“Can Donald Trump Wrestle Democracy into Submission?” the New Republic headline in early June read, but “So far, the heartening answer is no,” the subhead reassured. The analysis by Salon alum Brian Beutler laid out the case, building on an earlier piece from late March. It is Trump's threats to democratic norms, such as press freedom (his promise to “open up libel laws”) and the separation of powers, (Speaker Ryan “going to have to pay a big price”) Beutler argued, “more than his offensive, oft-ridiculed policy agenda” that set Trump apart as beyond the pale. But what's worked for him in the GOP primary, allowing him to defy the laws of normal politics, won't work the same way going forward — as events since then have already proved.
“Trump is pushing against the outer bounds of the norms our institutions impose on civic life, but the institutions are pushing back,” Beutler wrote — even before his most incendiary attacks on Judge Curiel set off a firestorm, and drew withering counterattacks. “Trump represents more of an existential threat to modern Republicanism than to our democracy as a whole,” he added, and that's clearly true: if the GOP were to fall apart into hostile factions, like the Whigs in the early 1850s, some other party would eventually emerge to replace it, while our creaky democracy kept wobbling on down the road. I've written about how it's happened before. Yet, even the Civil War in the decade after the Whig's demise didn't destroy our democracy.
But saying that Trump won't destroy American democracy single-handedly isn't really saying very much. Because the truth is, the GOP has been undermining our democracy for decades, eroding our political institutions [see my March 2015 story on “constitutional hardball”], as well as hollowing out our middle class. At the same, Democrats have mostly been playing along, offering "GOP lite" alternatives on most major questions, except for a few flagship social issues, such as reproductive choice, and more recently gay marriage.
Indeed, just before Obama took office, in the midst of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, he announced plans for a bipartisan approach to cutting Social Security and Medicare. It was just another in long line of neoliberal “solutions” that have lead us to a place of political gridlock and sharply diminished expectations, typified by the explosion of student loan debt putting a whole generation of the most talented & ambitious in hock, with only marginal incomes from the gig economy keeping many of them half-afloat. The widespread multiracial youth support for Sanders was strong evidence of how bankrupt that approach is now seen to be.
Beutler was right in just about everything he wrote, but the focus on the ever more incendiary Trump is too narrow to illuminate the broader, more varied treacherous landscape we find ourselves in—and that will continue to unfold, whatever happens this November. To seriously threaten American democracy, Beutler argued in his earlier story, would require something like the 2009 Honduran coup, a conflict leading to a legitimation crisis when two branches of government, each claiming supreme democratic legitimacy, descend into a state of war. This broader pattern was the subject of a widely-cited 1990 essay by by the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz, “The Perils of Presidentialism,” which took note of the US as an exceptional case, in part because it lacked coherently organized ideological parties—at the time. Since then, the GOP especially has become just such a party, and the election of Obama in 2008, followed by the Tea Party wave of 2010 has produced just the sort of situation that Linz was writing about—including threats of government shutdown and debt default which threatened the entire global economy. On the bright side, Beutler suggested, Trump's ideological heterodoxy could actually prove beneficial in this regard:
If Trump were to build his legacy of “greatness” through compromise (or, rather, “deal-making”) instead of a will to power, he could reverse America’s drift toward partisan polarization, and might even herald a return to the kind of undisciplined, ideologically mixed parties that Linz saw as critical to our system’s durability.
Beutler specifically cited Trump's critique of “free trade” and his promise “to leave Social Security and Medicare untouched,” which “could also shatter the unified conservative opposition to the New Deal consensus.”
It's a tantalizing prospect, but unlikely in the extreme — even though the mass support is there — both because of Trump's temperament, and because of a number of other insights Linz provides about the perils of presidentialism which can help us better understand how America has seemingly lost its exceptional status, and reached the point of political paralysis. Understanding how we got here is vital, if we're ever going figure out how to move on.
Consider the following passage from Linz, which brings together several significant major points:
But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.... One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties—has something to do with it. Unfortunately, the American case seems to be an exception; the development of modern political parties, particularly in socially and ideologically polarized countries, generally exacerbates, rather than moderates, conflicts between the legislative and the executive.
This passage helps us begin to orient the uniqueness of America's experience, and its deterioration, within a larger comparative context — a systemic deterioration that occurred even as social progress (for women, minorities, gays and lesbians, etc.) advanced significantly, driven from below.
