Forget the clickbait: President Donald J. Trump and the Republican party are unraveling the democratic process in the United States, just because you cannot “feel” it, does not mean it is not happening. Since his inauguration President Trump has been accused of undemocratic processes and while Trump is not the Nazi embracing fascist CNN has reported him to be, he and the Republicans in Congress certainly are a threat to our democracy.
When confronted with the idea of democratic erosion, many people point to the fact that they are “still okay”, that if there were some imminent danger, we would see the signs, and while democratic erosion can be a blunt, visible process in the form of a classic coup d’état or other coup, it can also take place in several more gradual forms as we are seeing now.
To begin, the scholarly article “On Democratic Backsliding” by author Nancy Bermeo characterizes democratic backsliding as, at its most basic, “a state-led debilitation or elimination of the institutions or political systems that sustain an existing democracy”. I understood this as being comparable to an auto-immune disease, where the immune system put in place to defend the body actually attacks it from the inside out. In this case, the government put in place to protect the people, attacks its supporting systems (the legislature, elections, media, etc) from the inside out. There are two strategies Bermeo also describes as an indicator of a backslide that is taking place in the United States.
Manipulating elections strategically: A process aimed at tilting the vote in favor of the incumbent. Republican states routinely erode the democratic process by implementing partisan gerrymandering when redrawing voting districts during House election years. Voting lines are redrawn by the majority party for each state and while both parties can and have used this process, it is employed most heavily by Republicans when in power. The shaping of the voting districts matters because it determines how much power votes in a given area actually have.
For example, if a state is mostly Democratic, Republican redistricting committees can redraw the maps, so there are 3 heavily populated Democratic Congressional districts and 5 lesser populated Republican districts. Because votes are counted by the individual districts and not the individual ballot per se, a Republican candidate can “win” more districts and in turn, the election, even though the majority of people in the state did not vote for them. This is a major issue because these elections are for state representatives, the people most directly responsible for speaking for the common man and making sure his voice is heard; certainly, making the House of Representatives one of our sustaining political institutions
The states of Ohio and Pennsylvania are prime examples of gerrymandering. In the case of Pennsylvania during the 2014 House of Representatives election, approximately 44% of the population voted for a Democratic candidate, however over 2/3 of their districts (13 out of 18) were represented by Republican representatives. And in the case of Ohio almost 40% of voters chose to elect democratic candidates, however ¾ of the state’s seats (12 out of 16) went to Republican representatives, disproportionately diverting the power away from one group to another.
On the President’s end, we are seeing the early stages of an executive aggrandizement, which is a gradual coup that takes place when the executive power goes unchecked, “weaken[ing] checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” Since taking to the oval office, President Trump has repeatedly gone over the legislative branch’s head to pass legislation via executive orders.
Trump’s repeated use of the executive order for landmark decisions such as the “high risk terrorism” travel ban of 2017, delaying the Affordable Care Act, and the suspension of the United States’ refugee program for 120 days takes away power from the legislature and furthermore creates a passive Congress as explained by Yuval Levin in the article “Congress is Weak Because Its Members Want it to Be”. The partial blocking of the Affordable Care Act is perhaps the best example, as it was a piece of legislation voted on and passed by Congress and then partially undone by a flick of the president’s wrist.
With the president doing Congress’ job, it lessens their role in the system of checks and balances, while expanding the role of the executive. Congress in turn, has become a body less concerned with passing legislation to represent their constituents and had instead turned their attention to theatrics: yelling passionately on the House and Senate floor in order to get approval from voters or president to be reelected when the time comes. Why do your job when the president will do it for you?
We are not under martial law nor are we mere steps away from dictatorship, however, we are taking steps in the wrong direction. We often wait until it is painfully clear and by then too late to act based on a feeling. Everything feels fine? We’re fine. Things don’t feel fine? Now is the time to act! However, erosion is a slow process and part of its genius is not noticing until it is too late. Let’s not wait for the feeling, because there isn’t one. Let’s recognize the problem and act today.
*Photo by Frederick Fenyvessy, “Old Glory”, Creative Cases Zero Liscense