Why Trump’s “National Emergency” Threatens Democracy

Photo: President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ. Source: Gage Skidmore

By Avram Reisman

On Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency to address the “national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.” Presidents have declared national emergencies over 50 times since the National Emergencies Act was signed into law in 1976, and Trump has already implemented three, but a national emergency has never been used to override the Congressional power of the purse. Continue reading “Why Trump’s “National Emergency” Threatens Democracy”

Civility, Conflict, and Democracy

By Avram Reisman

Recently, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib faced a barrage of criticism from pundits and the media for her plans to “impeach the motherf*****” referring to President Trump. Also recently, continuing his campaign tactic of name-calling as President, Mr. Trump called a Democratic member of Congress “little Adam Schitt”. And before both of these incidents, there was already a lively discussion on the importance of civility in U.S. politics and democracy.

To determine whether civility matters in democracy, it’s important to work from what democracy is or ought to be. Political scientist and democracy theorist Adam Przeworski defined democracy as contingent, institutionalized uncertainty. As a regime-type, democracy requires the participants in political, social, and economic conflicts to pursue their interests through the nonviolent means of elections and other deliberative bodies (union-business arbitration, the media). All societies have conflicts, but different regimes have different means of channeling those conflicts into or away from state power.

Authoritarian regimes exist because certain sides of salient conflicts in society have recognized that they can dominate the other side through force or popular legitimacy. Democratic regimes emerge when the balance of power within conflicts in society have sufficiently shifted, often due to international pressure, to require compromise by the previously dominant side or face open rebellion and civil war. Subsequent regime transitions, either democratic or partially democratic, acknowledge this shift in power. The advantage of democratic transitions for those already dominating conflicts is that they can avoid a total realignment of the conflict through a civil war and often maintain a relative advantage through the new institutional structure for a long time. Democracy is not, then, a way to resolve conflicts, but rather a way for conflicts to be resolved without violence over time through nonviolent political means. As Carl von Clausewitz once said, “War is politics by other means,” but in a democracy politics is war by other means.

Civility in democratic politics, then, is by no means an assurance. Conflict and civility do not mix. What is required for civility is trust and trust is borne from the perception of good faith in the opposing side. Robert Putnam famously argued that this sort of trust is a result of interactions in apolitical realms, specifically civic associations. Putnam’s larger argument is debatable, but from his definition of its source, we can surmise that trust requires recognition in the other of their complex humanity and the belief that the other sees your own humanity as well. By complex humanity, I mean that a human being is more than just political beliefs and the side of the conflict they take. Recognizing all the complexities of a single human being is an impossible task but being able to look beyond the political aspect of a person’s identity is crucial to overcoming the perception of the other as an enemy.

Civility in democratic politics is much easier when the society is homogenous or has a strong consensus on certain fundamental political, economic, or social issues that we can think of as resolved conflicts. The enfranchised population of the United States at its founding was largely homogenous, but nevertheless, it was founded with some efforts to appease the sides of the current conflicts as defined by the power relations at the time. The infamous 3/5 clause and the decision to have two senators for each state and representatives awarded based on population was a way to ensure that small states and slave states would not be dominated by large states and free states. The American Civil War was fought largely over the institution of slavery, not so much out of an ideological belief in man’s freedom, but over interest conflicts that resulted largely from slavery’s fundamental role in the Southern economy. The North, for example, favored more tariffs and protectionism to promote its industrial economy while the South supported free trade. These different economic structures led to different social and political interests and as the United States expanded westward, Southern interests eventually lost their political parity in the Senate. Specifically, the acceptance of California, Minnesota, Oregon, and Kansas as free states tipped the scales. The Southern states no longer had a way to ensure their interests were protected by the state, so they seceded.

The victory of the Union in the Civil War seemingly ended a conflict, but it unleashed new ones through the freeing and enfranchisement (though limited) of black men. This was a power shift and one that certainly favored Republicans and Northern economic interests as evident by the domination Republicans had over politics for several decades. However, the decision not to economically empower black men through land redistribution ultimately led to a reformed Southern economy (shifting to sharecropping) that did not significantly industrialize for some time. The lack of empowerment of black men at the time ensured that black interests would be greatly limited in the political system. Particularly, the lack of economic redistribution for black families led to the marginalized situation for their descendants and was reinforced by policies during the eras of Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Suffice it to say that the racial conflict in the United States is one of many unresolved conflicts.

