A number of pundits and scholars have been warning lately that American democracy is in danger. The danger isn’t of an outright collapse of democratic institutions—there is no coup d’etat on the horizon—but of a significant diminution of the conditions that make American government at least minimally responsive to the needs of a broad diversity of its citizens, rather than of an empowered minority.
The threat to democracy comes from two broad complementary trends. The first is the growth in economic inequality, which, together with the increased role of money in politics, has led to an increasing concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthiest among us. This might be called the plutocratic dynamic: economic power naturally translates into political power in the absence of powerful countervailing forces. As the wealthy increase their already outsized share of the economic pie, they gain more political power, which enables them to obtain more favorable public policies, which in turn, enables them to further increase their wealth and political power, in a self-reinforcing process.
The second trend is the radicalization of the political party that most faithfully and reliably serves the interests of the plutocracy. The Republican Party has not only become radical in its extreme “conservative” (i.e., reactionary) policy objectives. More important for the present discussion, it has become radical in its choice of strategies and tactics. Increasingly, the GOP has shown a disdain for the informal norms of American democratic procedure that have been so important in keeping political conflict manageable. Harvard political scientists Ziblatt and Levitsky explain:
A well-designed constitution is not enough to ensure a stable democracy…. Democratic institutions must be reinforced by strong informal norms. Like a pickup basketball game without a referee, democracies work best when unwritten rules of the game, known and respected by all players, ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation. Norms serve as the soft guardrails of democracy, preventing political competition from spiraling into a chaotic, no-holds-barred conflict.”
Republican rejection of democratic norms reflects a view of politics as war, first articulated fairly openly by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s in a relentless campaign of opposition—culminating with impeachment–against a very mildly progressive Democratic president. In war, you seek to destroy, not coexist with, your enemies. The war resumed with the election of another mildly progressive Democratic president in 2008.
The brazenness of the Republicans’ campaign to obstruct and sabotage the Obama administration has no parallel in the history of this country since the Civil War era. Consider just the matter of judicial nominations. A longstanding norm of American politics holds that Congress will usually accept a president’s nominees to the federal judiciary except under unusual circumstances. From 1967 to 2009, a period of more than 4 decades during which Republicans controlled the White House 62% of the time, just 36 presidential nominees to the federal courts were rejected by Congress. The same number of nominees were rejected in Obama’s first term alone. So, the refusal of the Republican Senate to consider Obama’s last nominee to the high court, Merrick Garland, as unprecedented and outrageous as it was, was only the capstone of the GOP’s judicial rejectionism. Not only Ted Cruz, but Senate majority leader McConnell suggested that the Senate might continue to refuse to consider all Supreme Court nominees if Hillary Clinton were elected president.
But of course it’s not just the judiciary. During the Obama administration the Republicans refused to consider presidential nominees to federal agencies not because they disapproved of the nominees, but in order to cripple the work of the agencies. They repeatedly threatened to shut the government down and to blow up the US economy by refusing to raise the debt limit. While you can find some precedent for some of this behavior in past history, the whole pattern is unprecedented in its magnitude and consistency.
So, Donald Trump’s rejection of democratic norms—his attacks on the judiciary and the media; his open call for the prosecution of his opponents and his desire to subject law enforcement to his political needs; his calling into question the legitimacy of election results; his characterization of his opponents as treasonous; not to mention his hatemongering against racial and religious minorities—are not a radical departure from, but an extension and escalation of behavior that his party has normalized.
What to do? According to Kevin Baker in The New Republic, Democrats have no real choice; they must respond in kind, “…no matter how superior they may feel in ethics and motivation. It’s the logic of war rather than the logic of democracy.” So, in Baker’s view, if a Democratic president displaces Trump in 2020, he/she should seriously consider “packing” the Supreme Court—expanding it to 11 justices– if given the opportunity, to ensure a favorable majority on the Court.
Ziblatt and Levitsky think it shouldn’t come to that. They think that Democrats should continue to occupy the high ground and embrace the norms of restraint, forbearance, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the opposition. Otherwise, our democracy is in big trouble. Baker’s attitude, instead, is, forget it—our democracy is already fundamentally, irreversibly changed. The two parties are locked in an escalating war, and it’s not going to stop.
My own view is somewhere in the middle. I do think that Democrats should occupy a higher ground than their rivals, but I am very aware, as I’ve said before, that unilateral disarmament is for losers. So, a balance needs to be struck. Democrats should be willing to press the envelope occasionally and flout old norms where their rivals have already done so. But they need to make clear that they are doing so reluctantly, and only in attempted compensation for the other side’s transgressions. So, for example, if the Democrats retake the Senate in 2018 (not likely, but let’s say if) they should certainly refuse to confirm any Trump nominee to the high court, and they should at least drag their feet s-l-o-w-l-y on all Trump judicial nominees. That would be partial compensation for the theft of Garland’s seat.
But above all, Democrats need to focus on winning. They need to boot Republicans out of office at all levels in 2018, and they need to boot Trump out of the White House. Everyone who yearns for a decent, much less a progressive, politics in this country needs to join that effort.