Amidst rising nationalism, increased corporate influence, and would be authoritarians, can American democracy find its place in a rapidly changing world?
For many, former President Donald Trump has become America’s authoritarian boogeyman. In the eyes of his critics, he exemplifies the threat of populism and unchecked power, the shortcomings of the American electoral system, and the chaos endemic to the political sphere in the United States. Simultaneously, however, many view Trump’s presidency as an example of the resiliency of American democracy, of the strength of our system of checks and balances. The Trump Regime was unable to pass many of its own policy goals through the house, they argue, a sure win for American democracy as we know it.
A little over a year out of the Trump presidency, we don’t yet have the distance necessary to adequately judge the long term fallout of his tenure. Much of Trump’s later term was overshadowed by covid mismanagement, large-scale protest, and general disarray. His legislative wins (the Covid relief bills notwithstanding) primarily consisted of a large tax cut and a plethora of judicial appointments. Beyond this, President Trump’s electoral victories were few and far between.
Much of the legislative chaos of the Trump years can be chalked up to the difficulty of passing legislation in a highly polarized house and senate; these issues were prevalent during the Obama administration, and continue to plague the Biden administration today. This, of course, is partially by design- the founding fathers purposefully wrote this system of checks and balances into the structure of the constitution as a bulwark against authoritarianism, protection from a man who would be king. But despite the ineffective nature of the United States legislative branch, the executive holds far more power than it did 350 years ago, and it would be incorrect to say that Trump did not change the functionality of the American government.
Donald Trump may not have had the influence he desired on passing legislation, but he was noticeably active in the sphere in which he had tangible control- the federal government, and its sprawling array of departments, bureaucracies, and offices. His administration oversaw large cuts to welfare programs, arts and education, and a variety of other fields. On top of this, he slashed leadership in key departments, leaving shell structures made up of interim appointments, further curtailing the ability of federal departments to operate, and undermining their legitimacy.
The US government already relies heavily on private companies to carry out functions that would be allocated as government work in other countries. Healthcare, energy, and security industries are all heavily privatized in the United States, and even public utilities such as water or electricity are contracted out in a sort of hybrid public-private model. Trump’s leadership sought to expand this even farther. Louis Dejoy, Trump’s Postmaster General, had made public comments calling for the increased privatization of the USPS; Betsy Devos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, called for increased school choice, and actively supported private education over public.
This is not to say that there is no room for policy debate. In many cases private firms may be better suited to fit people’s needs than a centrally planned government program, especially in a large and decentralized country such as the United States. But this trend of privatization of government activities goes beyond simple policy disagreement. The Trump administration policies were actively undermining the functional abilities of the federal government. Postmaster Dejoy’s policies disrupted the flow of USPS mail services, causing people to lose faith in their ability to send mail quickly and efficiently, and pushing them toward private shipping options such as FedEx. There were fears, in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election, that mail-in ballots could be affected by Trump’s USPS appointment, and the issues that the Postal Service were facing.
What does all of this mean for American democracy?
When I opened the New York Times this morning in anticipation of writing this piece, I sifted through the biggest stories of the day- the Olympics in Beijing, looming war in Ukraine, the Ottowa Trucker protest. What caught my eye was not any of the major news stories, but a large ad banner across the middle of the screen. From Amazon Ads, “Do Brands Have The Power To Drive Social Change? Absolutely”. Now, it is unclear what social change Amazon is hoping to drive, but in the midst of a labor battle in which Amazon workers are fighting to unionize many of their large warehouses, this seems to be a purposefully crafted message placing the Amazon corporation at the center of the fight for social justice. Messaging like this places corporations and brands at the center of the political fight. They are repositioning themselves to become not the opponent, but the medium and the means by which social change can be achieved. They are your friend. They are the alternative to the slow, ineffective, lumbering government which got us into this mess in the first place.
Democratic Erosion can take many forms. President Trump certainly showed authoritarian tendencies, and the American executive branch has garnered more power than was intended in the constitution. Trust in the electoral system is at a historic low, discussions of court packing and abolishing the senate are being entertained on the national stage (this is not to say that this will ever happen, of course, but the discussion is emblematic of a larger mistrust of American democratic institutions). As key parts of the US government become privatized, there is a legitimate risk that American democracy could be resting on shaky ground. As the American population comes to rely more on private companies and less on the government for key services such as mail, education, and healthcare, the government loses legitimacy, and discourages active participation in democracy. “Why should I pay taxes, the government doesn’t do anything for me?”, and “Why should I vote, it doesn’t mean anything”.
A recent Domino’s Pizza ad campaign, pledging to fill potholes across the country free of charge, sums it up well. Corporations assuming the role of the state. Is this what the future looks like? Dominos paves our roads? Amazon runs our schools? What’s next, Chipotle controlling the military? It sounds like a joke today, but amidst the consolidation of campaign donations by the super-rich, Trumps government cuts, and the rise of modern corporate giants, it might be closer than you think.