Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Trump Meets Political Science

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Trump Meets Political Science

Article excerpt

How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Crown, 320 pp.

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It

by Yascha Mounk

Harvard University Press, 400 pp.

The profession confronts a grim question: Are we witnessing the end of the world's oldest democracy?

Like the prospect of a hanging, Donald Trump's presidency concentrates the minds of America's political scientists. Why is no mystery. Trump treats his opponents as illegitimate. Failure to clap during the State of the Union ranks as "treason." He bridles at the rule of law and seems especially intent on weakening the Department of Justice and the FBI. Russia interfered in our elections? So what? Hey, it might be nice to have a "major event" that would "unify" the country. Short of that, let's have a military parade in the District of Columbia.

But, of course, the shock to political science is not just about the man in the Oval Office. On election day, Trump won 90 percent of the voters who identified themselves as Republicans to exit poll workers. On inauguration day, 89 percent of Republicans approved of him, per Gallup. Exactly a year later, 87 percent still approved. Given these numbers (roughly replicated across other polls), congressional Republicans have accommodated or even enabled Trump's transgressions. Only those who know that this is their last Congress dare to question him.

For a growing number of political scientists, a startling question flutters in the wind: Are we witnessing the end of the world's oldest democracy? At conferences and in working papers a host of new nouns swirl about: backsliding, decay, erosion, deconsolidation. They evoke processes that might result in things like one-party dominance, a corrupt judiciary, a politicized military, the disorganization of independent media, and the end of administrative meritocracy. No one predicts such a disaster confidently--and many place bets on American democracy's resilience. Nonetheless, there are lot of political scientists living in their own version of a Roz Chast cartoon.

Americanists are generally the most sanguine. These are the people who study our system's many moving parts--for instance, coding oral arguments before the Supreme Court or figuring out whether Americans can discern ideological differences between the parties. They have deep knowledge of one national case, ours. To be sure, leading Americanists do worry about the damage that Trump and his enablers have done to informal rules of the game. But they tend to agree that our system of checks and balances will blunt his worst impulses. They take comfort, too, from Trump's abysmal overall approval ratings, which powerfully constrain him.

Turn, however, to scholars who think about systems of governance, plural, and one finds more anxiety. Comparativists ask why some countries are democracies and others are not. They think about the conditions under which different kinds of regimes emerge, persist, and diffuse across the globe, or, instead, fail, shrink, and recede. They know the warning signs that prefigure serious trouble for any democracy.

The comparativists tend to deliver bad news these days. Two stories are on offer. One is a "wolf at the door" account. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die fits into that category. The other, exemplified by Yascha Mounk's more recent The People vs. Democracy, is more of a "termites in the basement" tale.

Mounk usually works as a theorist--that is, someone who keeps his lamp on for the likes of Aristotle and Arendt. But in 2015 and 2016, he collaborated with Roberto Stefan Foa, a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, to test the concept known as "democratic consolidation"--the thesis that once a nation has established a strong democracy, it is unlikely to revert back to its previous system. The results deeply troubled Mounk. …

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