The current nature of American government reflects a well-developed history of evolving attitudes. The governmental structure laid out by the constitution was built by the Framers with the hope that it would remain inherently democratic, but no one doubted its possible devolution. Contemporary politics exhibits a declining democracy which is cause for tremendous concern among Americans. Many choose to blame President Donald Trump’s authoritarian nature for the decline but, this problem has existed previously. There is no denying that Trump is authoritarian in policy making and character, yet he is not the origin of the problem facing democracy, rather he indirectly advances the crisis with his authoritarian tendencies.
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Democracy is defined as a system by which decisions are made by majority rule, indirectly. Presently, the United States government has developed into a pseudo-democracy where policy and legislation are sort of democratic. The reason for this is that less than half of the American population come to take part in selecting a representative which denies the concept of majority rule. Additionally, American policy is also not created with the agreement of the majority because those who typically come out to vote are activists and extremists who are irreflective of the views of the American populace. This is currently a big problem that affects the democratic underpinnings established in the constitution. The constitution states that the United States government is a “republican form of government” that represents “we the people.” This is the constitutions way of saying that our government is a democracy because it represents the views of all American citizens. Without all Americans or a minimum of a majority taking part in voting, then America cannot be called a constitutional democracy.
A more developed definition of democracy defines it as having four minimum criteria. The first is that government officials are chosen through open, free and fair elections. Second is that all eligible adults possess the right to vote. Third is that political rights and civil liberties are protected and not limited, and the fourth is that all elected authorities possess real authority to govern and are not controlled by an external power. Because of current events which indicate a repression of some political rights and civil liberties (as will be discussed) we find that America cannot be called a complete democracy. In fact, America is seemingly becoming more authoritarian in nature. How did this happen? Steven Levitsky, a renowned figure in political science, discusses how a government can become a competitive authoritarian administration and one of the causes he brings is decay in the ‘democratic regime.’ Further exacerbating the problem is what Levitzky and Ziblatt call the “institutional filters.” These are barriers that are put in place to prevent the election of an extreme authoritarian president, yet they have obviously failed. These filters include the party nomination system which is the process of a party selecting its representing candidate, as well as the news media itself. It is interesting to note that the extremist candidate himself (Trump) caused the normal news media to suffer by creating distrust among news followers and by bypassing regular media for social media sites like Twitter.
Levitzky and Ziblatt continue by saying that the reason for the deterioration of many democracies is because of the failure to follow the “unwritten rules…that ensure a minimum of civility and cooperation” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2016). In the case of American democracy, two distinct unwritten rules that have supported democracy are “partisan self-restraint” and “fair play.” These rules among others were indications of mutual respect between the opposing parties that no longer exists. Under partisan self-restraint, it is now normal for extensive filibusters to take place in Senate, for Senate to refuse to listen to the president and for senate to use its powers to prevent policy from being created. Adding further to the governmental dysfunction is the decreasing presidential restraint and increase of testing limits found especially with President Trump. The second unwritten rule, fair play, is one of the most basic foundations of democracy that has become neglected, producing chaos. Fair play is the concept that “in a democracy rivals must fully accept one another’s right to exist, to compete and to govern” (Levitzky and Ziblatt 2016). Because of the extreme polarization within the parties, they are unable to accept their opponents right to maintain personal ideologies. An interesting Pew study found that “Three-out-of-ten (30%) consistent conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Democrat and about a quarter (23%) of across-the-board liberals say the same about the prospect of a Republican in-law.” This extremism is found throughout the country and adds to the pre-existing problem of decaying democracy.
In terms of policy making and agenda accomplishment, Trump is the man. He has created hundreds of jobs which were desperately needed thereby giving an opportunity to thousands of people. Trump has also kept some of his campaign promises such as one for two federal regulations and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. He also cut out unnecessary spending from U.N. global warming programs, is working on reforming immigration, and is instituting tariffs to bring business back to America. We can’t deny that he is bringing money and change to America especially with the stats showing us the positive economic conditions Trump created. Yet, the uncouth and demanding way he is going about instituting his policies indicates an anti-democratic, authoritarian element to him that cannot be ignored.
