation is truly on the brink, at least at the time of the election. We’ll just have to see how many catastrophes arise after Trump’s been in office for awhile, though.

      • vic rattlehead says:

        But that’s also a good thing, no? Assuming Trump doesn’t wreck the place in such a way that he and his right wing goonsquad *won’t* be blamed for it, we can show him the door in 2020. One hopes. And then figure how the fuck we can stop that shit from happening again.

      • burritoboy says:

        And I think you see where you’re making a fundamental mistake: those are only the definition of being on the brink (or not) if you think they are. Plenty of countries have descended into the most abysmal civil wars for all kinds of other reasons. And you’re not going to understand politics if you don’t try to understand what those reasons are and how those reasons work.

        • agorabum says:

          It’s more of a commentary on the American voter doing something so dumb when things are actually so placid, compared to other civil wars or fascist assumptions of power. I still think Trump and the Republican party is committed to violating all kinds of norms of our society, but the animating revolution principle of “I’d like to tell more jokes that use the N-word without people yelling at me for being racist” isn’t usually the type of thing that lends it to revolutionary fervor.

    • davidsmcwilliams says:

      The United States, circa 1861?

    • Zamfir says:

      Italy? Berlusconi is still the go-to analogy. It’s not like Italian democracy is great, but it’s no worse that it was before.

      Anyone seen il divo?

      • burritoboy says:

        Well, several points as to the analogy with Berlusconi:

        1. To some extent, Italy is now a sub-state within an emerging EU mega-state or meta-state. Berlusconi was in the end forced out of power because the EU ultimately controls all the money, and the ECB refused to work with Italy until Italy dumped Berlo. Obviously, that series of events doesn’t have much applicability to the USA.

        1a. The EU theoretically can (and has threatened to) boot countries off the euro and out of the trade zone if they become dictatorships. Losing your currency and trading partners is a pretty big bar to potential tyrants. Turkey is probably now not going to be able to join the EU for at least a generation or two because of Erdogan’s recent adventures in authoritarianism.

        2. Italy is a comparatively minor country, as opposed to the USA, which is the lynchpin for much of the world.

        3. Italy’s government was never an exemplar of much of anything good, so Berlo taking that government over was hardly tarnishing democracy or liberalism worldwide. The USA is quite something else.

        4. Berlusconi certainly did do a tremendous amount of damage to Italy’s already degenerate political world. The country may well elect an actual clown in the next cycle of elections (the head of the rising “populist” party is a guy who played a clown in a long-running TV variety show).

    • NewishLawyer says:

      Adam Gopnik argued no in the New Yorker last spring. His view is that countries might keep institutions intact after electing people like Trump but there is a sense that something is always off and not quite the same. Too many deep suspicions, too many raw wounds, etc.

      All other authoritarian regimes seem to spring from more dire and unstable economic and social situations. So Italy and Germany required a massive war, war crime tribunals but also a lot of forgiveness of the kind that is very hard.

      Maybe South Africa under Apartheid? That took decades, loads of international pressure and youths considering Apartheid was deeply inhumane, and eventually a truth and reconciliation commission and there are still issues.

      • agorabum says:

        Well, the failure of the electorate in deciding that someone like Trump was fine (even though many who voted for him apparently didn’t like him and thought he was unqualified) is a major blow to the very idea of democracy. That our press focused on bullshit scandals of Clinton for so long that so many voters decided known grifter and con-man Donald Trump was the better option is a pretty searing indictment.

        We could all explain and rationalize away the re-election of Bush for various reasons. It’s so much harder to do that with Trump. If his election is now how democracy “works” in America, it seems pretty clear that it doesn’t work.

        There’s no point in democracy when ignorance is celebrated.

    • rea says:

      Is there an example of a nation in the position we are in now, where all the pieces for the end of democracy were in place, that was able to preserve its democracy? If so, how was it done? What action did pro-democracy citizens take?

      The Athenians had it tougher than us, having just lost a long war. But they (1) took up arms against the forces opposed to Democracy, and (2) killed Socrates.

  3. absurdbeats says:

    It is notable, although not at all surprising, that the scholars best positioned to discuss the current circumstances come out of the IR and comparative and subfields, and are not Americanists.

    When I was in grad school I asked where was the comparative component to American politics. It may have been there then and it may be there now, but it sure is tough to find.

    • gmack says:

      Right. Part of the problem is that Americanists (and forgive me, I’m affiliated with the University of Rochester, though I’m not in that department, so I know I’m unfairly characterizing the subfield as a whole) are too busy creating formal models and doing highly sophisticated statistical techniques studying how bills become law to actually notice the rise of an authoritarian regime.

      • Murc says:

        Aww, another guy from Rochester! I knew I liked you for a reason, gmack.

        Stay safe in the snow. (It was seventy on Friday! What the balls is happening?)

        • gmack says:

          Yeah, I’ve seen you mention living in Rochester before. We moved here from Seattle about 9 years ago. We should definitely think about coordinating a local get together! Lemieux even stops through here from time to time.

          Stay warm! (We installed a wood burning stove a few years ago, so we’re good on that front).

    • LFC says:

      As may know, there’s a whole subfield called American political development. I’m not sure how comparative, but it’s historically/qualitatively oriented.

      One example:
      http://politicalscience.yale.edu/people/stephen-skowronek

      • djw says:

        Yes, although it’s very marginal within the mainstream of the study of American politics.

        Someday I hope to read this, which draws on the democratization literature in comparative politics to account for the democratization of the American South.

        • LFC says:

          Talk about serendipity!

