Trump’s tumultuous election in 2016 left half of the country shell shocked. However, the election was not as abnormal as it was originally depicted as but rather the result of years of two party division largely on the basis of ethnic and economic lines that reached dangerously high levels of polarization. The 2016 election and the actions of the Democratic National Convention then and now shed light on the political pitfalls within America’s democratic system as Bernie Sanders, the nominee of choice once again loses out not through the popular vote but backroom electoral systems. It seems as if the DNC is determined to repeat the same mistakes instead of opting for a more unifying change across party lines that could not only possibly gain them the election but could begin a process of national healing and renewed faith in the political system.
After the 2016 election, The Economist reclassified America as a flawed democracy rather than a full democracy because of how greatly American confidence in the political system and public institutions had fallen (Liebermann et al, 1). This is especially concerning given that almost 20 years prior, in 1999, a survey found that “85 percent of Americans believed the Constitution was the major reason the country had been successful in the previous century” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 97). However, just as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, the Constitution is not and can never serve as the only protection to ensure a secure democracy and instead relies “on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected” (100).
The unwritten rules of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance have been called into question. Politicians are no longer as willing to agree to disagree as they have been in the past and there are no limits to the extent in which Trump and the GOP will yield their legislative and executive power in order to get what they want. Since Trump has come to office, he has undermined the press, been embroiled in a Senate investigation regarding Russian interference, inflamed racial and ethnic divisions, expressed his desire to stack the supreme court and so much more. Moreover, it’s forged an even more adversarial relationship between the GOP and the Democrats than ever before, to the point where losing ceases to be a routine and accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a full-blown catastrophe” as emphasized by drastic efforts on the DNC’s part to find the perfect opponent to what someone they don’t just perceive as an opponent, but a grave threat (112).
Trump’s presidency has done more than elected a renegade to office, it “has called into sharp question the integrity and resilience of the American regime and the future of liberal democracy in the United States” (Libermann et al, 2). It is no longer simply about choosing between a Democrat or a Republican because the actions taken by political figures during this administration and throughout the course of the 2020 election cycle will determine the extent to which the morals and principles of our political system will be preserved or corroded (Linz & Stepan). As discussed by Huq and Ginsberg, the “near-term prospects of constitutional liberal democracy hence depend less on our institutions than on the qualities of political leadership and popular resistance” (1). They maintain that the threat of constitutional regression is stronger than authoritarian reversion even though Trump’s actions seem to indicate otherwise (6). Additionally, systems that have sustained the American political system through a series of particular gate-keeping functions also need to be called into question.
One of the DNC’s fatal flaws in the 2016 election was isolating voters by not allowing Bernie Sanders even the slightest chance to win the nomination from the beginning. When voters realized how rigged the nomination was against him and how determined they were to give it to Clinton in spite of public opinion, it further deepened this mistrust. However, this system of political gatekeeping has been and continues to be an essential part of the presidential electoral process whether it’s through the delegates at the DNC or the electoral college, the United States Representative democracy has always found ways to circumvent the will of the people in favor of what traditionally is supposed to be the “sensible and safe option.”
It’s quite ironic actually that the “backroom candidate selection” that served a “gatekeeping function [in] keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office” has done the opposite (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 38). Moreover, in the case of the DNC, they keep using these tactics to choose the Democratic nominee, much to the ire of their voter base. Not only have they been pushing away moderate voters, their behavior deepens partisan rifts which could eventually end up in an election of a president even worse than Trump (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 216). Conversely, if he is defeated by the utilisation of these institutions and these unwritten rules, it could beckon a return to a trust in the government for the American public and a renewed faith in US political institutions and a more mature phase in democratic consolidation (Norris, 18) (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 216).
However, before any of this can be accomplished, it is imperative that political leaders address the root of the polarization that Trump was able to weaponize to gain access to the highest office in the first place. Growing animosity reflected in the US is the result of “the combined effect not only of growing ethnic diversity but also of slowed economic growth, stagnant wages in the bottom half of the income distribution, and rising economic inequality” (227). One of the biggest divisions within the DNC has been typically deciding between a more socialist candidate like Sanders versus a more traditionally progressive one like Biden or Clinton.
Voters should not have to choose. Democracy thrives with lessened economic inequality and one of the ways of “tackling our deepening partisan divide would be to genuinely address the bread and butter concerns of long-neglected segments of the population –no matter their ethnicity.” (227). This requires Democrats to nominate someone who not only appeals to their traditional voter base, which of late has consisted of minorities, and upper middle class college educated white Americans, but also the white working class they’ve essentially isolated and pushed into the opposition’s hands. Instead of building coalitions between like-minded groups, Democrats should be working to unite, as stated by Levitsky and Ziblatt, Bernie Sanders supporters and business people, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters, which will open channels of communication across the vast chasm that emerged between our country’s two main partisan camps” (219). These Anti-Trump discussions cannot stay isolated in historically blue circles and in the individuals in those circles should not be inherently divided as well. It is crucial to defeat constitutional retrogression and these authoritarian and populist changes in our government by broadening the voter base to encompass a more holistic view of America which is no longer just divided between blue and red but within and among them as well.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
Lieberman, Robert C., Suzanne Mettler, Thomas B. Pepinsky, Kenneth M. Roberts, & Richard Valelly. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” Working paper.
Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Norris, Pippa. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” Journal of Democracy Web Exchange