An important aspect of democracy, as we discussed, is the responsibility to represent the people. In a study done by Pew Research, research showed that many Americans think Trump lacks respect for democratic institutions. Less than half of Americans polled (45%) say Donald Trump has a fair amount of respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions, while 54% say he has little if no respect. The research also found that many Americans think “significant changes” to the political system are needed. With so many people against Trump, even though he is accomplishing agenda, democracy is not being fulfilled. Trump is fulfilling his own ideologies (with some partisan support) and disregarding the requests of the people. Even though this is not a direct cause for the deterioration of the democracy it is noticeable that it affects the current state of democracy.
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A further aspect that indicates Trump’s authoritarian nature is Juan Linz’s litmus test. The purpose of this test is to pinpoint anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. (Levitzky and Ziblatt 2016) Trump fails this litmus test with flying colors. He not only failed to explicitly dismiss violence he did the opposite by supporting violence during the election period as well as when he called neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville “great people.” Violence does not belong within the framework of democracy as Linz tells us. Additionally, Trump threatened opposing media with legal action if they don’t end the negative press. This is blatant disrespect for a rival’s freedom of the press which is a basic civil liberty. Further, Trump expressed complete disrespect for the democratic process of election by stating that if Clinton had won the election he would call for a recount of the votes. After he won he established the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to discover “voter fraud” that exists. It seems that Trump doesn’t trust the legitimacy of voting and it raises the question in the minds of all Americans of whether their vote and democracy, count. Voting is one of the most basic democratic rights and if its legitimacy is questioned can cause tremendous repercussions.
Trump further implicates himself by labeling all news as fake news and discrediting the media. This devalues freedom of speech, a first amendment right in American democracy because it causes people to refrain from believing the press as well as expressing themselves freely. Freedoms that are crucial to democracy are being torn down in the face of Trump’s authoritarian approach. Further proving this point, Trump’s demand to know the author of an op-ed in the New York Times (Rebecca Ballhaus and Peter Nicholas 2018) indicates disrespect for the freedom of speech of his opponents as well as for his opponents themselves. He also blocked critics on Twitter which Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald recently declared unconstitutional based on it violating the first amendment rights. (John Herrman and Charlie Savage 2018) Trump has ignored this ruling which further shows his lack of respect to democratic fundamentals and presents him as an authoritarian.
Although it seems that Trump is the causative factor for the current state of our democracy, democracy has already been in decline due to intensified polarization as well as weakening of democratic institutions. (Levitzky and Ziblatt 2018) Although his actions clearly label Trump as an authoritarian, we need to consider that Trump has not even served one full term. Further, there are some benefits to his untraditional actions such as his ability to be closer to his constituents. Specifically, by Trump circumventing normal media and utilizing sites like Twitter he has made the president much more accessible which is essentially one aspect of democracy. However, with democracy in question, people don’t want an authoritarian figure like Trump and they are expressing their feelings through violence taught to them by you guessed it, Trump. There is already a noticeable rise in violence and terrorism as expressions of political decisiveness. A clear example is Cesar Sayoc who sent pipe bombs to people characterized as radical Democrats and anti-Trump. This is in fact a symptom of authoritarian democracy. The only way to fix this mess is by focusing on democratization and putting the democratic institutions back together. Running a country is no simple task and “democracy, when it functions properly, is hard grinding work” (Szalai 2018) yet if we don’t recognize the warning signs now our country may join the other failed democracies. This is not entirely Trump’s fault yet “he is as much a symptom as he is a cause.” (Levitzky and Ziblatt 2018)
- Ballhaus, Rebecca. Peter, Nicholas. 2018. “White House Reiterates Trump Call for Investigation of Anonymous Opinion Writer.” The Wall Street Journal. (Sept.)
- Herrman, John. Charlie, Savage. 2018. “Trumps Blocking of Twitter Users is Unconstitutional, Judge says.” The New York Times. (May):B1
- Levitsky, Steven. Daniel, Ziblatt. 2016. “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The New York Times. (Dec.)
- Levitsky, Steven. Daniel, Ziblatt. 2018. “How Wobbly is Our Democracy?” The New York Times. (Jan.): SR6
- Pew Research Center, June, 2014, “Political Polarization in the American Public”
- Szalai, Jennifer. 2018. “Will Democracy Survive President Trump? Two New Books Aren’t So Sure.” The New York Times. (Jan.):C1
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