          I’d never heard of Robert Mickey until a couple of days ago. I’d sent a brief email to a Latin Americanist with whom I’m acquainted [*], and in his reply he mentioned that he was planning a topical piece (i.e. on the U.S. election) to be written with two people, one of whom is Mickey. Anyway, that book does look interesting.

          [*] No point in name dropping here, partly b.c the acquaintance in question is a ‘social’ rather than a professional connection; also, name-dropping can be obnoxious, although, to pre-empt possible snark, I suppose there are some people who might say that’s not always a weighty consideration with me.

  4. LeeEsq says:

    American democracy will fail in a giant collective action problem. Most people across the political spectrum will recognize the need to change, reform, or update our political structure but there will be massive disagreement on what to do between different factions and the Constitution will make meaningful reform a near impossibility.

    • rm says:

      This is one of my fears. We have this faux “reform” con artist getting people to choose the exact 180-degree wrong course for solving the problems which pain them. Because he was the “honest” and “uncorrupt” candidate like up is down and I need a hole in my head. And when he makes the problems much worse, they’ll blame scapegoats once again.

      Maybe we can fight that, I dunno. Scapegoating seems to be a fundamental flaw in human psychology.

  5. Ronan says:

    THe context isn’t really comparable though to interwar Europe or post Cold War Soviet Union, at least afaict. In Europe you had a huge continental wide war, post war paramilitaries threaten state legitimacy, a huge ideological power on Europes Eastern fringe. After the Cold War you had the soviet state gutted and collapse into anarchy and criminality to an extent that hasn’t happened in the US.
    US institutions might be dysfunctional, but are they really comparably dysfunctional to the cases outlined above ?

    • Ronan says:

      Should be, Post Cold War Russia

    • (((Hogan))) says:

      Yeah, Congress not passing legislation isn’t the same as government not functioning. The trash is being picked up, the SS checks are going out on time and not bouncing, taxes are being collected, elections are being held on time (so far) . . .

      • Matt McIrvin says:

        I think that in these situations we gain a lot of stability from the highly federated nature of the government. Most of the states are going to keep running, and a lot of things run on the state level.

        The caveats are that (1) there’s a lot of funding and assistance that the feds could withhold as a stick, and (2) a lot of state governments these days are run by Republicans, who will probably use national Trumpism as an excuse to run hog-wild with awful legislation, election suppression, etc. And that accelerates the geographic Big Sort, which probably makes the national political problem worse.

      • vic rattlehead says:

        Well the government continuing to function is not a given of course.

        It’ll be the equivalent of Trump and Ryan walking into a McDonald’s bathroom and playing Gatling gun with their excrement “See! We told you public restrooms were disgusting!” That’s been their play for the past 30 years and they now finally have a guy who’s willing to not just clog up the toilet but actually take his shit into his fingers and smear it all over our walls.

    • charliekilian says:

      Not yet, but we’re at least incrementally more likely to get there from here than we would have been had Trump lost the election. My uncertainty is largely over how likely we actually are to get there. My instinct says it’s still not particularly likely to happen. But I’m not sure how much of that is just denial, a lack of familiarity to how things tend to go once at this point, etc. It might be that I’m blinded by my biases.

      • CP says:

        My instinct says that it is.

        My thing is that our right wing – not Trump, but the GOP as a whole, activists included – has already been soured on democracy for a long time. Spend an extended period of time on any wingnut blog and you’ll quickly run into the notion that universal suffrage was a bad idea and stories about how this or that group shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Poor people, because they have no “skin in the game,” dual citizens or citizens abroad, because they’re not properly American, women because Ann Coulter says they don’t have any sense. The “voter fraud” thing is just a smokescreen. Dig past the bullshit, and the real problem you’ll hear from them is that liberal demographics are permitted to vote at all.

        Now, all of that would be one thing if it were just blog talk – not every idea they sling around on these blogs makes it into politics by any means. But the Republican Party has also been pushing vote suppression laws for years now. The fact that this is done openly and in multiple states suggests that this the entire party is on the same page on this (as do the quotes we’ve heard from Republicans behind the scenes blurting out that “of course we’re doing it to disenfranchise Democrats.”) They’re no longer stealing elections in the dark as with Watergate or relying on one-time events like Florida-2000. They’ve decided to make the suppression of Democratic votes, and a move back towards a Jim-Crow version of “democracy” with poll taxes and the like to ensure the outcome, one of their main goals.

        And the reaction we’ve seen from Republicans all across the board, be they voters or public officials, indicates that they are largely okay with this. Either completely okay or, in the case of the hand-wringers who like to pretend they’re above it all, in denial that it’s actually happening.

        Now add to that the utter hysteria that most of the GOP has been increasingly immersed in for years and years at this point (we’ll say since the mid-nineties when Gingrich’s Congress came in and Fox News went on the air, though that oversimplifies things). A hysteria multiplied by the knowledge that nonwhite demographics are rising, and the terror that if they don’t take “back” “their” country now, they might “lose” it forever.

        The problem is bigger than Trump, though Trump is definitely the catalyst: the problem is that one of the two major political parties in the U.S, and by “party” I do mean everyone – the politicians, the elites that’re plugged in with them, and the voters who make the whole thing work – has committed itself to suppressing democracy in favor of something more Putin-esque. For that, all they need is control of enough sections of the government – a legislature that makes the laws, an executive branch that enforces them, and a judiciary that says it’s okay.