Given this state of intersecting conflicts, what is surprising is not that the United States’ politics is no longer civil, it is surprising it was civil at all. Why was civility previously a norm in U.S. politics? In short, there was once trust between either or both elites and the general public despite political differences. That trust was based on the belief that, though we had different ideas about what policies would enhance the common good, most people assumed that we had the same goal in mind. Indeed, this perception of the pursuit of particular interests over the common good is precisely what Professor Kathy Cramer argues defines “the politics of resentment” in her book of the same name about Wisconsin politics. However, it is not certain what causes this lack of trust.

Civility is not something that can be willed into political dialogue. Right now, U.S. politics exists in a society dealing with significant social and economic inequalities in which debate is heated and shines a light on our differences instead of our similarities. In an age of avatars, trolls, and arguments by meme, Americans will somehow need to recognize the other poster as something other than a caricature of negative connotations we associate with the opposing side of the aisle.

Serious institutional changes are likely necessary in a world where so much interaction is superficial. At a minimum, the apparent zero-sum game of politics has to be fixed and the general welfare must be advanced substantially. Mutually beneficial interests must be identified by the vast majority to join together and forge a new political consensus. This may require difficult compromise by those with strong ideological beliefs. Nevertheless, trying to rebuild civility through negotiation will, in turn, take essential steps in trying to resolve the conflicts that have been unaddressed in American democracy.


Avram Reisman is an Editor for the Democracy and Society Journal. He is a Masters candidate in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University. 

Freeing Burundi’s Vote: The Necessity of an Independent Legislature


Pictured: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to the media after casting his vote at the constitutional referendum in Buye, north of Ngozi, in northern Burundi on May 17, 2018. (Photo Credit: Berthier Mugiraneza, Associated Press). 

By Kwadwo A. Boateng

The results of Burundi’s most recent referendum on constitutional amendments see the possible extension of President Nkurunziza’s term until 2034. He has been President of Burundi since August 2005. The results have made the opposition uneasy; however, this is not the first time the President has sought to bypass constitutional term limits. The vulnerability of Burundi’s national legislature has been on display before: Burundi’s Parliament allowed the President to run for re-election in 2015, at the end of his second (and last) term, prompting a crisis that culminated in government forces clashing with protestors.  Parliament must become independent from governmental influence to prevent strongmen from taking advantage of constitutional law.

Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, has secured a constitutional amendment that will enable him to remain in office until 2034.  A referendum held on 17 May extended his presidential powers by approving the amendment. Questions remain about whether Burundi’s National Independent Electoral Commission can become independent of government influence, following the referendum result. It could do so by persuading Burundi’s national legislature to insist on different behavior from its executives at the national level. This could come about in several ways, which are discussed below. Opposition groups in Burundi such as the Union for Peace and Democracy and the Frodebu-Nyakuri party are also (understandably) concerned about the referendum results, because they add to a pattern of undemocratic governance that has existed since the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), became more radicalized following post-conflict elections in 2010.

Continue reading “Freeing Burundi’s Vote: The Necessity of an Independent Legislature”

Happy Thanksgiving! Catch up on what people are reading.

It turns out that yesterday was not the busiest air travel day of the year in the United States.  Neither is Sunday. (I know, I’m shocked too.)  Statistics don’t help you much, though, if you’re currently stuck in an airport, sandwiched between your fellow disgruntled passengers in an overcrowded waiting area, or on a train or bus just trying to get to a loved one’s home for Turkey Day.

Never fear, though, we here at the Democracy & Governance Program have got you covered.  While you’re in the air, on the rails, or on the road (assuming you’re not doing the driving), here are a few of the best democracy & governance reads from around the web the last few weeks.

Continue reading “Happy Thanksgiving! Catch up on what people are reading.”

An Anatomy of Corruption: Haiti

By Georges A. Fauriol

The past decade has convincingly brought to a close a period of global democratic growth and consolidation underway since the late 1970s – Samuel Huntington’s “third wave.”  We have instead now witnessed twelve years of democratic decline. This is fueled by the resurgence of expansionist authoritarianism armed with a vision strategically eager to compete with the norms and institutions of democracy; worse, there is also a measurable decline by established democracies in their commitment to democratic governing principles – in the aggregate, this is Larry Diamond’s “democratic recession.”

Continue reading “An Anatomy of Corruption: Haiti”

The Highs and Lows of the Midterms for Democracy

Photo: Ilhan Omar, MN-05 Representative-Elect. (Photo credit: Lorie Shaull)

By Democracy & Society Editors

The Democratic party performed about as well as expected in the midterm elections, perhaps restoring confidence to the electoral prediction industry. Though the success of the Democratic party in the House of Representatives can be taken as a sign that Americans are rejecting some of the more authoritarian aspects of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the conduct of candidates’ during the campaign and after the election should leave (small-d) democrats pessimistic. The Democratic party’s new majority in the House will place a check on President Donald Trump’s power, but the 2018 midterms served to highlight the profound problems of American democracy.

Continue reading “The Highs and Lows of the Midterms for Democracy”

The Rohingya Crisis: Is Aung San Suu Kyi Turning Back on Media Freedom and Human Rights?

By Han Wool Jung

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese (Myanmarese) Noble Peace prize winner who was under house arrest for pro-democracy activism, came to power as State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2016 with a considerably free election. In the beginning, her victory was an auspicious win for the Myanmar democratization process. However, the prolonged ethnic conflict between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority, the Rohingya, has turned into a genocide. In addition, the media, responsible for promoting freedom of information and dispersing injustice done to the Rohingya, is still severely repressed. As shown by recent imprisonment of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were investigating the brutal violence on the Rohingya, the military is controlling the coverage of the violence. All these have incited international outrage against the Myanmar military and the government, and especially Suu Kyi for not promoting media freedom and attempting to end the vicious cycle of violence and discrimination on the Rohingya.

Continue reading “The Rohingya Crisis: Is Aung San Suu Kyi Turning Back on Media Freedom and Human Rights?”

Has Saudi Arabia Become a Monarchy of Fear?

This article was originally published by Arab Centre Washington DC and is republished with their permission from http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/has-saudi-arabia-become-a-monarchy-of-fear/ 

By Daniel Brumberg

The murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi reminded Americans that the United States remains aligned with Arab leaders who regularly repress, imprison, and kill opponents for expressing their political views. Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2 was an especially gruesome crime. To be sure, Washington has often backed regimes that employ lethal violence on a far grander scale. Egypt’s current president, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, took power in a July 2013 military coup that ended the country’s brief and tumultuous democratic experiment. Less than a month later, Egyptian security forces slaughtered some 800 civilian protesters in Rabaa Square. Sisi’s government, backed by the judiciary, then proceeded to jail tens of thousands of Egyptians on vague or trumped-up charges. Yet President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, did not protest and even praised Sisi and his allies for “restoring democracy.” From a strictly moral point of view, then, was Kerry’s statement worse than President Donald Trump’s assertion that Khashoggi’s killing was probably the work of “rogue killers”? This assertion was taken up by Saudi leaders who proceeded to dismissalleged conspirators from their positions and imprison other collaborators—acts that are nevertheless seen by the world as only a cover-up for perfidious behavior by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Continue reading “Has Saudi Arabia Become a Monarchy of Fear?”

Contemporary Geopolitical Changes and Democratic Transitions

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (via Kremlin)

By Avram Reisman

At a time when democracy is in recession and facing new challenges, it is worth looking back on essential literature written when democratic change was similarly challenged by authoritarian powers. Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, by Guillermo O’Donnell and Phillippe Schmitter, was a paradigmatic publication that set parameters and expectations for democratic transitions in U.S. policy and for democratic opposition groups in many parts of the world. Looking with a contemporary critical lens, it’s clear the sands of time have eroded the model’s validity. However, with some adaptation, the model provides some direction for new international landscape.

Continue reading “Contemporary Geopolitical Changes and Democratic Transitions”

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