When I was younger, I thought the checks and balances of the US constitutional system were something of a law of nature. I couldn’t imagine these guarantees failing democracy; they were immutable and automatic and would always be there to protect Americans from an internal authoritarian threat.
It is a dangerous illusion. The Constitution and the rule of law themselves are human inventions that depend on Americans to function properly regardless of who is president and which political party is in power. Checks and balances are not self-effective. A constitution that looks good on paper is only effective if elected officials, voters and the media carry out their promises.
The 2016 presidential election shows the fragile nature of democracy. Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have studied the development and collapse of democracies, describe President-elect Donald Trump as “authoritarian tendencies”. Levitsky and Ziblatt cite the following anti-democratic warning signs: Trump’s failure to clearly oppose the use of force by his supporters; his threat to jail Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton; his false claim that he lost the referendum over election fraud and threats against freedom of the press. To this list I would add the possibility of mass arrests, mass deportations and actions against Muslim Americans.
Political scientist Brendan Nyhan agrees that Trump poses a threat that has nothing to do with normal party disputes in Washington, but rather challenges basic democratic norms. As Nyhan notes, Trump has “unusual and” [indeed] unprecedented “actions.
Trump has made it clear that he does not believe that ordinary rules apply to him, which raises serious concerns about the rule of law – the notion that everyone, even the president, is subject to legal responsibility and restrictions of power. Trump’s transitional entourage often looks like more like a royal court as a creature of democratic government. Individuals seek an audience with Trump and rely on his personal mood for positions of power or other favors. Companies have to stay on Trump’s good side or they risk the consequence of a negative tweet that drives their share price down. Family members have the innermost sphere of influence and have the opportunity to use their position financially.
The threats Trump poses to democracy must also be understood in an international context in which authoritarianism and democracy are fought. Russian President Vladimir Putin is on the side of the autocracy, while increasingly isolated European democracies such as Germany and France are in opposition. Trump seems to associate more with Putin than with democracy.
This is a dangerous moment. The question is whether American constitutional democracy can survive a Trump presidency. An authoritarian presidency would be risky for all aspects of American life – political, religious, economic. There is also reason to be concerned about democracy at the state level: Check out the Republican power game in North Carolina, where state lawmakers got the new Democratic governor stripped of key powers before he even took office.
But none of this means that things are hopeless. Checks and balances are not a sure-fire success, but they are still available and only need people who are willing to stand up for democracy.
Members of Congress have all the tools they need to ensure that the president is subject to the rule of law. Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats have passed laws that would oblige Trump to sell his fortune and place the proceeds in blind trust to ensure foreign governments cannot buy access to the president or buy favors from the president. Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham join the Democrats in calling for an impartial investigation into Russia’s role in the US elections.
“What happens to America is up to us as Americans.”
These and other actions can effectively defend our democracy – but they depend on the support of enough members of Congress. Right now, most Republicans don’t seem interested in putting any limits on the president’s power. This is not a party issue – at least it shouldn’t be.
Ultimately, it is up to us as Americans what happens to America. In our constitutional system, we, the people, have the power to influence elected officials – not just on election day, but whenever we make our voices heard. If we want to ensure that checks and balances work, all we have to do is speak up and let our elected officials know that democracy is worth preserving.
Chris Edelson is Assistant Professor of Government in the American University School of Public Affairs. His latest book,Power without coercion: The 9/11 Presidency and National Security, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in May 2016.