        It’s not an inevitable outcome – a lot depends on things like whether they end up at each other’s throats so much that the whole thing falls apart, whether the Democrats are able (or willing) to hold the line against enough of this via filibuster, whether the next two years in office go so badly that popular backlash in 2018 forces them back, before they have a chance to consolidate enough. But, they’re damn well going to give it their best shot, and their odds don’t look too bad right now.

    • CP says:

      I think it’s a failure of imagination to assume that things have to reach the point of 1930s Germany or 1990s Russia for democracy to fail. That is, historically, often what it’s taken. There’s no law that says it has to take something that drastic.

      Right now, Trump has, however it happened, manage to place himself in charge of the executive branch, with people who share his vision in charge of both houses of Congress, and soon the Supreme Court as well. With that much power, it’s likely that he can go all-out on voter suppression laws in a number of states, possibly even at the federal level. Complement that with more things like the anti-protest laws they’ve been talking about, and some creative thinking on the part of his lawyers and enforcers, while neutering institutions like the Civil Rights Division that might otherwise have stood in the way of that. And pile on things like an entirely state-friendly media and more COINTELPRO shenanigans directed at his enemies. It’s entirely possible that by the time he’s done, the legacy left behind will be a country where the bar to actually winning elections for Democrats will have been raised so high that it’s basically impossible. (There are opposition parties in Russia, too. Some of their members even sit in parliament. No one’s under any illusion that it’s anything but a joke).

      And none of that will have required a great depression. All it requires is enough determined antidemocratic forces in charge of enough of the government. Usually, that requires more dire circumstances than we have now, but there’s no law that says it has to.

      • LosGatosCA says:

        Dick Cheney and Richard Addington were at the forefront of this 16 years ago. But it really started with Goldwater as a dupe then Nixon as a pioneer fighting against norms that were too powerful. He’s under appreciated as a figure who pushed against rational economic management (peace time price controls?) separation of powers (impoundment) as well as corruption on an unprecedented scale (two convicted AG’s). Then Reagan pushed the white supremacy envelope beyond Bob Jones to Philadelphia,MS and quadrupled the national debt to give rich folks tax cuts.

        And then the final push has come from the era of impeachment to election stealing to national hysteria following 9/11.

        The Republicans have transformed themselves from a loyal opposition to the New Deal to a cult that acknowledges no principles beyond rich, white, male entitlement and the destruction of any obstacle that interferes with that. 2008 was a time of desperation where that counter-productive behavior was set aside out of necessity. And then 2012 clearly was an election where ‘political correctness’ and a highly skilled opponent temporarily countered the trend. At the state levels it’s been no holds barred in Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, and Kansas.

        What the cult has learned is that they can rely on a sympathetic or worst case agnostic media, the lack of sophistication of the average voter, and the mistaken belief in the fundamental goodness in humanity by Democrats.

        The cult never rests, they never compromise, they never turn from their true principles of pursuit of power and wealth for rich, white males who then dictate to women, minorities, the poor what’s acceptable. They define EVERY point as a win/lose competition, even non-ideological issues.

        That’s the threat to democracy. Close to half the people have bought the worldview that everything is arrayed against them and they are in an existential battle for survival of their god given rights as white males. Like the typical sports coach motivational strategy – nobody believes in us, we’re always the underdog, we have to work twice as hard to show everyone they were mistaken to underestimate us, etc.

        How you back people off of these beliefs is pretty hard. After all, you can’t use reason to get some one to abandon a position they never reasoned their way into. Confirmation bias kicks in to discredit any attempt to do so.

        My faith in humanity at this point is pretty close to zero. The world has never been richer, safer, and more capable of being the most fully informed and best educated. Yet the privileged people only see threats to their supremacy when any one else starts being treated with any dignity or objects to being their prey.

        • blackbox says:

          Things have to get worse before they get better. Assuming our democracy survives, this may well be the death throes of the GOP establishment, not because Trump is dismantling it, but because they’re on borrowed time until enough of our young population reaches 18 that the electorate is beyond the influence of even their worst voter suppression efforts.

          We have a two-part responsibility. One, keep our country, its institutions, and its liberties intact enough for the next 4 or 8 years, that people still lead free and safe lives in the face of Trump’s administration. Two, ensure that everyone under the age of 18 in this country understands their duty as a citizen to vote with a critical examination of what’s best for the country, for themselves, and their friends.

          Again, if they don’t abolish fair and free elections, then in a decade or two they won’t have a base left big enough to win elections. Yes, I know this year was a shocking reminder that their coalition is still big/dumb enough to elect someone reprehensible like Trump given the right circumstances. But it won’t stay that way. Nobody is born an old prejudiced white man, and few immigrants are one either.

          • CP says:

            Again, if they don’t abolish fair and free elections, then in a decade or two they won’t have a base left big enough to win elections. Yes, I know this year was a shocking reminder that their coalition is still big/dumb enough to elect someone reprehensible like Trump given the right circumstances. But it won’t stay that way. Nobody is born an old prejudiced white man, and few immigrants are one either.

            Two words: vote suppression.

  6. Platypus Prime says:

    There are three pieces to the puzzle of why and how democracies fail. The first involves public opinion. In Russia, for example

    Russia never had a functional democracy. You’re multiplying by zero and your example is invalid. There were some experiments with electing representatives during the first 2 decades of the 20th century, but the absurdity that took place in Russia in the 90s was not democracy in any way, shape or form.

  7. Mac the Knife says:

    I’m reliably told that we’re not a democracy anyway. The US is a constitutional republic.

    Also, the Electoral College prevents decisions from being made by people who live in cities. This is a good thing.

    Watching so many people blow past the boundaries of what I thought motivated reasoning was capable of producing has been one of the most depressing parts of the last 2 weeks.

