As we are heading towards the midterm elections in 2018, many Democratic candidates won several significant races against their Republican counterparts recently in Virginia and New Jersey. Specifically, Ralph Northam won the gubernatorial race against Ed Gillespie and Phil Murphy against Kim Guadagno in New Jersey. In addition, Democrats have also gained a few more seats in the House of Delegates of Virginia, including Ashley Bennett, Danica Roem, Elizabeth Guzman, Hala Ayala, and Lee Carter. The projection looks promising to the Democrats for next year’s elections for the House of Representatives and Senate in different states. If the Democrats were to gain back the majority in either the House or the Senate, the legislative branch could put a more effective check on Donald Trump’s executive power.
Throughout history, the elections in the United States have always been swinging like a “pendulum.” One party may gain control of either the legislative branch or the executive or both branches for a period of time. And then, the other party takes over for a while, and this pattern continues. For example, the Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate at the end of Bush’s administration and when Barack Obama was first elected. As a result, the Democrats had been controlling both the legislative and executive branches during Obama’s first two years in the office. In 2010, the Republicans took over the House. Later in 2014, they gained back the control over the Senate and several governorships.
Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg have stated in their working paper “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy”: “To call this risk small, however, is not to say that it is nonexistent. But given the lower transaction costs of constitutional retrogression demonstrated in Part III, we think that it is far more likely that democratic decay will be piecemeal and incremental rather than wholesale and rapid” (Huq and Ginsburg 27). I highly agree with Huq and Ginsburg’s statement regarding the vulnerability of American democracy. I admit that there is a “small risk” that the democracy in the United States regresses. However, democratic backsliding is really hard to achieve.
In other countries, especially Latin American countries, presidents abuse their executive power and thus put democracy at risk. Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold give examples to support this claim: “Some presidents have even managed to abolish term limits altogether: Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1999), Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (2009), and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (2009); Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa is now trying to eliminate term limits in his country as well” (160). In these countries, the presidents are granted with too much power. As a consequence, they deliberately change the legislations to their own advantage. In this case, they get rid of term limits to be reelected as incumbents and thus gain more power. However, in the United States, the president and other lawmakers/politicians may find it hard to make such moves, as the other branches are able to check on their power.
In addition, the people can freely vote out any incumbents who are not satisfying their constituents. In this case, the people chose an all-Republican Congress and a conservative president for this moment. However, the conservative political roster has gone too far to the “right” and thus dissatisfied the people. Therefore, the voters started voting for the liberal candidates for certain positions and are continuing to do to shift to the “left.” Eventually, the legislative branch will become liberal leaning and thus pose a check on Trump’s presidential power. In other words, the election results usually reflect people’s will.
American democracy still looks promising as the Constitution limits each politician’s ambition to gain more power and grants the people with rights to vote out the unsatisfying incumbents. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the Democrats have finally started to gain back more power by winning the governorship of Virginia and New Jersey and several seats in the House of Delegates. More importantly, they will continue to win back more representations. Thus, this pattern resembles a “pendulum” swinging back from both sides of the aisle. I predict that the Democrats will take back Congress after the midterm elections and even the White House eventually.
Yifei, I enjoyed reading your post and contemplating your idea of a “pendulum” theory of US governance. It does seem to be the case that the US has traditionally moved between the Democratic and Republican parties depending on the mood of the populace, and perhaps the recent elections in New Jersey and Virginia provide evidence of this phenomenon continuing. However, I think there are additional undemocratic factors that appear to be skewing congressional elections at the national level, complicating the “pendulum theory.”
The first that come to mind are gerrymandering and the natural geographic dispersion of Republican voters. Even if many people in the country turn against Trump’s party in the midterm elections, it may not be enough to take back the House of Representatives. A recent study referenced in a NY Mag article found that the average congressional district was 5.5 points more Republican-leaning in the presidential race than the nation as a whole in 2016. This indicates that due to partisan drawing of voting districts by state legislatures (a majority of which are Republican), and the natural dispersion of white, suburban, and rural voters who favor the GOP, the Republicans have an entrenched edge. This will prove an uphill battle for the Democratic Party in 2018, despite their recent successes at the state level.
I think the other point in the post regarding constitutional retrogression is also worth exploring further. It is true that compared to the Latin American governments you referenced, the US has a robust system of checks on executive power. I think, however, that the erosion of norms by President Trump will remain with us long after he leaves office. As many authors have pointed out, we are a nation of laws but also norms. If these norms are eroded and party members and/or the public do not sanction those responsible, then we may see democratic norms increasingly ignored in the future. I see this as a huge threat to the continuation of pluralism in the USA.