democratic deficit America’s Disappearing Democracy

Even before the rise of Donald Trump, many Americans had their doubts about the direction of democracy in their country. A Die Zeit editor spoke with a few.
Roy Cooper's win as North Carolina governor was contested and the state's divisions reflect those of the U.S. itself.

After 597 days of election campaigning, battles with 18 opponents and 14 televised debates, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday, on the steps of the Capitol. Many Americans worry he will abolish democracy through democratic means. After all, when he was a candidate, he declared the elections were rigged and ranted about bought and corrupt politicians, unfair judges and lying journalists. The list of those he despises is long. Now, as president, he will have a huge influence on American democracy. How will he shape it?

To understand that, we need to take a look not at Mr. Trump, but at America. Mr. Trump sensed the mood across the country and exploited it for his own purposes. According to the Gallup polling agency, 91 percent of Americans don’t trust the government, 80 percent the media and 73 percent the courts. Mr. Trump is not the cause of the loss of trust and confidence in American democracy, he is the result. That is what brought him victory.

Is this mistrust founded? What is the state of American democracy? How easy would it be for Mr. Trump to undermine its institutions? Let’s take a closer look at the country, at North Carolina in the southern half of the country.

When looking at the state of democracy in the U.S., North Carolina is important as it resembles the country as a whole. On one hand, the state has a progressive urban population, with a number of esteemed universities. On the other, it has a conservative rural population with struggling textile and furniture industries. The political fight for the American soul is particularly fierce in North Carolina, which is like a window to America’s future. And it doesn’t look good.

The day Mr. Trump won the presidency, the Democratic Roy Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina. His Republican opponent refused to accept the election results for weeks. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve, one minute after midnight, that Mr. Cooper was able to raise his right hand in the General Assembly and be sworn in after a court confirmed his victory.

The Republicans proved to be poor losers. Shortly before Mr. Cooper was sworn into office, they pushed through laws to limit the powers of the new governor. For example, he was now only able to fill 425 political posts instead of 1,500 and his cabinet members had to be approved by the Senate, where the Republicans hold the majority.

That’s something political professor Andrew Reynolds has only experienced in authoritarian states. He submitted an article to his local newspaper with the headline: “North Carolina is no longer classified as a democracy.”

You could call Mr. Reynolds a democracy expert. A lecturer at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, he has advised over 25 countries about their constitutions and developed an index to measure the quality of elections. According to the index, North Carolina is a profoundly damaged, only partially free democracy.

The problem in North Carolina, according to the political expert, is the constant gerrymandering. In the past, those in power redrew the voting district boundaries for their own advantage, with the goal to ensure a majority in as many voting districts as possible. As a result, voting districts became earthworms, some winding their way for several hundred miles through the state. In most Western democracies, voting districts are drawn by independent commissions to avoid this type of abuse.

By restricting the powers of the winner, the Republicans dealt democracy a blow in North Carolina, according to Mr Reynolds. “They didn’t react to the election like a democratic party but rather like an authoritarian state,” he said.

Such developments aren’t confined to North Carolina. Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project examined the level of fairness and freedom of elections in 153 countries using Reynolds’ index, including the U.S. It analyzed campaign financing, voter registration, vote counting, election laws and the establishment of electoral constituencies. Of 153 countries, America ranked 52nd, last among established democracies.

When a democracy destroys itself, as a rule, it is a gradual process. Trust doesn’t disappear from one day to the next. Public schools were once founded in America to teach and explain democracy to children as a kind of inner core that holds society together. That is why citizens pay taxes for these schools.

The system worked until America’s middle class began to shrink.

The system worked until America’s middle class began to shrink. The trust and confidence in the state and its institutions lessened. Suddenly, it was less about what is good for America and more about what is good for one’s self. The conflicts increased and became louder, buttressed by 24-hour news channels and a lobby industry that lived from them. Public discourse changed, and politics along with it. Politicians were less and less willing to compromise.