    Sarcasm aside, this is my contribution to this conversation – a whole bunch of Americans explicitly don’t care about democracy at this point.

    • rewenzo says:

      You’d be surprised what you can reconcile with democracy. I was just reading the comments to Peter Beinart’s latest at the Atlantic (The Electoral College Would Be Good If They Deny Trump The Presidency), and the bulk of the comments were to the point that the Electoral College is very democratic because (1) it makes sure all states count; (2) you have to win a majority of states, and (3) it prevents us from being dominated by New York and California.

      If you can reconcile this with democracy, what can’t you?

      • davidsmcwilliams says:

        #allstatesmatter

      • Mac the Knife says:

        I agree with your point. I just want to add that, even for those who accept all of these as positives, (1) and (2) aren’t even remotely true.

        • rewenzo says:

          Oh for sure. Whenever somebody tried pointing this out to them, they just said either,

          1. oh, so why don’t you support New York and California awarding their EC votes proportionately like Maine and Nebraska?

          2. you really just want New York and California to dominate the country

          The greatest refutation to the idea that there’s any principled support of the Electoral College is Donald Trump’s tweet from 2012 when he thought Mitt Romney won the popular vote, and he called it ridiculous, and then in 2016 when he called it genius.

          • Mac the Knife says:

            That and the complete absence of Texas in these conversations!

            • los says:

              and of all the other lower population states.
              EC/EV of smallest states would still be very “chunky”.

              The hybrid EC effect.
              I’m not up to filling a spreadsheet to demonstrate what “partial chunkiness” effect that results from of summing state EC’s (state EC proportioned by state PV).

          • Karl Dickman says:

            There are nearly 270 million Americans who don’t live in New York and California. There are more registered Republicans in California than there are people in South Carolina–or people in West Virginia, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, and Alaska combined–and their votes would actually count in a national popular vote. “New York and California will dominate the country” makes zero sense to me.

            • Philip says:

              That’s because it isn’t meant to make sense unless you already believe it.

              • los says:

                as in
                a.) whining about illegals bussed to vote 17 trillion times,
                yet
                b.) “america is a republic, not a democracy” (mentioned above)

                logic is their enemy when the teabots/kochbots/trumpbots/putinbots open their diarrhea spouts

            • Woodrowfan says:

              with the electoral college the national candidates only pay attention to a handful of states. If it’s pure popular vote their attention will still focus on big media markets, but throughout the whole country, not just in a half dozen states. Democrats in red states and republicans in blue states will have more reason to vote.

          • StellaB says:

            There’s such a vast area between California dominating the vote and California being grossly underrepresented. To give California the same power as Wyoming, CA would need 200ish EVs.

            In the 1780s, the size difference between the smallest and largest states was four or five fold, not 75-fold.

            • vic rattlehead says:

              But it would be so unfair for a state in which 1 in 8 Americans live to have a larger influence in elections. Because…reasons! Libruls coastal elites real murka

            • ASV says:

              The thing is, it wouldn’t give “California” power at the expense of “Wyoming”; it would give Californians equal footing to Wyoming…ites(?). RIght now Republicans get zero meaningful votes out of Californians because all those are aggregated as “California.” But there are a lot of votes among those people that the GOP could have count toward something!

          • Matt McIrvin says:

            I just learned that getting rid of the Electoral College was a personal hobbyhorse of Andrew Jackson’s (probably because he had gotten screwed over by it in 1824). Since he won significant popular majorities in the elections he won, he never had reason to go back on that. It’s one point in his favor, I guess.

  8. rewenzo says:

    If our democracy does collapse, we won’t even recognize it. It’ll just be another disputed point lost in partisan bickering. So long as we keep having “elections” and the institutions still exist, even in neutered form, to a lot of people, we’ll still be a democracy. Any attempt to point out that we’re not will be seen as “anti-democratic” or treasonous. We’re a democracy because democracy is good America is good and we’re America.

    Do a majority of “voters” in Russia and Turkey think that Russia and Turkey are democratic, or do they think they aren’t but that’s okay?

    • LWA says:

      We’re a democracy because democracy is good America is good and we’re America.

      This sounds familiar.
      Its the way GWB era torture apologists insisted we didn’t torture, since good countries don’t torture, and we are good so therefore waterboarding isn’t torture.

      Or that Trumpists tie themselves in knots to explain away the dissonance between his words and actions.

      • rewenzo says:

        I think we in America fetishize democracy as a totem while actually ignoring how it works.

        Some of this is just sort of stupid “we’re the only country that exists.” So we’ll hear during the inauguration that “only in America” do we have peaceful transfers of power. Whereas in Canada they choose and remove governments based on feats of strength.

        Or it’s the equation of our frankly ridiculous and archaic constitution with “democracy.” “Checks and balances,” an impossibly high number of veto points, the electoral college – to many Americans, these are the hallmarks of democracy, when in fact they make modern democratic government almost impossible.

    • Srsly Dad Y says:

      100% this. When Caesar Augustus ended the Roman Republic, he and everyone else pretended he had restored it. When the Goths took Rome in 476, a Goth named himself emperor and AFAWK no one said, “Hey, the Roman West fell.” See also Peron in the 1940s-50s, Erdogan now. Big defenders of “democracy.”

      • burritoboy says:

        There was still an office called “the Senator” theoretically running the civilian government of Rome into the 14th century. Meanwhile, the proposition that Senate was the most fundamental locus of government power had been dubious from at least 82BC onwards, when Sulla got his dictatorship. So, there had been little reality of a Senate for 1,500 years by the 14th century, and yet people still wanted to pretend.

