Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 19 September 2023

Democracy on a knife edge in the United States


Asking if US democracy as we know it will survive either seems very depressing or rather melodramatic. However it is actually quite hard to be melodramatic about the consequences of Trump becoming President again. Trump failed last time to turn the United States into a dictatorship of the kind he so admired overseas not because he didn’t want to, but because he was prevented from doing so. He and his supporters have learnt their lessons and will be much more difficult to stop if they get another shot, while those forces that held Trump back in his first term have not been reinforced.

Much of the resistance to Trump during his first term came from the established bureaucracy of government. The solution proposed by Trump supporters is to fire large numbers of them from day one. To put it in their language, they would get rid of the ‘deep state’ that opposed Trump during his first term. With the Department of Justice in his hands, a judicial system, already much more political than in the UK, would lose all independence. He would target his political opponents as he tried to do last time, and the Republican party starting impeachment hearings against President Biden on no basis whatsoever show they would be happy to go along with this. What the Republican party would surely do is ensure the US electoral system became even more biased, making it even harder to elect a Democratic President or Congress again.

The rest of the world would quickly see the effects of a Trump second term. He is unlikely to back Ukraine in the same way that the US is currently doing, forcing Europe to provide much more military support. He plans a 10% blanket tariff on all goods imported to the US. Trump and his party is likely to do everything it can to slow down the transition to green energy, which given the country’s carbon footprint would be seriously bad news for the survival of human civilisation as we know it. More generally, when Trump’s decisions are largely divorced from the normal pros and cons of politics, it is difficult to know what additional harm he could do freed from any executive restraint.

Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner to be the Republican candidate for the 2024 election despite the fact that he is facing trial in two separate cases for trying to overthrow the results of the last election, which he clearly lost. One is for putting pressure, in a recorded phone call, on Georgia’s secretary of state to find 12,000 votes to swing the state in his favour during the election. The second is a more general charge of trying to overthrow that election result by various means, including his role in the 6th January attack on the Capitol.

It seems incredible that someone charged, and perhaps even by then convicted, of trying to overthrow a democratic and fair election could legally become President, but there seems to be nothing in the US Constitution that clearly prevents that. Where there is any doubt, the key point to note is that the final legal decision maker in the US, the Supreme Court, has a Republican majority and is almost certain to vote in Trump’s favour.

If he cannot be legally prevented from becoming the next POTUS, will voters prevent that happening? Republican voters will not, and increasingly the Republican party is now Donald Trump’s party. Although there are quite a few Republican politicians who are unhappy that this has happened, few have dared voice their opposition. The reason is fourfold. First, a majority of Republican voters are supportive of Trump, for reasons discussed below. Second, Republican candidates at most levels of government are chosen in primaries by Republican voters. Third, there is enough of the 0.1% who think Trump will be good for them to ensure Trump supporting candidates will always run for those seats and have the necessary financial backing. As a result, opposing Trump is close to electoral suicide for any Republican politician. Finally, these politicians increasingly worry about their or their families' personal safety. Never underestimate the power of occasional violence from the extreme right.

This is why Trump is likely to be the Republican candidate in 2024. Fortunately there are enough voters (mainly Democrats and Independents, but also a few Republicans) who still believe in democracy to outnumber those voting for Trump, but three things may nevertheless mean that Trump could still become President.

The first is that many voters will not see the election as Trump vs US democracy. Of course with one of the two candidates having tried to overturn the result of the 2020 poll it is not as if Trump’s contempt for democracy is hidden from them. Instead it is because elections are always fought on many issues, and all the signs are that the non-partisan media will treat 2024 as just another election.

Remember the 2016 election where the non-partisan media obsessed about whether Clinton had used her personal email account for official business. This is how ‘balance’ works in the US media: journalists feel they have to be equally critical of both sides, so implicitly the trivial (which email account did Clinton use) is equated with the serious (is Trump suitable to be President?). We see the same thing happening today. The media obsess about Biden’s age, to balance their critical coverage of Trump’s various appearances in court. But worrying that the President is too old is a different class of concern to worrying about whether US democracy will survive.

On the crucial issue of the economy Biden should be way ahead. From the perspective of Europe (or virtually anywhere outside the US) the US has made a far better recovery from the pandemic then nearly every other major economy, and it looks like inflation has returned to target without the need for a major recession. Unemployment remains very low. But this is not how it is seen in the US, where sentiment about the economy is very depressed. There is a great deal of speculation about why this is, and whether it represents a media failure or something real (high interest rates, a short term confusion between the price level and inflation, or the onset of another Covid wave), but the upshot is that the economy is not as yet the strong card it should be for Biden.

The second reason why Trump could beat Biden is because the Electoral College, rather than the popular vote, decides who wins, and the Electoral College is heavily biased towards Republicans.

The third, and perhaps most alarming, is that Trump and the Republican party will dispute the result of any General Election result that Trump loses. Trump, once again, has learnt from his failure to overturn the 2020 election result, and has been trying to ensure that his people are in positions of power to at least sow confusion about the validity of any general election result in key states, something he failed to pressure Republican officials to do last time. The danger is that Trump, backed by the Republican party, can put a sufficiently strong case that he actually won to the Supreme Court, who will given its composition rule in the Republican’s favour.

That someone with such disregard of democracy should once again have another shot at gaining the White House seems incredible, so it is worth exploring why that can happen. There are two different but plausible stories you can tell. In the first, a majority of Republican voters have such great faith in Donald Trump that they are happy to overturn democracy to see him elected. To put the point in another way, they are happy with democracy as long as it only involves true Americans. The second story is that a majority of Republican voters are so misinformed by the media they consume that they actually believe Trump really won in 2020, and that it is Democrats rather than Trump who is a threat to democracy.

Reality probably combines both stories. There is little doubt that many Republicans want to believe the stories they are fed by the right wing media, and as a result allow themselves to live in a fantasy world where, for example, Trump was cheated in 2020 by voter fraud or whatever. On the other hand if the right wing media that provides this fantasy world did not exist, at least some of those Republican voters might be forced to confront reality. The evidence is also clear that exposure to right wing media does increase the Republican vote.

Whatever the causes and extent of the The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a crucial question is how such a minority can potentially overthrow US democracy. How is it so easy for a would-be dictator to capture one of the two main political parties in the United States, and therefore get close to power? There are of course many answers to that question, but perhaps two of the most important are the lack of control over the influence of money in politics (including through the media), and the widespread use of closed direct primaries in a two party system since the beginning of the last century. [1] If Trump loses, US democracy is safer but far from completely safe. There are plenty of Trump successors around. More importantly the voters to whom Trump appealed, together with a right wing media that feeds them and a voting system that gives them power, are not going to change.

[1] Recent UK history provides a similar illustration of the perils of party membership power within political parties on the right. Liz Truss became Prime Minister not because she was elected in a general election, but because she was chosen by just 80,000 Conservative party members. She was elected on a platform of tax cuts, when that was the last thing the country needed. Her attempt to implement those tax cuts quickly unraveled, and her period of being Prime Minister lasted only 49 days.

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