Now let’s look at Michigan. Detroit, after its bankruptcy in 2014, was slowly recovering. An artist community had established itself there, families were moving in and new jobs were being created. But the city’s schools were in a disastrous state. A study showed that only 4 percent of the eighth graders in Detroit were able to read and do basic arithmetic at the standard appropriate for their age. Only 10 percent of high school students were ready for college. What went wrong?

An experiment took place in Michigan 23 years earlier when the state introduced charter schools as other states were doing. These schools were supposed to be financed by taxpayers but run privately with the idea that more competition would raise the quality of education. The state school supervisory board was abolished, and the department of education stopped publishing its annual report. All control was removed over the new schools, most of which are still run for profit. Old schools kept closing and new ones kept opening, 150 in the last seven years. Children often had to change schools multiple times. The result: 23 years after the introduction of publicly-financed private schools, education was in a state of chaos on a grand scale.

The problem needed to be solved. In March 2016, Republicans and Democrats agreed to reform the school system. They decided to appoint a commission to re-establish and monitor quality standards, giving power back to the state. The public supported their compromise. But then came Betsy DeVos. The conservative billionaire had already fought the state education system once and now she made it clear to the Republicans that she was going to hold her line. If they passed the law, she would withdraw her massive financial support from the party. That was the end of the compromise.

The Republicans voted against the planned legislation. As a reward, Ms. DeVos donated $1.45 million to the party. Mr. Trump has picked her to be his Education Secretary.

When the quality of state education deteriorates because politicians can be bought and when faith in these institutions suffers because the state stops caring for its citizens, those win who see the state as superfluous. Like the new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who doesn’t believe in public schools. Like Rick Perry, the new Energy Secretary whose own department was one of the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate if elected president. Like Steven Mnuchin, the new Treasury Secretary who wants to abolish the regulations against Wall Street. Like Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency he has so far spent his life attacking.

A recent survey by World Values Survey showed that less than 30 percent of millennials think it’s important to live in a country that is democratically governed.

Russell Miller is a professor at the Washington and Lee University in West Virginia. He recalled a recent lecture focused on the famous case of Roe vs. Wade from 1973, which dealt with the legality of abortions. “In this case, there were three possible verdicts,” he said in his lecture. “The judges could give constitutional protection of human life the greatest weight. They could decide in favor of the constitutional protection of the rights of women. Or they could find a compromise.”

A student raised his hand and said: “Are you joking? Abortion is murder!” Mr.  Miller often hears such statements from young people and he feels like this wasn’t always the case. He now tells his students that the Supreme Court decided in favor of a compromise in 1973. It had taken both the protection of life as well as women’s right to self-determination into account.

As a student, Mr. Miller read a lot by Jürgen Habermas, a German sociologist and philosopher. He was always fascinated by his ideal of an open discussion where reason wins out. For him, the U.S. Constitution is one of the most important means to make such a discourse possible. Everything can be said, everyone can participate.

Now Mr. Miller wonders whether the sociologist Habermas was wrong. Maybe discourse needs to be protected from forces that damage it. The professor closely followed the trial on banning Germany’s right-wing NPD. He asks himself whether such a thing would also be possible in America. He is too American to really wish for any limits to democracy, but he’s now starting to think about it.

Mr. Miller recalls an open letter written in 2005 by Laurence Tribe, one of the best-known professors of constitutional law. Mr. Tribe said he would stop his commentary on the Constitution because the courts have become a battlefield for an increasingly fierce ideological conflict. In Alabama, for example, the most senior judge refused to accept the Supreme Court’s verdict and declared same-sex marriages unconstitutional in that state.

This is only possible because most judges in America are elected every six to 12 years by the people – who are drawn more and more to support extreme positions in election campaigns that gain more and more financing from special interest groups. If courts no longer appear impartial, then comments like Donald Trump’s fall on fertile ground. The new president questioned the neutrality of a Mexican-born judge who was presiding in a court case against him.

Concerns rise about protecting democracy when people like Mr. Trump’s advisor, the Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, write: “I no longer believe that freedom and liberty are compatible.”

It’s still unclear whether Donald Trump actually plans to limit democratic institutions. But if he does, America made it pretty easy for him.


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