    • mongolia says:

      Do a majority of “voters” in Russia and Turkey think that Russia and Turkey are democratic, or do they think they aren’t but that’s okay?

      don’t know about russia, but in turkey the way to think of it is, frankly, to think of the election of 2016. each side considers the other side illegitimate (the parliamentary system makes it worse, since it becomes quadripolar with ugly racial and ideological sorting mixed in), and the winning side, which used to run on a growing economy and reviving turkish power in the world ala the ottomans, has been running on naked paranoia since about 2010. my understanding is that voting shenanigans in the non-ethnically-turkish parts of the country have gone up, primarily by making polling places hard to reach – voting is compulsory, but it’s all day of, which is why that tactic is used. the other shenanigan used is to try and defacto outlaw kurdish parties, and (historically) to ban religious-themed parties, which was common througout the ’90’s (which is when my personal memory goes through) – which bred resentment throughout that time, and likely led to the islamic revivalist movement that motivated people to vote akp in the first place – that and the massive corruption of previous government, and the economic problems of the late 90’s culminating in the 2001 economic crisis.

      to answer the question you posed, however – up until recently, there’d be low-level rumblings about how the vote count is innaccurate or “how could anyone vote for this guy”, along with a few random charlatans who always complain about voter fraud. however, recently there are much more in the way of voter fraud accusations and greater opacity in the voter tallying, which, alongside greater polarization in the country, makes people on the not-akp side extremely wary of the vote count

    • Lost Left Coaster says:

      Yes, you are completely right. I mean, we’re so far down this path already. Maybe it’s already gone.

    • Matt McIrvin says:

      By that standard I’ve heard arguments that US democracy has either already collapsed, or never did exist.

    • Matt McIrvin says:

      …of course, by modern, decent standards, the US was not all that democratic until we put some legislative teeth into the 15th Amendment, around 1965. Certainly not before 1920, when woman suffrage was introduced to most of the country.

    • vic rattlehead says:

      Yeah we’ll have “elections” and Congresscritters will all be neutered or Trump stooges. By the 2032 election, when we re-elect Ivanka Trump (and VP Don Jr, natch) Congress will be neutered. No oversight power to speak of. No threats necessary. Gerrymandering and VRA destruction ensure permanent republican majorities. Democrats are allowed to run for office, but if they squeak out a majority, subpoenas routinely ignored. What’re you gonna do about it, prissy liberal trying to question Dear Leader? Mouthy liberals like Warren or Brown will be censured by republican majorities. Maybe one liberal senator will be tolerated to give the illusion of dissent. President Trump will “suggest” bills that will pass with nominal debate if any. The FBI at this point are Trump’s secret police.

    • ASV says:

      Given that we’ve just elected a president with a 42% approval rating and a minority of the vote, and almost universally re-elected a Congress with an 18% approval rating and where the party holding a significant majority of seats got at best a push in total votes, aren’t we quite possibly well down that road already? I don’t mean this in a glib, “Can’t fight City Hall!” kind of way. Whatever our system is, it appears to be a tool that we as a polity are incapable of operating correctly.

    • CP says:

      We’re a democracy because democracy is good America is good and we’re America.

      This might seem like a small thing, but note the sudden and increasingly drumbeat appearance of the phrase “we’re a REPUBLIC not a DEMOCRACY” in wingnut argumentation.

      The technical distinctions aren’t worth getting into, especially since they’re the last people in the country with any grasp of them. What it really is is a “fuck you” to the notion of popular sovereignty and a way to get their own voters acclimated to the idea that the “democracy” fetish was a bad idea and is no longer a value you’re supposed to have.

  9. karen marie says:

    Oh, well, that’s all right then. I feel so much better.

    No, I don’t. The last time I felt optimistic was under Jimmy Carter, who I am told was terrible. I mark the beginning of the end as the Reagan administration, although Nixon certainly played an important role.

    We certainly live in interesting times.

  10. C.V. Danes says:

    I think we have to remember that America is a very big place, with 50 state democracies wrapped in a federal democracy. Even if the federal democracy were to fail, how would that cause it to fail in all 50 states?

    • Ithaqua says:

      If saying “I think I’ll vote for Hillary” in public winds up costing you your job, and you suddenly discover you’re somehow not eligible for any welfare benefits, it hardly matters who you get to vote for for the state legislature – after all, they’ll ALL be toeing the (one-) party line too.

      • C.V. Danes says:

        You might want to consider moving to a state more ideologically aligned with your viewpoint.

        • Matt McIrvin says:

          That sorting process makes the problem of federal politics worse, though, by concentrating more and more liberals into a minority of deep-blue states.

          Eventually Republicans control enough states that they can call an Article V convention and ratify amendments, and then they can just go hog-wild, and turn the US legally into an authoritarian one-party state.

          • vic rattlehead says:

            I think *that* is what could really trigger a secession crisis. If they really went hog wild, ie trying to repeal the 15th and 19th amendments, constitutional amendment making idk Christianity the state religion (southern baptist? What would they settle on?) and banning abortion, fuck it why not an amendment banning welfare completely, etc. If that hand is overplayed then I think California may well try to secede.

            • Michael Cain says:

              A few years ago, when I began saying that I thought a partition of the US would eventually happen — 30-50 years out, 25-45 now — as a result of several emerging trends, even I said that it was a “lunatic fringe” sort of argument. Interesting to play with as a mental exercise. And in my mind, a peaceful divorce where the sides agreed that they were better off separate, but still friends. That it has suddenly become an actual topic of sorts, and potentially violent, is… disturbing.

