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Democratic Backsliding in the USA

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In the United States, Political Science is conventionally divided into four major subfields: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Theory. These divisions lack strong intellectual justification. They are largely a matter of convention, historical accident, and training. Indeed, members of the latter three subfields sometimes like to snark that American Politics is just a glorified single-country study. Imagine if Political Science devoted as much time, money, and effort to studying, say, Thailand as an isolated case as it does the United States.

For scholars of Comparative Politics, 2016 has felt like something of a vindication. While many Americanists scramble to make sense of political developments in the United States, these developments seem rather familiar to people used to looking at cross-national patterns of contentious politics, regime change, political parties, and even transnational ideological movements. Terms from comparative politics are making their way into the vernacular, including democratic backsliding and hybrid regimes.

In fact, when evaluated using comparative metrics, North Carolina is no longer a democracy. Andrew Reynolds:

In the just released EIP report, North Carolina’s overall electoral integrity score of 58/100 for the 2016 election places us alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. If it were a nation state, North Carolina would rank right in the middle of the global league table – a deeply flawed, partly-free, democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.

Indeed Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.

And it gets worse:

That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time. The most respected measures of democracy – Freedom House, POLITY and the Varieties of Democracy project all assess the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people: That is, governance is not arbitrary, it follows established rules and is based on popular legitimacy.

The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy.

First, legislative power does not depend on the votes of the people. One party wins just half the votes but 100 percent of the power. The GOP has a huge legislative majority giving it absolute veto-proof control with that tiny advantage in the popular vote. The other party wins just a handful of votes less and 0 percent of the legislative power. This is above and beyond the way in which state legislators are detached from democratic accountability as a result of the rigged district boundaries. They are beholden to their party bosses, not the voters. Seventy-six of the 170 (45 percent) incumbent state legislators were not even opposed by the other party in the general election.

Second, democracies do not limit their citizens’ rights on the basis of their born identities. However, this is exactly what the North Carolina legislature did through House Bill 2 (there are an estimated 38,000 transgender tarheels), targeted attempts to reduce African-American and Latino access to the vote and pernicious laws to constrain the ability of women to act as autonomous citizens.

Third, government in North Carolina has become arbitrary and detached from popular will. When, in response to losing the governorship, one party uses its legislative dominance to take away significant executive power, it is a direct attack upon the separation of powers that defines American democracy. When a wounded legislative leadership and lame-duck executive, force through draconian changes with no time for robust review and debate it leaves Carolina no better than the authoritarian regimes we look down upon.

When you’re done digesting Reynold’s analysis—and please go read the whole article—think back to my opening remarks about subfields of Political Science. Of course, the snark I mention is not really fair to Americanists. The subfield exists for the same reason that Australia has Australian Politics, Germany has German Politics, and Canada has Canadian Politics. Countries have a strong interest in developing a collection of highly trained individuals devoted to studying their own politics.

In fact, Americanists provide critical work on the effectiveness of various tactics in political campaigns, how voting rules and procedures influence political participation, and far too many other subjects to list. The real problems come when we lose comparative perspective on the United States. And that becomes particularly pernicious when it’s undergirded by a conscious or unconscious commitment to American Exceptionalism. As Patrick Jackson puts it:

[The] claim that the United States is both exempt from those rules and exempt from them on the grounds that the United States represents something special, distinctive, higher — something that trumps the rules in force for merely ordinary polities. These two aspects combine to form a venerable commonplace in US foreign policy debates: exceptionalism.

In this context, the ‘rules’ here involve not international affairs, but the political dynamics that play out in other countries. If the United States is really and truly different—and that differences comes from its status as the grand experiment in representative democracy—than it becomes very difficult to recognize and properly judge democratic backsliding. This is especially true for those of us caught up in partisan politics.

Where this comes home, I think, is in Trump’s recent use of economic coercion against Boeing and Lockheed Martin. For many people, it’s very difficult to see anything wrong here. Defense contractors are not sympathetic actors. They manipulate the political system to distort policy priorities and extract maximum rents. Thus, it’s easy to cheer when our President-elect stands up for the taxpayers and knocks them down to size.

Now, we know that this is largely political theater. We’ve seen this movie before with Carrier. Trump will claim credit for modest savings—which, in the F-35s case, will mostly come from decreases in costs associated with its shift from development to large-scale production costs—that will, in turn, be dwarfed by large increases in defense spending and massive tax cuts. All in all, defense contractors will do very well under a Trump Administration.

It’s when we stop thinking about the United States in isolation that this becomes rather sinister. Trump’s brand of economic coercion invites comparison with patterns in hybrid and autocratic regimes. In such countries, leaders make clear to business leaders that political cooperation yields benefits, but political dissent brings losses.

At the extreme, we can look at what happened in Russia. Ordinary people had every reason to celebrate when Putin took on the Oligarchs. But what they got wasn’t an end to oligarchy.

In the 11 years since Mr. Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Mr. Putin has consolidated power into what the political scientist Karen Dawisha calls “kleptocratic authoritarianism.” Its essential characteristic is all-encompassing corruption, which makes all the moneyed men of the Russian elite — and they are all men, and all moneyed — profoundly interdependent. Many of them have held public office during this time, but it has invariably been subject to three interlocking conditions: They had to pay to get into office, and though they could use the office for accumulating greater wealth, they could not use it to wield or gain political power.

Giving up any pretense of independent political action has remained a condition for staying wealthy and safe. When the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov tried, and rather modestly, to test this condition by reshaping an essentially pro-Kremlin but populist political party three years ago, he was yanked back harshly. Faced with the threat of losing his assets, he then fell back into line. In the new era of economic hardship, he has stayed in line: In his most recent demonstration of loyalty to the Kremlin, a media company Prokhorov owns has just kicked the tiny, embattled independent television company Dozhd (Rain) TV out of a temporary studio on its property.

Over these years of helping Mr. Putin solidify his regime, the Russian rich have not only become entrenched in this corrupt system, but they have lost the very ability to form and pursue a political agenda. Those who predict an imminent coup — a coup by oligarchs as independent actors who can form a coalition to pursue their economic interests — are far off the mark. Imagine, rather, a large number of spiders all living in a single web. As the economy takes a dive, they are compelled simply to hold on for dear life. As the web begins to shrink, they can kick off it some of their weaker comrades — as has already happened with two major Russian entrepreneurs, Vladimir Yevtushenkov and Maxim Nogotkov, whose companies were taken away from them by men richer and more powerful than they. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin, who still sits in the middle of the intricate system he has woven over the course of 15 years, faces no such risk.

The United States remains very far from this state of affairs, but the fact is that Trump’s behavior echoes that of authoritarians. Trump may turn out to mark the end of American Exceptionalism when it comes to Washington’s role in promoting liberal order, but its absolutely clear that we need to banish methodological exceptionalism not just from our scholarship, but from our everyday modes of thought.

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