Donald Trump's gift to America: Realizing we've never been a liberal democracy

Is Trump a threat to liberal democracy, as elite voices tell us — or a reminder that we've never gotten there?

By Paul Rosenberg
January 2, 2021 5:06PM (UTC)
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US President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to wrestler Dan Gable in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on December 7, 2020. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

If every cloud has a silver lining, Donald Trump's destructiveness offers this one: He has forced us to a point of reckoning about America. If we think all this chaos is just about him, we've missed the whole point. On that point, there's wide agreement. Beyond that, however, there's considerable disagreement, if not confusion. The vast majority of elite discourse sees this in terms of a challenge to liberal democracy — a challenge that's been unfolding worldwide over the past decade or so, sometimes characterized as a "third wave of autocratization." 

There's a large body of knowledge and experience behind this point of view (see groups such as Varieties of Democracy for a global perspective, or Bright Lines Watch in the U.S.). But such an idealized view of American democracy has always been challenged by African Americans, for instance: See Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" or Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again.") Trump's election, in obvious response to Barack Obama's, has had the effect of pushing the longstanding Black critique of American democracy to the very center of our politics. 

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In contrast, University of Wisconsin political scientist Mark Copelovitch has been tweeting his observations of American politics under the rubric of "Today in life under competitive authoritarianism." The term comes from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way's 2010 book, "Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War" (introduced in an earlier paper here.) They cite "four minimum criteria" that modern democratic regimes meet, which these "hybrid regimes" (including most of the nations in the former Soviet Union) fail to meet on a systematic basis, thereby creating an uneven playing field between government and opposition. The first three of these criteria are that executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; that virtually all adults posses the right to vote; and that political rights and civil liberties — including freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal — are broadly protected. 

By systemically violating these criteria, and possibly a fourth — "elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary authority of military or clerical leaders" — competitive authoritarian regimes seek to maintain the general appearance of being democracy-like in order to claim legitimacy, but without practicing actual, substantive democracy. In a late October pair of tweets, Copelovitch summed up his view:

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Arguably, the US has basically not fully met the 1st 2 of Levitsky & Way's democratic criteria since the failure of Reconstruction. Trump-era backsliding is mostly on criterion 3 But the problem now is additive. EC + increases in gerrymandering & malapportionment + Trump.

I actually do think this is what we are starting to realize & why the Court/Senate/statehood reforms have gained traction. The immediate authoritarian threat of Trump since 2017 has shined light on the enduring undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

This framework of "competitive authoritarianism" offers a more realistic description of America's actually existing political system than calling it a backsliding liberal democracy. Our problem is not primarily a flaw in liberal democracy as such, but in the United States' consistent failure to actually embody what it pretends to be.

I asked Copelovitch about his "competitive authoritarianism" tweets, and he responded that the "most proximate reason" for writing them was his state of residence: "I have lived since 2006 in Wisconsin, which has been the canary in the coalmine for all of the developments and risks to American democracy that we've seen since 2016. ... What we're seeing at the national level under Trump is simply the extension of what's happened in Wisconsin, under [former governor] Scott Walker and [State Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos, to the U.S. as a whole." The fullest description of this can be found in Dan Kaufman's book, "The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics." 

But there's also Copelovitch's own background, as he explained by email. 

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I come at all of this as a scholar of international political economy (the politics of international trade, money, and finance). For the last decade, I've been studying the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and the Eurozone financial crises and quite a bit of time collaborating with (and reading) comparative politics scholars focused on the rise of far right and populist nationalist parties. I've also spent a lot of time studying the politics of the interwar era, especially in the wake of the economic and financial crises in Weimar Germany (see my recent book), and it should come as no surprise that I, like many, see many similarities between that era and ours.

This approach fits well with Levitsky and Way's concept of "competitive authoritarianism," which they define in contrast with democracy on the one hand and outright authoritarianism on the other: "In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy." 

Modern functioning democracies meet the four criteria named above. While there may be violations of any of the four criteria, "such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent Governments," the authors write. "In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition." But that's precisely what those violations are doing in America today — and have been doing since the demise of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when it comes to free and fair elections with universal suffrage.

