In his essay in the New York Times titled, Trump Poses a Test Democracy is Failing, Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of political journalism at Columbia, explains the changes to the American political system that allowed Trump to hold the presidency from 2016-2020. Edsall illuminates how politics have become extremely polarized within the last twenty years causing the guardrails of democracy—parties and elections—to fail. Edsall borrows a quote from Milan W. Svolik, a political scientist at Yale, who wrote, “When punishing a leader’s authoritarian tendencies requires voting for a platform, party, or person that his supporters detest, many will find this too high a price to pay”. In other words, American voters feel such passionate hatred for the opposing party that they would rather vote for a leader in their own party that they know is harmful to the country. Svolik and Matthew Graham, a researcher at George Washington University, found that only “3.5% of voters realistically punish violations of democratic principles” (NYT). This is a concerning statistic considering that a healthy democracy relies on voters holding their leaders accountable and voting them out when they do not adequately perform. Another concerning statistic comes from Sara Goodman at the University of California, Irvine, who found that in 2004, most voters agreed on what makes someone a “good citizen”, no matter their political party. In 2019, though, that agreement has practically disappeared, and Democrats and Republicans no longer agree. After examining these statistics, one can easily see that the United States democracy is deeply fractured. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why someone like Donald Trump, who many consider a populist or authoritarian leader, could snatch the presidency, and have such an influence over the Republican party. While many think that Trump is the cause of democratic erosion in the United States, I argue that he is simply a product of the deep-seated polarization and democratic erosion that has taken place in the US over the past twenty years.
Democratic erosion has been at the forefront of political conversations in recent years. Political scientists have argued about the definition of democratic erosion, how to measure it, and the extent to which it exists in the United States. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two Harvard political scientists, explain their definition of democratic backsliding in their book, How Democracies Die. They believe that democratic backsliding is a slow, gradual process which makes it difficult to notice until the effects are irreversible. Some symptoms of democratic erosion are electoral manipulation, executive aggrandizement, increasing importance of political parties, tolerance of political violence, and rejection of democratic institutions and procedures. All those factors can be easy to miss if they happen steadily over time. The easiest factor of democratic erosion to identify is the allowance of a populist or authoritarian leader to take political office. Frances Lee, a professor of politics at Princeton University, claims that the United States party system is not strong enough to prevent populist leaders from taking office because of the rising popularity of social media and the rising unpopularity of political elites within those parties. A populist leader, someone like Donald Trump, can start building their fan base on social media apps like Twitter and Instagram by bashing unpopular political leaders, either from their own party or the opposing party. The populist leader’s audience feels heard and appreciated because they are not benefiting from the current state of liberal democracy. The populist leader continues to gain supporters, against the will of the elite party members, and eventually wins an election and a seat in government. Once the populist leader is in office, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, claims that they will use legal measures to weaken the rule of law and manipulate democratic institutions to give themselves more power. For this reason, it is clear that if the United States had a healthy democracy, a populist leader would not make it into office in the first place, proving that there was already a large amount of democratic backsliding in the United States, and that Trump winning the presidency was merely a consequence.
Once a populist leader is in office, they can quickly accelerate the democratic erosion through encouraging increased polarization between parties and other non-democratic norms. Edsall identifies four key threats to democracy that have been on the rise: political polarization, economic equality, conflict over the civic status of members in other social groups, and executive aggrandizement. Edsall claims that Trump has “exacerbated” all four of the threats, creating a more toxic and less effective government. His main supporters are white people who fear that they are losing their spot at the top of the social hierarchy due to the surge in the US promoting diversity. Trump uses anger, scare-tactics, and exaggerations to keep his supporters in a constant state of worry that distracts them from his political shortcomings. Throughout Trump’s four years in office and in the two years after, the polarization between political parties has only escalated. If Trump wins the primary elections for the Republican party, it is likely that he could win the presidency again—not because Republicans like him, but rather because they hate Democrats more than they hate Trump. If Trump were to take office again in 2024, the causes of democratic backsliding will only get worse, and it is likely that the United States would be on a quick path toward autocracy.
Edsall, T. B. (2022, April 13). Opinion | Trump Poses a Test Democracy Is Failing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/13/opinion/trump-democracy-decline-fall.html
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How Democracies Die (Reprint ed.). Crown.
Müller, J. (2016). What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lee, F. (2020). Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints. Perspectives on Politics, 18(2), 370-388. doi:10.1017/S1537592719002664
Factors that played huge role in Trump’s rise to the President of the United States of America
I was listening to the news with my parents when I heard Donald Trump became the President of the United States of America. As someone who lived in Bangladesh for 18 years, the US presidential election was not a matter of great interest to me. Still, the result of the election shocked me. The questions that crossed my mind were: how did Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton? Is the United States going through democratic backsliding? In this response, I delve deeper into what allowed a populist leader like Donald Trump to become the President of the United States of America.
