Democracy Faces the Enemy Within

The president can threaten a system as well as his country.

Bear any burden.

Photographer: Jill Lepore

We're past the point of shifting blame. We know who gave us the presidency of Donald Trump, and it wasn't Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein or James Comey.

The culprit was democracy.

Even if you defend democracy on the grounds that Trump lost the popular vote, it's still a lame argument. After all, what kind of sensible political system generates 63 million votes for a thuggish incompetent to become its supreme leader?

Democracy was rarely an exercise in smooth sailing. Now, this.

"The choice of Mr. Trump, a man so signally lacking in the virtues, abilities, knowledge and experience to be expected of a president, has further damaged the attractions of the democratic system," wrote an exceedingly glum Martin Wolf in the Financial Times this week. "The soft power of democracy is not what it was. It has produced Mr. Trump as leader of the world’s most important country. It is not an advertisement."

Wolf isn't wrong, of course. If General Electric Co. had gone bonkers and installed Trump as CEO, the smart money would've deserted the company, fearing for its future. Yet what's to stop Trump from doing far more damage as president?

In an interview with Vox, political scientist Larry Bartels said:

History clearly demonstrates that democracies need parties to organize and simplify the political world. But parties don’t make the fundamental problems of democratic control disappear; they just submerge them more or less successfully. When professional politicians are reasonably enlightened and skillful and the rules and political culture let them do their job, democracy will usually work pretty well. When not, not.

Democracy is not working pretty well in the U.S. Still, while there may be no reason to grant Trump himself patience, the democratic system itself has earned some.

Shashi Tharoor, a longtime United Nations official who is now a member of the Indian parliament, emailed:

Every system of government produces uneven results: There have been wise monarchs and feckless ones, capable benign dictators and incompetent ruthless ones, brilliant statesmen in democracies and people who owed their leadership positions to luck (the weakness of the alternatives) or merely inoffensiveness (the least unacceptable candidate). . . .

The strength of democracies is that because their leadership emerges from the will of the public as a whole, the system has a way of accommodating to them and very often, blunting their worst mistakes. Undemocratic systems have nowhere else to turn, and no established way of making the turn. So however flawed individual leaders may be, the self-correcting mechanisms built into democracy limit how much damage they can do.

The nation's intelligence bureaucracies and news media are already shaking the foundation of the Trump presidency, leak by damaging leak. Courts are constraining some of the White House's baser impulses. Democratic and civil society opposition is fierce, and has been joined by a small but intellectually potent cohort of principled conservatives. Inflection points, from the scheduled testimony next week of former FBI director James Comey to the midterm elections in 2018, present opportunities to educate the public and strengthen resistance. Whether anything can induce Trump's Republican enablers to abandon him is unknown.

"If democracy produces a renewed commitment to democracy," said Harvard historian Jill Lepore in an email, "democracy is working."

In his book "The Confidence Trap," political scientist David Runciman pointed to the 1970s as an era in which democracy seemed to be marching haplessly toward failure, yet turned out to be gaining strength. In an interview with me last year he said:

Apparently the Chinese leadership is enjoying watching Trump’s rise, because it seems to confirm all their suspicions of democracy: It’s hucksterism plus stupidity. But in 1974 the Soviet leadership thought Watergate showed that democracy was finished. How could it survive such a scandal?

It survived, of course, and even thrived, eventually grinding down the Soviet Union. A similar emergence from the Trumpian ashes is possible. But it is not assured. Wolf is correct to worry that democracy everywhere is undermined by Trump anywhere. Yet with profound exceptions, democracy has been very good both to Americans and the world. Both may yet rally to the cause.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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