            • bender says:

              Either a secession crisis or attempts at devolution to the kind of federalism/states’ rights we had before WWII or even before the Civil War.

              One way I imagine this happening would be if some blue states regard new federal mandates and laws as being as abhorrent as the Dred Scott decision, do not comply, and Washington retaliates by withholding federal aid to noncompliant states–this is likely to happen within the next couple of years.

              Next stage is speculative. Some blue states get so worked up by the latest Federal outrage that their voters demand that their state governments say, “Screw it, we’ll do what we want and go it alone without the rebated tax money, anyway we contribute more than we ever get back–and by the way, we are sequestering all federal excise taxes collected in this state and encouraging every business in this state not to pay federal income taxes until Washington lightens up.”

              After several rounds of attempts at tax collection and escalating obstruction by the state governments and their disaffected populace, Congress decides to end federal revenue sharing or cut it back a lot. That leaves the Feds with even worse deficits, many sticks but no carrot. Hijinks ensue.

            • CP says:

              I don’t see blue states seceding, nor a red government allowing them to.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      An interesting argument, provided it exists in all 50 states now. North Carolina, for example, I’m not so sure.

    • Redwood Rhiadra says:

      “Fear will keep the local systems states in line. Fear of this battle station.”

      (Edit: corrected quote)

    • CP says:

      The federal government has a ton of coercive power, if it chooses to apply it. Most obviously, the Supreme Court is still the law of the land and if the Supreme Court decides that whatever pointyheaded liberal states don’t meet the constitution’s requirements, they can jerk those states into line. Less obviously, the feds can yank funding from states or municipalities that don’t cooperate. Etc.

  11. Murc says:

    In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. Little wonder that trust in Congress has plummeted to the mid-20 percent level since 2010.

    Not true.

    That article you link to is about trust in government, the federal government in general, not trust in/approval of Congress specifically. If you want the numbers on Congress, Gallup has’em for you right here.

    Warning: Murc is about to go long form, this is one of my things. Feel free to scroll and keep scrolling.

    Congressional approval is one of the most interesting numbers in politics, I think, not because of the number itself but the ancillary numbers orbiting around it.

    Because while people might hate the Congress? They love their Congressperson and/or Senator. And even if they fucking hate them, they tend to like them much more than they like the Congress as a whole. People who absolutely loathe their Senator are likely to think quite a bit better of them than they think of the Congress as a whole.

    But it gets better. Because while hatred for the Congress cuts across all demographic lines (age, race, gender, education level, you name it) the more politically aware people are, the more members of the Congress they’re likely to be aware of. And they’re likely to have very high opinions of many of them, indeed, to consider some of them true American heroes even as they regard others as being foul demons in human form. So they hate Congress… but love a lot of the people in it?

    There’s also the historical angle. The Congress has never, ever been all that popular, at least since they started measuring it. This shouldn’t be surprising, I don’t think; at any given time about half the country isn’t going to approve of the party in power and transfer that disapproval to the institution itself. Their approval rating has tended to hang out in the thirties and forties, and dipping into the twenties for extended periods of time hasn’t been that unusual. But we are in the middle of an extended period of historically low approval levels, even by Congressional standards. So what makes it go up and down?

    That’s harder to say. In the mid-sixties there was a spike, followed by a crash, followed by another spike, and then huge instability all through the seventies. There was a long period of sustained high approval (for the Congress, which means in the forties) during the Reagan administration, extreme volatility followed by a crash at the end of the Bush years, then a strong-but-volatile rebound (with a huge spike in ’98 that didn’t fall all the way back down) out past the turn of the century.

    There was another huge spike in the early aughts, up into the 80% approval rating range. We can probably disregard that; that’s a rally-round-the-flag effect, similar to the spike GWB got in the polls at that time. It dropped…

    … and then kept dropping. Massive instability between ’06 and ’08, a huge spike after ’08, then the plunge continues after 2010 to… the present day. Things have been in the same general range for the past six years or so, bouncing between the single digits and low twenties.

    So that’s the view over the past half-century or so, obviously with greater emphasis on the past two decades. What does Murc make of all this, you ask? (Or you scrolled past this textwall awhile ago.)

    In the view of this layman, periods of increased Congressional approval correlate strongly with the Congress doing stuff. It doesn’t even matter what stuff; just them doing stuff. There are other factors as well, probably the second most important one is what people think of how the country as a whole is doing (although that’s not dispositive; approval can increase during a time of national crisis if people think it being handled well), but I think that’s the main variable. There was high approval in the sixties (comparably high; remember, Congress breaking 50% is unusual, nearly unheard of!) because Congress passed a whole shit-ton of stuff. Many people hated that stuff, but the people who loved it saw Congress doing stuff, and they approved!

    Then we enter a period of national volatility, not just in Congress but nationwide; the late sixties and the seventies. Approval is all over the place. It has a long, steady rebound during the Reagan years because the Reagan years were, legislatively speaking, a very active time period and also a period of strong optimism; a lot got done. (Some of what got done was horrible, but it did get done.) Bill Clinton’s second term was also a very legislatively active time, especially post-98, when his party made historically-unusual gains in the Congress, impeachment wound down, and we were in the middle of a boom. George W. Bush’s first term, well, 9/11 fucks all the numbers. It falls off a cliff during his, shall we say, troubled second term, and I think that’s a combination of his administrations low overall approval (he went underwater shortly after re-election and never recovered) and the perception that Congress was flailing. It rebounds in 2006 with Democratic control, and REALLY rebounds in 2008 with unified Democratic control of the government.