Three significant observations about our history are appropriate here. First, the situation of potential crisis rarely occurred in American history prior to 1968. Not only were the parties primarily culturally, geographically and interest-based over most of US history, they were only sporadic periods of divided government, within a larger framework of shifting party dominance. From the 1790s to the 1960s, political scientists have identified what are called five “party systems,” each defined by the dominance of one major party over the other, and relative continuity of party organizations and alignments, lasting 32 to 36 years. Up until 1968, there were only a handful of periods with six straight years of divided government—none in the first or fourth party systems, one each in the second and fifth party systems, and two in the third party system. In sharp contrast, since 1968 there have not been even five consecutive years of undivided government. Control has been divided for just under 18 two-year terms out of a total 24. Thus, American politics changed fundamentally in the 1968, from being well-protected against the perils of presidentialism to being openly exposed.
Second, the congressional challenge to presidential authority and claim to speak for the people first emerged from Newt Gingrich following the 1994 midterms, when Republicans won a House majority for the first time since 1954. Democrats had held House majorities for 20 years since Nixon's election in 1968 without ever asserting a co-equal claim— even in the Watergate impeachment process, which was a deliberately bipartisan process, unlike the multi-pronged effort to ultimately impeach Bill Clinton. Gingrich attempted to stake a co-equal claim both with the “Contract for America” and with the subsequent government shutdown. The latter backfired, in part because the press did not go along with him—especially because of his own personal pettiness (“crybaby Newt”). The shutdown was a violation of informal governing norms, and both the press and the public responded to it as such. However, the fact that it happened in the first place reflected the argument made by political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins (Salon interview here) that the GOP is an ideologically-organized party in a way that the Democrats are not, and hence makes them a better fit with Linz's description of a “cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives.”
Third, similar GOP shutdown moves in 2011 and 2013, when a GOP congress once again faced a Democratic president, were relatively normalized by the media, significantly reducing the political cost and emboldening those who had pushed for them, thereby driving the GOP (especially its House caucus) further to the right. Although GOP control of the House in 2013 depended on unprecedented gerrymandering—see my recent interview with Ratf**cked author David Daley--the media's universal neglect of this fact left unchallenged the House Republican's claims to represent a majority of the American people. Thus, despite being labeled as “liberal,” the media's primary function over this time period has been to help consolidate and legitimate both the rightward movement of the GOP, and its claims to majoritarian power in violation of long-held norms of American political life, which have been central to preserving its long-term viability.
These are a few key highlights of the process whereby American politics has lost its unique character. We are no longer immune to the generalized perils of presidential systems that Linz warned about, which is why Donald Trump is not as surprising as the press takes him to be. While Trump's campaign is drawing all sorts of attention, the key to responding to it intelligently must ultimately lead back to addressing these historical developments.
First, divided government weakens American democracy. The post-1968 record is clear. We need a dominant party with a coherent, reality-based policy approach, one that will evolve over time as new facts come into play. The GOP played that role from 1896 to 1932, the Democrats played it from 1932 to 1968. Someone needs to play that role again. A subdominant party still has an important role to play, but it ultimately has to come up with a more compelling, more workable alternative if it is to gain dominant status over time. The battle for the Democratic Party nomination was far more important then the press gave it credit for, because it was about reshaping the policy outlook of the only party we have right now that could conceivably play the dominant party role. That battle will continue to unfold in different forms over the next few years, at least.
Second, we need Congress to become more congressional again. We need to rebuild the vibrancy of the committee system, restore institutions like the Office of Technology Assessment, and put an end to systemic gerrymandering which holds Congress hostage to extremist views that, in most cases, majorities of both party's voters reject.
Third, we need the media to stop normalizing politically pathological behavior. The default supposition that “both sides do it” in any situation is itself a form of politically pathological behavior that the press has mistaken for a noble principle. We may all be flawed, imperfect beings, but that does not make all flaws interchangeable. Some are far more serious—even deadly to our democracy. The press has a duty to do its best to identify them, so that we may all play a role in correcting them.
None of this will be easy to accomplish. But it is easy to know where to begin: with recognizing the scope of the problems involved, which go far, far beyond the toxic candidacy of Donald Trump. He may never stop digging the hole he's gotten himself into. But the rest of us don't have to follow him down.