The reason why people voted for Trump and not Clinton lies in the discontent of the people with the government and the system (Levitsky et al. 16). According to Robert Dahl, democracy cannot fulfill all its promises and it is impossible to achieve “polyarchy,” a political system that is characterized by elected officials, competition, participation, liberties, accountability (Dahl 1-9). So, when people heard Donald Trump’s urge for political reformation, people shifted their attention towards him (Fishwick). According to “Why did people vote for Donald Trump? Voters explain” by The Guardian, “It is clear that despite a series of controversies, his [Donald Trump’s] message resonated with a huge number of American voters in key states and revealed deep anti-establishment anger and discontent” (Fishwick). The quote portrays people’s dissatisfaction with the current political system. This dissatisfaction towards the political system was utilized by Donald Trump through his populist speeches.
Donald Trump is not the first person to threaten American democracy (Levitsky et al. 32). Individuals like Father Coughlin, Louisiana governor and Senator Huey Long, Senator Joseph McCarthy threatened democracy by their anti-Semitic views, pro-fascist views, populist ideals, and anti-communist crusade (Levitsky et al. 32-34). But democracy was protected against these would-be authoritarians by the gatekeeping of the political parties (Levitsky et al. 34). Earlier nominees for presidency would be chosen by a small group of party elites who were not accountable to the average citizens (Levitsky et al. 35-47). These elites used to pick candidates who had the potential to win and safeguard the office of the president from falling into the hands of extremists (Levitsky et al. 35-47). In 1972, for the first time, the presidential candidates were selected by the people rather than the party leaders to make the process democratic (Levitsky et al. 45). In my opinion, by making the presidential nomination process democratic, American politics opened its door to outsiders. Therefore, creating opportunities for people like Donald Trump to safely contend for the presidency. Since the screening method is deleted from the system, all a candidate must do is win the primaries. Using public sentiment, a populist leader can sway the public to vote for him which can be observed in the case of Donald Trump (Fishwick).
I think another factor that allowed Donald Trump to become president is social media platforms (Center). Donald Trump utilized social media to round up voters with similar ideologies through his populist speeches (Brown and Sanderson). He also promised the masses that he would do anything to ‘Make America Great Again’. Frances Lee claims that the United States party system is not strong enough to prevent populist leaders from taking office because of the rising popularity of social media (F.). According to data from tracking firm mediaQuant, the real estate magnate got $4.96 billion of advertisements for his campaign through social media (Stewart). These advertisements played an important role for Donald Trump’s presidency and portray the influence of social media in elections.
The gradual decline of mutual tolerance is opening gates for populist leaders to garner public support for presidential elections (Levitsky et al. 125). During the presidential run of Barack Obama in 2008, Republican politicians questioned President Obama’s citizenship to elicit support (Levitsky et al. 139). I believe this caused the general citizens to question the legitimacy of Barack Obama running for the presidency. Again, mutual tolerance declined at the end of the Obama presidency when many Republicans embraced the view that the democratic party was anti-American or posed a threat to the American way of life (Levitsky et al. 141). In my opinion such direct attacks increased polarization between the parties and caused several conflicts of interest. In 2016, mutual tolerance was nowhere to be seen when Republican leaders called their Democratic rival a criminal and led chants of “Lock her up”(Levitsky et al. 141). I think this intolerance from the Republican side provoked the Democratic Party to be hostile to policies during Trump’s presidency. It might have swayed the public to not vote for Clinton in the presidential election. We even noticed that Republican leaders kept their mouths shut when some policies of President Trump became anti-democratic (Levitsky et al. 153-163). The decline of mutual tolerance among parties is allowing populist leaders to trash talk about their opponents. Thus, inciting public anger towards the system and in turn winning elections.
Overall, the changes in the political and social atmosphere are opening doors for populist leaders like Donald Trump to participate and even become the President of the United States of America.
Brown, Megan A., and Zeve Sanderson. “How Trump Impacts Harmful Twitter Speech: A Case Study in Three Tweets.” Brookings, Brookings, 22 Oct. 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/techstream/how-trump-impacts-harmful-twitter-speech-a-case-study-in-three-tweets/.
Center, Pew Research. “Social Media Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 7 Apr. 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/.
Dahl, Robert Alan. “Chapter 1, Democratization and Public Opposition.” Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, Illustrated ed., Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1972.
F., Samantha. “Trump is a Symptom, Not a Cause.” Democratic Erosion, Democratic Erosion, 19 Apr. 2022, https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2022/04/19/trump-is-a-symptom-not-a-cause%EF%BF%BC/.
Fishwick, Carmen. “Why Did People Vote for Donald Trump? Voters Explain.” US Politics, The Guardian News and Media, 9 Nov. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/09/why-did-people-vote-for-donald-trump-us-voters-explain.
Kraut, Alan M. “‘Make America Great Again’… Again?” The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS), 3 Jan. 2016, https://cmsny.org/publications/kraut-make-america-great-again-again/.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Chapter 1, Fateful Alliances.” How Democracies Die, 1st ed., vol. 5, Crown Publishing Group, New York, NY, 2018.
Stewart, Emily. “Donald Trump Rode $5 Billion in Free Media to the White House.” Politics, The Street, 20 Nov. 2016, https://www.thestreet.com/politics/donald-trump-rode-5-billion-in-free-media-to-the-white-house-13896916.