In the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, Editor Gideon Rose raises the provocative question as to whether global democracy (republican form of governance) is dying. The United States, which has anchored the post-World War II free world, figures prominently in that venerable journal’s bimonthly theme. Opening the publication’s discussion, Rose writes:
Centralization of power in the executive, politicization of the judiciary, attacks on independent media, the use of public office for private gain—the signs of democratic regression are well known. The only surprising thing is where they’ve turned up. As a Latin American friend put it ruefully, “We’ve seen this movie before, just never in English.”
The United States has turned out to be less exceptional than many thought. Clearly, it can happen here; the question now is whether it will.
“Whether it will” remains to be seen. Certainly, President Donald Trump’s words, his leadership, and the conduct of his Administration touch all of the characteristics of democratic decline that Rose cites.
Centralization of power in the executive? Check. The White House’s increasingly “hands-on” approach to the Department of Justice highlights a growing centralization of executive power away from Cabinet officers and law enforcement professionals to the President.
Politicization of the Judiciary? Check. The President has railed against judicial decisions, attacked judges, and criticized courts for rulings that cut against his Administration’s policies and goals.
Attacks on the independent media? Check. President Trump has waged an unrelenting war against the “fake media.” He has assailed journalists, vilified news outlets and publications, and even issued implied threats to revoke broadcasting licenses.
Use of public office for private gain? Check. Ethics scandals have embroiled EPA Director Scott Pruitt and former Health Secretary Tom Price. Political and campaign funds have flowed to President Trump’s properties.
So is the American experiment in republican government now in its sunset? Will twilight that inevitably leads to darkness follow?
Harvard University Lecturer on Government Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne Lecturer in Political Science Roberto Stefan Foa are deeply pessimistic. They suggest that Western democracy’s global clout is nearing an end. The United States is among those democratic countries. In Foreign Affairs, they explain:
Hopes that the current set of democratic countries could somehow regain their erstwhile global position are probably vain. The most likely scenario, then, is that democracies will come to look less and less attractive as they cease to be associated with wealth and power and fail to address their own challenges…
The only remaining question now is whether democracy will transcend its once firm anchoring in the West, a shift that would create the conditions for a truly global democratic century—or whether democracy will become, at best, the lingering form of government in an economically and demographically declining corner of the world.
That “less attractive” appearance has often opened the door to authoritarianism. Once democratic governance has been perceived to be unable to meaningfully address the day’s problems, societies have often turned to illiberal alternatives. The human and economic costs of doing so have been staggering, but such transitions have not ceased. Today, one is witnessing trends toward deepening authoritarianism in such countries as Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. One is also witnessing the early stages of non-democratic transitions in Austria and Poland.
Russell Walter Mead offers a more hopeful outlook. He writes that the United States has faced and overcome similar transitions before. He writes:
The information revolution is disrupting the country’s social and economic order as profoundly as the Industrial Revolution did. The ideologies and policies that fit American society a generation ago are becoming steadily less applicable to the problems it faces today. The United States’ political parties and most of its political leaders lack the vision and ideas that could solve its most urgent problems….
The effects of rapid change are often unwelcome, but the process of transformation is one of growth and development, not of decline and fall. Indeed, the ability to cope with change remains one of the United States’ greatest sources of strength. In the nineteenth century, people often compared the United States unfavorably with the orderly Prussian-led German empire. Today, the contrast often drawn is with China’s efficient modernization. Yet there is resilience and flexibility in the creative disorder of a free society. There are reasons to believe that, once again, the United States can find a path to an open and humane society that capitalizes on the riches that the new economy will produce.
The large-scale changes that have brought the United States to its current crossroads are occurring even as the nation faces growing political dysfunction. The Trump Administration’s efforts to compromise the independence the nation’s law enforcement and Intelligence communities, its continuing attacks on the news media, and its profligate fiscal policy present a great and gathering challenge. A passive, often subservient Congress that puts narrow partisan interests ahead of broad national ones, is further compounding America’s political affliction.
Nevertheless, the United States still possesses formidable assets on which it can draw. It has a resilient and dynamic economy. It remains at or near the forefront of a wide range of scientific and technological frontiers. Its people are an unsurpassed resource when they are fully free to harness their talents and pursue their imaginations. Its republican form of government has not yet been lost.
Therefore, sufficient time is available for the American electorate to make appropriate political corrections. With such adjustments, the American people will again have the chance to tap into what has been perhaps America’s defining characteristic since the 13 colonies declared their independence in 1776, its seemingly limitless capacity for self-renewal.