My colleague Professor Ubertaccio has been sounding the alarm about the danger to our republic represented by President-Elect Donald Trump. Professor Ubertaccio is absolutely correct, and Professors Valerie J. Bunce and Mark R. Beissinger explain how we might lose our democracy in Taking Democracy for Granted.
Professors Bunce and Beissinger write “The United States would not be the first long-lasting government to collapse.” They cite three contributing factors. Let me reference them and illustrate how they are present today.
The first factor is a public opinion that worries about social disintegration, economic calamity, and a decline in national power. The public comes to wish for the man on horseback who can restore former greatness. Tolerance and trust decline and views become polarized. All of this has come to pass in the United States, with demonization of immigrants who are blamed for stealing American jobs and committing crimes. The rantings of Alex Jones and headlines of Breitbart News are evidence of the willingness of many Americans, including the president-elect, to believe in fake news. This factor has been with us a long time. In explaining the success of Southern leaders in turning patriotic men away from their “strong and noble sentiments,” Abraham Lincoln remarked of the leaders, “Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind.” This has been a Republican project for years.
Bunce and Beissinger continue that the second factor “is dysfunctional political institutions.” “In failing democracies, public trust in political institutions declines, and government can no longer fulfill the basic tasks expected of it. In the American case, there is ample evidence of such trends—from the Republican obstruction and gridlock in Congress to repeated attempts to shut the government down. . . Mistrust of government is contagious, poisoning democratic processes.” Republicans do not fear that government will not work, they fear that it will. They do all they can to assist its breakdown, the better to claim that government is a failure. In 2016 they overshot their target. Republican elites didn’t want Trump either, but their party base had become so disgusted with the establishment’s failure to deliver for them that they decamped to Trump.
Third, there is the critical “role of politicians in terminating democracy.” In modern times, autocrats undermine democracy from within. Claiming the support of the people they exercise extraordinary powers to make the country great again. Elections that bring such leaders to power present unpopular choices to an alienated electorate. Bunce and Beissinger:
Outsider-politicians exploit public disgust with politics, attack their opponents in personal rather than policy terms, make grandiose promises, and talk of a return to the good old days by restoring the culture, society, and status of the past.
Most important is their claim to defend the nation. This is a perfect issue for ambitious amateur politicians because it plays so well to public fears about national security, personal security, and cultural diversity.
Lincoln understood this. As a young man he delivered his Speech on the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, in which he posited that America could only be destroyed from within. He foresaw the rise of a certain kind of leader who could bring about the end of our democracy:
Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
It is exactly Lincoln’s call for a people loyal to our republican form to defend against President-Elect Trump that Professor Ubertaccio encourages. The call is appropriate and urgent.