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Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a giant step forward, but significant participation gaps have persisted, among minority groups in particular and low-income people in general, as documented in "Why Americans Don't Vote," which led to the passage of the 1993 "motor voter" law and "Why Americans Still Don't Vote," a sequel of sorts describing the continued obstacles. Since then, moreover, the Republican Party has increasingly shifted from passive obstruction of expanded voting rights to strategies of active voter suppression. 

This fits within the "competitive authoritarian" framework Levitsky and Way describe: 

Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents  are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to "legally" harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics.

Both the sweeping gerrymandering described in "Ratf**ked" by former Salon editor David Daley, and the Supreme Court's refusal to remedy the situation, are crucial examples of how this unfolds in America today. The same could be said of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the crucial pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by invalidating the jurisdictional maps. It also applies to voter-suppression strategies such as voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Democratic voters.

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Race, even more than class, stands at the center of most of these voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, which descend from America's founding as a Herrenvolk democracy or republic (experts have argued for both). Today's Republicans certainly didn't originate this practice, but they energetically took it over, as described in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here), for example. Other anti-democratic aspects of our political system have more mixed origins: "Ratf**ked," for example, shows how the GOP took traditional gerrymandering to a level never imagined before. 

Copelovitch told me he began tweeting about "life under competitive authoritarianism" as a way of "linking these three things together: the anti-democratic institutional biases of U.S. politics, the unprecedented lawless authoritarianism of Trump and the GOP's active embrace of restricting democracy. I've kept it going largely because the developments have continued throughout the last several years, to the point that I believe there are real, serious concerns about the state of American democracy."

This is an especially important point: Copelovitch sees the awareness of these concerns as a real dividing line "between people arguing that 'the system has worked' over the last two months to prevent Trump's attempts to steal the election, and those of us still warning that the unprecedented authoritarian threat to U.S. democracy persists, despite Biden's victory."

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Part of what defines that division is a deeper sense of how the system isn't working. Copelovitch has written earlier tweets referencing Robert Dahl's 1989 book "Democracy and its Critics" and noting that the U.S. basically violates the core criteria of democratic process that Dahl defines, especially relating to voter suppression, gerrymandering and the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats. "When you start to compare the U.S. by these criteria, to other countries' political systems, you quickly notice that we don't stack up well at all," he told me. "If you look at, say Germany or New Zealand, which have mixed-member proportional representation systems, you realize that our electoral institutions have institutionalized minority rule and locked in policies at odds with what large majorities of Americans seem to want on almost every issue." The $2,000 stimulus checks blocked by Mitch McConnell last week are merely the most recent high-profile example

"In this sense, U.S. politics isn't really fully democratic," Coplevitch continued. "At the moment, every single branch of the government is currently controlled (or partially controlled) by the representatives or appointees of a party representing a minority of Americans and supporting a wide range of policy positions that are deeply unpopular with the median voter."

It's not that we don't know what to do, at least in theory. But the lessons are drenched in historical irony. "I've long been of the position that the U.S. got constitutional design mostly right in 1949, when we helped oversee the establishment of Germany's mixed-member proportional representation system at the founding of the Federal Republic," Copelovitch said. "New Zealand adopted this system in 1996, and it has been very successful. If one were starting from scratch and looking for the ideal federal system, this is the model we'd look to follow."

That might be politically impossible in the U.S. anytime soon, he admits. but there are other options. Copelovitch cites Lee Drutman's book "Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop," which advocates ranked choice voting, multi-member districts, enlarging the House of Representatives, automatic universal voter registration, statehood for both the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and fixed terms for Supreme Court justices, among other reforms. 

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The first bill passed by the Democratic House majority in 2019, H.R. 1, the "For the People Act," was a direct attempt to address this situation — even if it didn't go nearly far enough. Mitch McConnell's response was telling, characterizing the law as "a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party." Aside from the obvious projection involved, the Senate majority leader came awfully close to acknowledging the inconvenient truth that elite Republican positions are either profoundly unpopular or profoundly impractical. (This same contradiction, to a large extent, enabled the ascendancy of Donald Trump.) It's certainly possible that Republicans could find ways to compete on a more level playing field, but only by abandoning the extremist politics they've increasingly embraced over the past 40 years.

Recognizing that America is, or is becoming, a competitive authoritarian regime is undoubtedly painful and unsettling. But that's the critical first step in becoming the liberal democracy this nation has always pretended to be. As with addiction or mental illness, you can't fix a problem until you finally admit you have one. 


Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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