American democracy is in crisis, and not just because of Trump
Dark money, unchecked presidential power and a politicised supreme court are wrecking the world’s flagship democracy
ineteen months into the Trump presidency, US democracy is running into serious trouble – but it is not all, or even mostly, Donald Trump’s fault. This crisis of governance has been building for decades. It is only now, as Trump’s iconoclastic assaults on established beliefs, laws, institutions and values test the system to destruction, that the true scale of pre-existing weaknesses and faultlines is becoming apparent.
This deep crisis of confidence, bordering on national meltdown, comes as the US hurtles towards midterm elections in November – a familiar American ritual now rendered strangely unpredictable by fears of foreign manipulation and an FBI investigation that could, by some estimates, lead ultimately to Trump’s impeachment. The process of degradation affects US citizens and all those around the world who hold up the US democratic system as a paradigm worthy of emulation. Friends worry that the country’s ability to sustain its traditional global leadership role – moral and practical – is being undermined. Enemies, principally anti-democratic, authoritarian competitor regimes in Russia and China, hope this is so.
Take a case in point, with global implications: Trump has repeatedly bragged about his willingness to use nuclear weapons. As commander-in-chief, he oversees the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Last year he threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, a nation of 25 million people. He has also threatened Iran. Such lunatic recklessness appals many Americans. But it transpires there is little they could do to stop Trump should he decide, on a whim, to press the “nuclear button”.
Checks do exist. There is a chain of command that cannot be bypassed. But security experts say nobody, not even the secretaries of state and defence or the chairman of the joint chiefs, has legal power to block a presidential launch order. What could be less democratic? Yet this dilemma was not created by Trump. It has existed for many years. Congress is now belatedly reviewing it.
Trump’s frequent use of “executive orders” has provided another wake-up call. Most infamous was his travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, but others – concerning his Mexican border wall, his unilateral imposition of steel tariffs, and his reversal of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act – were also highly contentious. Yet, once issued, such orders are rarely overturned. After numerous legal challenges, the supreme court upheld the travel ban.
Many were shocked to discover that a US president could issue diktats and fatwas like the worst kind of unelected despot or ayatollah. But the use of such orders, avoiding public scrutiny, is long-established. Franklin Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor by this means. Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation ending slavery was an executive order. In exercising this arbitrary power, Trump is following precedent, however undemocratic. The expanding powers of what the Vietnam-era historian Arthur Schlesinger dubbed the “imperial presidency” is a long-recognised phenomenon and one that Congress, America’s primary constitutional pillar, has signally failed to curb over the years. This may be one reason why Americans, according to polling going back decades, exhibit a consistently low opinion of Congress. But there are many others. The dominant two-party system, virulent partisanship and out-of-touch politicians are blamed for chronic failures of governance. The advantages conferred by incumbency are overwhelming; most members are repeatedly re-elected, reducing democratic choice. In terms of the presidency – the second constitutional pillar – systemic problems produce even greater anomalies. Trump was the fifth president to win office despite losing the popular vote, thanks to the archaic, unaccountably unreformed electoral college process.
Members of Congress are widely viewed as overly beholden to corporations, wealthy donors and special interests. In other words, they are seen as corrupt. The sums involved in greasing the wheels of US democracy are indeed eye-watering. According to the campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets, an overall $6.5bn (£5bn) was spent by presidential and congressional candidates in 2016 – enough to give every teacher in the country a $2,000 pay rise.
The average cost of winning a Senate seat was $19.4m. Winning a House of Representatives seat in the midterm elections will cost an average $1.5m, at least. The need for such huge war chests effectively excludes many would-be candidates from the democratic process and places others in hock to their financial backers.
Again, worries over excessive, non-transparent or illegal campaign financing long precede Trump. Despite many reform efforts, a growing proportion of funding comes from anonymous sources. According to a recent USA Today investigation, 40% of all television ads for political candidates are financed by secret donors with private political or commercial agendas. Then there is untraceable money emanating from foreign governments or individuals, via agents and lobbyists – an issue of heightened concern in the context of the Mueller inquiry into Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Mounting evidence of Russian influence-peddling and meddling has added to the sense of a gathering crisis of democracy. Yet while Trump’s minimising of the issue and his attempts to shut down the Mueller probe are plainly self-interested, these problems cannot all be laid at his door. Russians have been seeking to undermine US democracy since 1945. The difference now is they’re getting better at it – as are other foreign states.
US intelligence chiefs agree. “Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs,” the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, said last week. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek … to sow discord and undermine our way of life.” Yet what if Trump really were to be proven guilty of conspiring with a foreign power? How would he react? This is unknown, scary territory.
Can the judicial branch and, in particular, the supreme court – the third constitutional pillar and proud symbol of the founding fathers’ doctrine of the separation of powers – save US democracy? It seems unlikely. In nominating a prominent conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, for the latest court vacancy, Trump followed recent practice in shaping the court to suit his political outlook. It has not always worked this way. As the author David Greenberg has pointed out, supreme court nominations used to be mostly apolitical. This is not the constitution envisaged when they wrote the rules in Philadelphia in 1787.
Trump’s maverick behaviour highlights these entrenched structural problems. Yet, that aside, his rogue presidency is uniquely corrosive, right now, of democracy everywhere. His encouragement of ultranationalist, racist and neo-fascist forces from Warsaw to Charlottesville, divisive demagoguery, relentless vilification of independent journalism, contempt for the western European democracies, coddling of dictators and rejection of the established, rules-based international order all reinforce perceptions that the global role of the US as shining democratic beacon is dimming rapidly. Trump did this all by himself.
So what is to be done? The most urgent task is to recognise what is happening. Decades of complacent assumptions about America’s unending, unquestioning adherence to the democratic model have left it vulnerable to subversion within and without. Radical, inclusive political reform is urgently required. There needs to be a national conversation – and a revisiting of basic democratic principles. Maybe it’s time, 231 years on, for a follow-up constitutional convention in Philadelphia?
• Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator