The next twelve months will be hugely important for the future of American democracy. In that context it is easy to think of somewhat unlikely but frightening scenarios. For example, Trump could refuse to leave office after losing an election and encourage violence and civic unrest from his supporters. Another scenario is that violence could erupt in the runup to a hotly contested election, or that following a contested victory, Trump could move to aggressively silence his critics. On the other hand, there few genuinely positive scenarios that are likely to happen. Even a Democratic sweep in November of 2020 would not bring about stability and stop partisan fighting and would raise many difficult questions about transitional justice in post-Trump America.
A far more plausible, but deeply damaging scenario would be that in November of 2020 the Democrats win a clear majority of votes cast for the Senate, the House and the presidency, but due to the structure of the electoral college and the Senate, Trump gets reelected, the Republicans hold the Senate and the Democrats hold the House. There is no guarantee that this will happen-and the Democrats have a good chance of beating Trump in 2020-but if it did, nobody would be very surprised. This scenario could continue a few months into Trump’s second term when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who continues to battle health issues, leaves the Supreme Court and is replaced by a Trump nominee who is confirmed on a partisan vote in the Senate. Again, none of this is a given, but it does not tax the imagination to envision it.
A country where majorities want to see gun laws reformed, health care made more accessible and college more affordable, but where a majority government elected by a minority of citizens prevents any of that from happening is no longer a legitimate democracy
This scenario is neither implausible nor dramatic, but it would represent a further continuation and acceleration of a relatively soft collapse of American democracy. If the Republican Party continues to control all but one of the most important levers of American government while consistently being outpolled by the Democratic Party, it will be increasingly difficult for the US to present itself domestically or internationally as a democracy. Nobody will immediately question the legitimacy of the election itself, but the non-democratic structures that have translated minority support at the polls into the majorities in the legislature and the electoral college will come under more intense scrutiny, as will the broader notion of American democracy.
A country where majorities want to see gun laws reformed, health care made more accessible and college more affordable, but where a majority government elected by a minority of citizens prevents any of that from happening is no longer a legitimate democracy. Moreover, failure to provide policies that are responsive to the preferences of consistent majorities of citizens will lead those citizens to lose confidence in the government and lose faith in its institutions. This will be exacerbated as President remains in office despite having twice lost the popular vote and having had a majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance virtually the entire time he has been in office, but this is where the US could be heading beginning in 2021.
The possibility American democracy being further diminished not simply but the corruption, bigotry and venality of today’s Republican Party but by the Constitution itself is thus very real and potentially very devastating
If the US continues to be governed for more than a brief period by an electoral minority that owes its majority in the legislature and its control of the executive branch to essentially quirks in a document that is almost 250 years old, it will put tremendous strains on our democracy, but also on the state itself. When the founders crafted institutions like the US Senate or the electoral college, they did it with the intent of moderating the impulses of the majority, but they could not have anticipated that it would lead to long term governance by the minority. The alignment of American politics such that almost all small states, where voters are overrepresented electorally, align with one party, while most of the larger states, where voters are underrepresented electorally, was not something for which the founders, who were not even thinking about political parties, were prepared. Nonetheless, that is the state of American politics today. If it continues, Americans will come to recognize the Constitution as a flawed and undemocratic document and question the wisdom of continuing to treat it as the political equivalent of holy scripture. This could lead to meaningful reform and scrapping the Constitution in favor of greater democracy, but it is hard to imagine that unwieldy and unpredictable process occurring.
The possibility American democracy being further diminished not simply but the corruption, bigotry and venality of today’s Republican Party but by the Constitution itself is thus very real and potentially very devastating. Many of those who don’t hesitate to criticize Donald Trump will have less to say if the vehicle for undermining American democracy is the Constitution itself, but over time that too will change and the crisis of American democracy will be impossible to conceal.
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