Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Is Democracy Dying in the West?
These were no doubt the thoughts echoed by many on viewing the results of the House of Representatives vote on Impeachment against President Trump. Faced with repeated constitutional violations, the Republican party was largely silent. Although both bills were able to pass the House, (230 vs 197 and 229 to 198 respectively), support was distinctly split down party lines- not a single member of the Republican party voted in favour of impeachment.
The Founding Fathers designed impeachment as a process to check the power of a President who abused the public office for personal political gain, to protect the sanctity of the entire constitutional system itself. However, this system only works if Congress and particularly members of the US Senate - who decide on impeachment approval - can be trusted to separate their own interests from those of the President.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers when seeking ratification of the U.S. constitution: “Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently independent (to adjudicate on Presidential removal)?”
With these words, Hamilton sought a future Republic where Congress would be capable of putting country over party lines when considering matters of impeachment.
Wednesday’s extremely partisan House vote, and a unanimous consensus that the Senate will vote to acquit along party lines, illustrates that in the current period of extreme polarization, impeachment power is critically undermined.
This failure puts the entire democratic system, built by the framers upon a series of self-correcting checks and balances, at risk of collapse.
How Democracies Die
The specific contribution of extreme political partisanship towards democratic failings is analysed by Harvard political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky in their 2018 book ‘How Democracies Die’.
Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky - Harvard Political Science Professors and co-authors of ‘How Democracies Die’
Ziblatt and Levitsky analysed the pathway to authoritarianism in countries around the world – including Erdogan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia to Venezuela under Chavez.
Rather than emanating from sudden military coups, in the modern era, they observed that democracies have died largely at the hands of freely elected leaders, who over time undermine democratic institutions and guide their nations towards effective single-party regimes. Bit by bit, the authors note, the electoral playing field is ‘tilted’ to the advantage of the incumbent until they are firmly entrenched in power.
These ideas may seem far-fetched, especially considering the U.S. has relatively strong democratic institutions compared to the majority of countries worldwide.
Nevertheless, the authors astutely point out that the worrying patterns of polarisation and reprisal against warring parties who have both strayed far from the ideological centre, amplified by the Trump Administration, have led to democratic failures in other countries.
Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that democracies are most stable and survive longer when constitutional frameworks are reinforced by two necessary and unwritten norms: “mutual tolerance” and “institutional forbearance”. The former term refers to the understanding and acknowledging one’s political rivals not as existential threats to their way of life, but legitimate competitors within the democratic process. The latter term is the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in their institutional prerogatives- not trying to exploit all tools they can, technically, legally use, for partisan gain.
To substantiate their argument that these norms are slipping, Levitsky and Ziblatt analysed historic data of filibusters in the US Senate. Filibusters are an institutional tool to prevent an measure from being passed; Senate rules permit senators to speak for as long as they wish (thereby blocking a bill from ever being voted on) unless three-fifths of Senators vote on ‘cloture’ bringing a debate to a close.
Source: Vox/US Senate
The number of filibusters has risen dramatically since the early 20th century- Levitsky and Ziblatt note that there were 385 Senate filibusters between 2007 and 2012 – equal to the entire number from the end of the First World War to 1990.
This period has also marked a significant rise in stonewalling of nominations made by opposing parties, court-packing of judges with ideologically extreme positions, and suppression of votes in Democrat strongholds via gerrymandering.
These trends exemplify a rise of political tribalism in recent years. With both parties assured of the mortal cost that the ‘other side’ could present to the nation, the democratic traditions of mutual tolerance and moderate consensus-building are beginning to fade away.
Who will survive in America?
Both parties have been affected by polarisation- but in a highly asymmetric manner. In particular, Republican conspiratorial belief in the evil of Democrat rule has escalated to a point where the party has showcased a willingness to do things that not merely undemocratic, but anti-democratic.
The urgency and deliberate nature of Mr Trump’s crimes should leave both parties in the Senate with no choice but to take a stand today against presidential abuses- which could critically undermine the 2020 Presidential elections if left unchecked. Senators must look beyond narrow short-term electoral results and consider instead the long-term consequences of failing to safeguard their higher oath to the Constitution, from which all freedom emanates.
Martin Luther King Jr., speaking following the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycotts, said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. In the political realm, this trend is not absolute; in many cases, injustice has been promoted by figures of power - in areas like Slavery, the Exclusion Act against Native Americans, to the modern-day torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and hostility towards LGBT individuals.
Martin Luther King Jr. (left), 1956, Montgomery Bus Boycotts
Nevertheless, the Republican ideal has been able to endure threats of tyranny for over 200 years because of a combination of two factors: i) people willing to passionately fight for causes they believe in, and ii) a system of political institutions – the President, Congress, and Supreme Court- which have demonstrated the ability to correct each other and stamp out injustice over time.
Democracy is not yet dead in the west, but it is being challenged internally and externally by individuals seeking to subvert free and fair elections for personal political gain. The issue raised by impeachment is larger than the possible removal of a President, and instead represents a test of whether the nation has what it takes to stand up against the unprecedented assault on its most cherished ideals.
Voters, lawmakers, and leaders alike must maintain an eternal struggle against the slide towards tyranny- or a day may come when it is too late.
Sources and Wider Reading
New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/145916/democracy-dies-donald-trump-contempt-for-american-political-institutions
Levitsky and Ziblatt: How Democracies Die: https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Democracies-Die-History-Reveals/dp/024131798.3
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay: The Federalist Papers: https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers
Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/however-historic-impeachment-is-but-a-way-station-in-the-struggle-over-trumps-presidency/2019/12/18/c496a22e-21cb-11ea-bed5-880264cc91a9_story.html
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/18/trump-impeachment-why-it-matter
The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2018/jan/21/this-is-how-democracies-die
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