On January 30, 2018, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address to 46 million television viewers and a chamber filled with American dignitaries. Despite the chamber’s bustling energy, at least eleven lawmakers were missing from the crowd. Democratic Representatives John Lewis (GA), Barbara Lee (CA), and Gregory Weeks (NY) are among the group of politicians who boycotted Donald Trump by refusing to attend his State of the Union Address. Of course, these representatives are under no legal obligation to attend the address. However, I believe that by staying home these well-intended leaders are harming the precious institution of democracy that they are trying so hard to uphold.
Linz and Stepan believe that governmental legitimacy is a necessity to uphold democracy. They claim that a breakdown of democracy is a crisis of legitimacy. These researchers define legitimacy as the belief that the existing political institution represents the best of all available options, and that those in power have the right to issue and enforce commands. Furthermore, they acknowledge the presence of a “loyal opposition”, which despite disagreeing with the ruler, recognizes the authority of the elected leader.
And therein lies the problem – modern American politics lacks a loyal opposition. The Democrats who stayed home on Tuesday night do not have to agree with, or even respect, President Trump. However, if they wish to maintain the legitimacy of our democratic government, they must respect the office of the presidency by acknowledging its legitimacy through their words and deeds. Much like November’s cries of “Not my president!”, practices that strip legitimacy from the political process and seek to violate bureaucratic norms are only setting precedents that will harm the opposing party the next time the vote swings in their favor. Over time, such practices will lead to norms that will erode American democracy by weakening the legitimacy of the presidential office.
Levitsky, Steven, and Ziblatt regard norms such as refraining from the use of excessive power and abstaining from legal constitutional abuses as “guardrails of American democracy”. I believe that the “norms as guardrails” framework also applies to citizens and members of Congress. When we refuse to respect our political processes and institutions, we weaken and threaten to destroy them. Members of Congress who refuse to treat the presidency as legitimate because they disagree with the current president’s agenda can expect the opposing party to afford them the same courtesies when the tables have turned. Such antics begin to call into question the legitimacy of not only the president (regardless of party affliction), but also the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
What about the reasons for the protests? How should we respond to the feelings of those, like Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky (D), who refused to attend the State of the Union Address on account of the president’s “loathsome language and actions”? Or those who share the sentiments of California Representative Maxine Waters, who has little respect for the president? “Why would I take my time to go and sit and listen to a liar?”, Waters responded when asked why she would not be in attending the State of the Union Address.
I’m not insisting that Representative Waters stand up and cheer, applaud, or even smile when President Trump says things with which she disagrees. Rather, I’m asserting that she and those who share her views should recognize the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Our elected officials should show respect even when they disagree with the rhetoric or policies espoused by those in positions of power.
These politicians have a right to be angry with President Trump. Their feelings are valid and deserve to be heard. However, they are setting a dangerous precedent for the leaders that follow. Politics change and new leaders from new parties are elected. In fact, in the past seven of nine elections the political party occupying the White House has changed after remaining in power for two terms. It is likely that the next White House reversal may take place in 2020 if Democrats continue to strengthen the massive mobilization organizations, such as Indivisible, which were created in response to the 2016 election.
Leaders who understand the volatility of politics recognize the importance of institutional respect. When asked if he would attend President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, Representative Joe L. Barton (R-TX) responded, “Out of respect for the office of the presidency and the people I represent, I attend the State of the Union every year. It is part of this nation’s great history and I think it is important to respect that”. Despite being one of President Obama’s fiercest critics, Representative Barton understood that he did not have to respect the president to respect the office and the democratic institutions that elected him. He acknowledged that the president’s power was legitimate and conducted himself accordingly.
Legitimacy is fundamental to democracy, and democracy allows the people to replace a leader of whom they no longer approve. This should be comforting to Trump’s dissenters who will have the opportunity to replace him in two short years. Until then, I urge members of both parties to respect our democratic institutions and the office of the president, even if they foster no respect for President Trump himself.
*Photo from University of Texas Photography Archives, “Reagan delivers State of the Union Address 1983″, Wikimedia Commons