Until fairly recently, Americans tended to view their own constitutional democracy as their greatest source of joy as citizens. We saw ourselves as a shining beacon of political and civil liberty, the creators of a unique system of government that enabled more personal and individual freedom than could be found anywhere else on the planet, a “shining city on a hill” for all the world to look at and admire. Furthermore, we wore the perceived benefits of our democracy as a badge of honor, evangelizing the supposed superiority of our system to the rest of the world. Yet in recent years, obviously, this has changed. American democracy has taken a series of beatings in the public imagination in the 21st century, undergoing issue-after-issue that has resulted in a near-distaste among many members of the American populace that our democracy has not yet shown any signs of reversing. Our citizens doubt the actual potential of our system of government to execute the promises of liberty that it has long claimed to endorse, and our politicians and institutions have lost the trust of their constituents. In this paper, I will argue that the erosion of American democracy in recent years is due to the complete breakdown of democratic norms, as defined by Lieberman et. al., exemplified most notably by the rise of populist movements such as the Tea Party Movement and Trumpism.
In class, we discussed extensively the impacts of populist movements on democracy, covering the claim made by Mueller that populism and democracy are incompatible (Mueller 2016). The root of this incompatibility comes from the very nature of populist movements to lash out against the failure of establishment elites to adequately serve their constituents, hence the traditional narrative of populist leaders to claim to represent “the people.” As such, when populist movements and candidates criticize the establishment, they tend to include democratic norms, which can often be interpreted as being mechanisms for the ruling political elite to gain and maintain political power. As such, populist movements in the United States in recent years have taken on a decidedly informal bend. For example, Tea Party candidates tended to be more concentrated in the House of Representatives, due to its district-based voting system and less formal procedural structure, than in the Senate, which features state-wide elections, has more power within the democracy (voting on Cabinet and judicial nominees, etc), and has much more formal procedures. Another example would be the sort of brawling rhetorical style of Donald Trump, who tends to use profanity much more frequently than any other president in recent history as a sort of means of embodying a disregard that is held by populist voters not just for political norms, but societal norms as well. Liberman et. al. wrote that Trump “openly derided many of the core institutions of democratic governance” (Liberman 2017).
Herein lies the core issue of democratic erosion through the adversarial relationship between populism and democratic norms. Clearly, some of American democracy’s inefficiencies predate the wave of populist sentiment that seems to have swept over our country. The polarization in our government, frequently cited as an issue now, has its roots in the 1990s in the midst of intense partisanship between House Republicans, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Bill Clinton. This problem was only exacerbated in the 2000s, when animosity between Barack Obama and congressional Republicans such as John Boehner and Ted Cruz created an inefficient near-gridlock in Washington. These problems, however, have only given more fuel to the populist movements in America, lending more credibility to their claims that our democracy does not function at all, and needs such leaders to fight “for the people.” Lieberman writes that Trump’s candidacy, presidency, and political movement “threaten the basic norms and principles of democracy” (Liberman 2017). In class, we discussed in detail the idea that democratic norms serve to protect the functioning of our democracy (Liberman 2017). Berman writes that the core issue behind democratic backsliding comes from the fact that “many core political institutions have decayed dramatically” recently (Berman 2017). When these institutions fail to function as efficiently as they had in years past, populist movements such as the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump are given the power to claim that they are not functioning for the people because of their structural constraints. These democratic norms, we learned, emphasized civility and cooperation across party lines, and helped to enforce the full operation of our democratic structures through a shared valuation of mutual respect despite ideological differences. The democratic norms, such as respect for the rule of law and the opposition, advocacy and protection of civil liberties, and recognition of the democratic process, have helped to protect our democracy through their near-universal recognition by all people within our democracy. When these institutions do not function, and when populists claim that the norms of our democracy are to blame, it becomes even more difficult for our democracy to carry out its duties to the American people. Ultimately, when this occurs, you are left with a situation identical to the one we have in America today: with our democracy functioning less and less efficiently with each passing year, and with the democracy itself being under attack from populist movements determined to tear down our institutions, at least partially, to create a system of government based on their own image that, through its inherent designs to limit the operating power of political elites, actually deprives the people of power within the political system. In conclusion, I believe that, due to the rise of populist movements who attack our democratic norms, American democracy has eroded, leading to the commencement of a political system in development that, through its transition away from a liberal democracy to a populist-oriented system, has seen suffering democratic norms that have prevented the ability of our democratic systems to function. The collapse of these norms has served to delegitimize our democracy, both through its rendering of it as ineffectual, and by causing the American populace to subsequently question its institutions and attracting them to populist movements that advocate for tearing down these institutions.
- Liberman, Robert C. et. al. “Trumpism and American Democracy: History, Comparison, and the Predicament of Liberal Democracy in the United States.” SSRN, 29 August 2017.
- Mueller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.
- Berman, Sheri. “Populism is a Problem. Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution” Foreign Policy, 20 December 2017.