    If we want to get super granular? The most recent high point were the March 2009 ratings. Otherwise known as the very first set of polls taken after ARRA (the stimulus) and accompanying legislation, as well as the media push surrounding them, passed. The next two big rebounds? The raft of legislation passed in late 2009, and the passage of the ACA in early 2010.

    In other words, when the Congress was doing stuff.

    Then the 2010 midterms happen. Divided government. Not just divided government; we had that in the 80s. Abnormally unproductive divided government. The past six years have been, in the history of the Republic, some of the least productive years for the Congress ever. Nothing is getting done. I have much and more to say about why nothing is getting done, and who is to blame, but that’s different.

    What it boils down to is this: if you’re doing something, some people will approval, and those people will like you.

    If you’re doing nothing, nobody will like you, and nobody will approve.

    That’s the explanation for the gap between “approval of the Congress” and “approval of my Congresscritter.” They see the institution doing jack shit, but the person, they’re confident that person is doing something.

    That’s why the Congress has traditionally low approval, I feel, and especially low approval these days. Not because people hate “the Establishment” although I’m sure that plays a role. But because it does jack shit.

    I predict an upsurge in approval in early 2017. Not because the Congress will be doing a better job. But because the Congress will be doing stuff. And a lot of people will like that stuff. They’ll approve.

    (The one thing I can’t account for is that weird-ass period in the early nineties. I have no idea what was going on then. The Bush Administration wasn’t especially inactive by any measure, Congress was still getting stuff done, but approval fell over, spiked, then fell over again. No clue. This might indicate I don’t know what I’m talking about.)

    • dnexon says:

      This is my fault—I threw together the linkage a bit too quickly.

      But your narrative actually reinforces the concern: what if Congress’s approval starts to rise *in the context* of institutional backsliding? That’s what often happens in hybrid and illiberal democracies as these processes unfold.

      • Murc says:

        It almost certainly will start to rise in that context, because Congress will be behaving actively, and its numbers always spike when that happens.

        I’m not sure that tells us much, beyond “when Congress does stuff that some people like, its numbers go up; when Congress stuff nobody likes, they crater.”

    • gkclarkson says:

      This is essentially the unifying strategy of the GOP.

      The one-percenter wing of the GOP (think Romney or the Koch Brothers) doesn’t like federal government regulation of finance or industry, and doesn’t want to pay taxes or contribute to the social safety net. The neo-confederate wing doesn’t like federal interference in state policy on desegregation, voting rights, LGBT rights, and state religious support.

      So how do you cultivate public support for all of these things that good, sensible folk don’t actually want? You convince them that the government is shitty trash that doesn’t work, and it would be better if we got rid of a lot of it. Then, once you get elected, you eliminate the parts that you don’t like, and declare mission accomplished (Specifically the SEC, the FTC Consumer Protection Division, the DoE, the DOJ Civil Rights Division).

      But how do you prove it’s shitty trash that doesn’t work? The problem is that, by an large, it works pretty well. When asked about individual government programs, most people are satisfied by the service and benefits they receive. Well, you MAKE IT shitty trash through bad faith, by deliberately obstructing its ability to function effectively, by shutting it down, and by destroying public confidence in it.

      • CP says:

        That and endlessly pumping bullshit into the media.

        The idea that Social Security is going bankrupt, that Medicare is going bankrupt, and that the ACA is bankrupting Medicare are all examples. There’s no truth to any of them, despite much attempted wingnut meddling over the years. It’s just something “everyone” “knows,” because so many VSPs have been saying it for so long.

  12. Harry R. Sohl says:

    Well, congratulations to the Tea and Crackers Party!

    You picked someone who shares 95% of the wealth with the .1% to help you fight over .0005% of the wealth shared by the lowest 20% who deigns to even be spoken to by the likes of you.

    But, you know, if the Queen of England is ever in town she should drop by.

    • (((Malaclypse))) says:

      You picked someone who shares 95% of the wealth with the .1% to help you fight over .0005% of the wealth shared by the lowest 20% who deigns to even be spoken to by the likes of you.

      I dare anybody to diagram this sentence.

  13. Despair says:

    I guess I always assumed that even if they have different governing priorities, most (elected) Republicans truly did care about the preservation of representative democracy, rather than just caring about winning. And I’ve been telling myself that if we could just get them to see the threat Trump poses, they would oppose him on that front, at least.

    However, I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff like this piece lately, and I’m starting to worry that they would actually be A-OK with a de facto dictatorship, so long as they were part of the faction doing the dictating. If you consider the opposition informally illegitimate, is it really that far a jump to making them formally illegitimate? If you admire Putin, can you really think authoritarianism is that bad?

    What do other people think? Does, e.g., Mitch McConnell or John Roberts care about democracy, per se, or would they be happy with a system where other viewpoints are elided using the power of the state?

    • sibusisodan says:

      Does, e.g., Mitch McConnell or John Roberts care about democracy, per se, or would they be happy with a system where other viewpoints are elided using the power of the state?

      I have a theory – which is my own – that the major players on the Republican team will rationalise what they have to in order to ensure they retain power and leverage within the system.

      They may not set out to subvert the system, but neither will they at any point change course. The next step – further voter restrictions, what have you – will always be required in order to meet their short-term requirements (re-election, self-preservation).

      If McConnell, Ryan et al haven’t made a stand already, when the stakes were lower, they won’t do so in the coming years.

