Brown University

It’s not all Trump’s fault: democratic erosion’s recurring presence in the United States by Isabela Karibjanian @ Brown University

President Donald Trump’s presidency is not the start of democratic erosion in the United States – it’s the continuation of several long and often normalized trends.

According to Juan J. Linz’s The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown and Reequilibration, democratic regimes face the most serious threats when confronted with disloyal opposition. President Trump has anti-democratic tendencies as defined by Linz, such as criticizing the independent press, challenging the legitimacy of the electoral process and the establishment, and failing to reject the use of violent rhetoric to mobilize supporters (Linz, 27-31). He fits the definition of a “disloyal opposition,” and fails the majority of Linz’s loyalty checks. That being said, democracy began eroding in the United States far before Trump entered the political scene. Though Trump may eschew longstanding norms central to the American political system, claiming that he alone is responsible for American democratic erosion neglects a longstanding history of incremental constitutional retrogression in the US.

“How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy” by Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg provides a useful framework for understanding gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions. Trump may clearly exhibit characteristics that run contrary to these norms and seem authoritarian in nature, but as Huq and Ginsburg and Nancy Bermeo note, there has been a global trend shifting away from more overt, authoritarian coups towards more subtle manipulations of existing institutions. Huq and Ginsburg coin the term “constitutional retrogression” to describe an incremental erosion of competitive elections, rights of political speech and association, and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law – what they see as the key pillars of a democracy. They write that a democratic electoral system needs a neutral and consistent bureaucratic structure; liberal rights enable political competition; and that regularity of legal institutions, including alternation of political power, induces investment in constitutional enforcement. (It’s worth noting that though these elements comprise constitutional liberal democracies, Huq and Ginsberg make no claims that they guarantee good governance.)

Though the US has these critical components of a democracy, there are concrete examples that they are eroding. Constitutional regression is no new phenomenon.

The issue of gerrymandering is especially salient when considering assessing the current state of democracy in the US. Gerrymandering enables the creation of noncompetitive districts at the state level, and is a power wielded by whichever party controls state government. Because of the resulting advantage incumbents have in noncompetitive districts in state and Congressional races, the prospect of alternating political power is greatly diminished. Huq and Ginsberg note that this alternation is key in “incentivizing investment in constitutional rules and enforcement” that enables meaningful political competition (Huq and Ginsberg, 11). In the absence of such competition, they note, there is less of an incentive to enforce such rights. Though the Trump Administration’s confirmed pick for Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, may have a say on gerrymandering’s legality and future this session, the practice of gerrymandering and its corrosive effect on American democratic practices and competitive elections was in place long before the Trump Administration.

Democratic electoral processes in the US are also systematically eroded through voting restrictions. Throughout the US’s history, the right to vote has been restricted among significant portions of the American population, including, at times, women, non-landowners, and persons of color. Today, despite gains made in the past to expand voter enfranchisement, through restrictive voter identification laws, particular groups continue to be suppressed. Opponents of such laws argue that requiring certain forms of photo identification discriminate against populations (predominantly lower income groups or populations of color) that may not have access to those IDs. For instance, courts struck down two notable voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina this year, laws that were ruled to have discriminatory intent. Though advocacy groups may claim victory with these rulings, seventeen states still have photo voter ID laws on the books, and several are in the process of enacting new restrictions. Like gerrymandering, these laws and restrictions affect the competitiveness of elections, and whose voices are represented in the American democratic process. These restrictions on voting are part of the larger project to amass political power through the electoral process, and are not unique to the Trump era.

Voter disenfranchisement and intimidation also erodes full participation in the democratic process. For example, Michelle Alexander writes in “The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow” that due to mass-incarceration as part of the so-called “war on drugs,” in 2004 more African American men were disenfranchised than in 1870. She writes that the growing reach of the prison apparatus, as well as the school-to-prison pipeline creates a racial undercaste that is systematically stripped of the right to vote. Harsh sentencing for minor, non-violent drug offensives and racially coded policies often enacted by the Republican Party (with the notable exception of President Clinton) contributes to the eroding of democratic structures as defined by Huq and Ginsberg. Again, though the Trump Administration may not do anything to stop these practices, or even endorse tighter restrictions on the ballot box and push “tough on crime” policies, this does not change that these repressive voting practices have been in place for decades—or even centuries—before Trump’s oath of office.

What may be most important to note, however, is that the American presidential system itself has allowed for undue power held by the executive. As Brendan Nyhan writes in “Donald Trump, the Green Lantern Candidate,” the presidential system portrays the executive as exercising widespread control over the country’s policies and the economy. By blaming past presidents for all of the country’s failings, and positioning himself as the sole person who can fix them, Trump embodies and perpetuates this notion of an omnipotent leader. Julia R. Azari in “How the News Media Helped to Nominate Trump” notes that media coverage of presidents, and of then-candidate Trump, fuel the fictions of a presidency with the capacity to solve all of the country’s problems. Without addressing the growth of executive power itself, she writes, the media reinforces the idea of a naturally occurring all-powerful presidency. The popular understanding of the president as the sole symbolic and functional agent of policymaking neglects key components of the American democracy and could lead to an even greater growth in executive power. Huq and Ginsberg would likely see this as a key element in constitutional reversion and as part of a slippery slope towards democratic breakdown.

Though a Donald Trump presidency has come with fears of authoritarianism and the implosion of the democratic order as we know it, the systems in place that allowed for a Trump presidency and for his brand of executive power were in place long before he took office. The most serious threats to democratic erosion and constitutional reversion in the US are subtle and systematic, and have been occurring for decades.


*Photo by Another Believer, “White House at night in Washington, D.C. 2012” (Wikimedia Commons), Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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