On Democracy and Governance studies in an era of democratic crisis – part. 2

By Dr. Daniel Brumberg, Director of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University 

(continues from part 1…)

On the question of understanding, I would suggest that the current political crisis is a consequence of a perfect storm of several factors and events, many of which you are familiar with. They include but are not limited to the following three factors:

First, an eight-year process of economic recovery that in the aggregate has been a remarkable success story, but by other measures has lifted some boats while leaving others barely afloat. Current disparities are not a consequence of shipping US jobs abroad. Rather, they are rooted in the relentless growth of the high-tech sector, the automation of industry, and increased globalized trade that is itself part of the post-industrial transformation of economies around the world, including our own. Collectively, these dynamics have shrunk the middle class and, perhaps more importantly, punished those who lack the education and global networks needed to prosper in the new environment.

Second, a parallel process – unfolding for at least two decades—whereby US society has become divided into distinct socio-cultural and political sub-cultures that do not know each other and have little reason or incentive to reach across boundaries. The participants in these divided worlds experience life in very different ways, encountering globalization as either foreign and hostile or familiar and friendly, and reap the benefits or paying the costs according to whether they participate in this great transformation or are left out. The growth of new social media has only sharpened these divisions. It has done so by allowing each group to remain in its own world, especially through “news” programming and on-line forms of communication (and propaganda) that comfort and thus reinforce each group’s assumptions, values and prejudices. The resulting divide is not just huge, it is existential.

Third, there is a growing dysfunction in our local and national politics that has institutionalized these divides. Part of this dynamic is “structural,” i.e. shifts over time in residency and location that were then reflected in and reinforced by decades of electoral “redistricting.” But the latter was not wholly determined by population shifts. Instead, our national representatives pushed redistricting, and their efforts have much to do with the death of bi-partisanship in Washington. In its place, we now have a zero-sum political culture. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this was the effective declaration of war against President Barack Obama by his opponents – beginning on day one of his presidency.

But the icing on this cake is how the above dynamics worked in concert with our electoral system to create an outcome that not only mirrored our country’s deep divisions but make it possible for the “forgotten” sector – as Trump called his supporters in his inaugural address– to win the November 8 presidential election even though Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million. This is because Electoral College voters are awarded proportionally and disproportionally:  i.e. every state gets electors chosen according to its population, but each state also gets an additional two electors regardless of size (as they do with Senators). In our most recent election, this allowed sparsely populated states – where many of the “forgotten” are concentrated — to have a vastly disproportionate impact on the electoral outcome. Thus, even if a significant majority of the US voting populace utterly rejects his entire worldview, Trump’s decisive 306 Electoral College votes may have given him the means to impose a revolutionary agenda.

This then is double crisis. On the one hand it is a crisis of legitimacy. By this I want to make clear that I am not suggesting that Trump is an illegitimate president, not certainly in the legal or constitutional sense. But as my students who have read studies of “divided societies” well know, in democracies that make it possible for electoral winners to simply shut out their opponents — or to use electoral victories to take away the opponent’s hard won rights– those who lose elections will eventually see their democracy as illegitimate. Indeed, because democracy only works when today’s electoral losers have some reasonable hope of being tomorrow’s winners, democracy ceases to secure the loyalty of all when and if it raises the possibility of permanent political exclusion or disenfranchisement.

Now, to be fair, we should note that the fear of electoral (and socio-cultural) exclusion was one that powerfully motivated many of Trump’s followers to vote. But having won, the shoe is now on the other foot, and in ways that seem uncomfortable if not intolerable. Now it is a majority – however slim– of the electorate that fears exclusion. And it is this fear that brought millions into the streets on January 21 for the “Women’s March.” Despite all the smiles and good feeling, the marchers surely knew that their rights might now be endangered. These rights could be obliterated by a president bent on avenging estranged sectors of our society that have indeed suffered. These sectors constitute a large and important plurality — but one that contains within its sub-groups that do that does not share many of the values, hopes and dreams of the different groups and sectors who collectively constitute the majority. If key groups within this majority, such as Muslims, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, LGBT, secular urban male and female professionals conclude that our democracy is moving in a direction that threatens their most precious values and interests, the entire US system will have a legitimacy crisis, not merely Mr. Trump.

This brings us to the second crisis afflicting our political system: the crisis of autocratization. Trump understands that the window for achieving his as yet unclear socio-political transformation will be short. What is more, he knows that the “majority” that supposedly backs him faces another America — one that has a massive voice and huge numbers.  And it is for this reason, I would argue, that Trump feels he must not only achieve his aims quickly, but forcefully and in a way that by-passes if not violates the basic institutional norms and rules of our system.  For these purposes Trump is relying on two levers: first the lever of populist mobilization focused on communities who feel most ideologically afflicted by, and thus opposed to, an East-coast/West-coast or “elite” status quo that supposedly favors immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, feminist urban activists and liberal professionals. The second lever is an assault not merely on independent media but on the very notion that there is an objective truth. The notion of an “alternative fact” — as Trump Adviser Kellyanne Conway has put it—that exists by virtue of the President’s assertion of such a “fact,” could be as dangerous—perhaps more–than even the white nationalist ideology that helped carry him to the White House. As George Orwell once noted, the very idea of a rational, pluralistic democratic politics is based in part on the premise that political power cannot determine truth itself. Jettison that idea, and you create the foundations for arbitrary power and even despotism. Trump’s threat to expel the White House correspondents, his browbeating of CNN, his insistence, despite clear and massive evidence to the contrary, that 1.5 million people attended his inauguration; and most recently, his outrageous assertion that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because 5 million “illegal immigrants” voted— all of these lies suggest that Trump intends to turn the White House into a vehicle of state propaganda. This constitutes a crucial – if insufficient—step on the path to autocratization.