      These people may, in the abstract, care about democracy and the constitution. But they have every incentive not to act in support of them…

    • CrunchyFrog says:

      and I’m starting to worry that they would actually be A-OK with a de facto dictatorship, so long as they were part of the faction doing the dictating. If you consider the opposition informally illegitimate, is it really that far a jump to making them formally illegitimate? If you admire Putin, can you really think authoritarianism is that bad?

      Well, yes, but you’re kind of late to the party. During the Bush administration there was a lot of pining on the right for simplifying things by making Bush dictator. (Not from Bush himself, mind you.) John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience delved into the mindset behind that and found that, yes, a large portion of the population are right wing authoritarians (RWAs – look it up – lots of literature) who basically prefer a dictator. They are sitting ducks for right wing charismatic figures.

    • gkclarkson says:

      The answer is that no, the majority of elected Republicans today do not and have never cared about representative democracy. Furthermore, they always have considered anybody in charge other than them to be illegitimate, which justifies any and all bad faith actions.

      The nature of probably humanity, is that a large proportion of them definitely would prefer a dictatorship so long as they were the ones in charge.

      But this stuff has been obvious for centuries. Jim Crow was essentially a confederate dictatorship behind a facade of democratic legitimacy that was based upon the permanent suppression of a minority underclass. Essentially all GOP policy today just a continuation and desire to return to that.

      There’s no logical difference at the base level between being in favor of a Voter ID law and being in favor of a poll taxe or other devices meant to prevent opposition voters from voting entirely. If they could get away without the judicial branch intervening, every single voter ID proponent would simply pass a law that banned black people from voting.

    • gkclarkson says:

      I think John Roberts probably does care about the structural stability of democracy and the constitution, in so far as he has demonstrated this quite a few times by ruling in ways that gone against the will of the GOP establishment but probably preserved the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as a generally nonpolitical body. That’s not to say he’s a friend of progressives or minorities, because he has had some very bad decisions.

      I don’t think McConnell or most elected GOP politicians especially care about anything other than being the ones holding the levers of power. Anyone can talk a big game about how much they love the constitution and democracy, which is why it’s so fetishized. It’s where the rubber hits the road – i.e. their actions, that you can tell were they stand. They would tear up the constitution in a heartbeat if it meant that they would be guaranteed a position of permanent absolute power.

    • rm says:

      I think the “democracy” they believe in is the one where white male propertied gentry are the electorate, and everyone else takes a back seat.

      I think they are all in for voter suppression on racial and class lines, and are only okay with women voting because they know if they suppress the vote as much as they’d like then it will be mostly conservative white women voting.

      They rationalize this as supporting “democracy” because some people are not legitimately part of the demos.

      They have always been this way. We’ve only had democracy on paper since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This year we did not succeed at enforcing the ideal of democratic rule.

  14. Lost Left Coaster says:

    I haven’t seen the T word yet — terrorism.

    This is how it ends: if there is a terror attack during Trump’s first term, there will be mass ethnic cleansing (government camps, violent attacks by Trump goons and local police) and the next election will either be suspended or held under such violent duress that it will in no way resemble a free election.

    And, honestly, global actors interested in making something like this happen must be well aware of this. Look how close to the brink AQ pushed the USA on 9/11, and the consequences are reverberating to this day, making the USA less stable than ever. One more attack and I think it’s over. And this scares the living shit out of me.

    • Dennis Orphen says:

      The only remaining questions are when, where, who committed the act and who will be blamed for it.

      Expect answers to three of the four questions.

    • vic rattlehead says:

      If there is another 9/11, I expect the Democratic Party to be outlawed and elections to be “suspended” until further notice.

      • Just_Dropping_By says:

        I missed where Trump suddenly acquired a massive parallel military apparatus that is solely loyal to him personally, because that’s the only way I can see that working.

        • mongolia says:

          isn’t the big concern that law enforcement, military personnel, congress + supreme court, and big business including the media will all be on his side? i.e. he wouldn’t need a parallel military apparatus, just that him (or, more accurately, his cronies) will use that as a way of justifying a power grab and increased erosion of personal rights?

      • so-in-so says:

        I wouldn’t put it past the GOP to make another 9/11 if they see that as necessary.

  15. N__B says:

    How might American democracy end?

    “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

  16. CP says:

    The final piece of the puzzle is the role of politicians in terminating democracy. As Nancy Bermeo reminds us, it is political leaders that end democracy, not angry publics or dysfunctional institutions. But how leaders have taken down democracy has changed over time. During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties.

    Yes, this is the trend I’ve seen as well. Putin, Erdogan, Maduro, Viktor Orban, Whatsisface in the Philippines, none of them are openly defying the idea of democracy. They just weaken and subvert it through a variety of mechanisms until it’s a democracy in name only. That’s where I think Trump is directing us, and, of more concern, pretty much the entire Republican Party is behind the idea as it’s the only way they’ll survive long term.

  17. Chris Mealy says:

    (never mind)

  18. AMK says:

    I think you’d see America split up before the whole thing descends into one giant Putinesque autocracy. You would have the Free Republics of Acela and Seattle Diego (or the new southern provinces of Canada), and you would would have much of the rest of the country governed as Russian-style illiberal kleptocracies.

    • Barry_D says:

      Letting the blue areas split off would be giving up both power and the ability to loot them. In the scenario we’re discussing, the blue statutes would be powerless.

  19. blackbox says:

    Yeah, okay. I don’t consider myself an outstandingly insightful person, and I could already perceive all of that in offing. The question we should all be focusing our attentions on is, within the constraints of the system the GOP and Trump are trying to dismantle, what can we DO to stop it?

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