Paul Pillar

Russia Had Plenty to Work With: The Crisis in American Democracy

The health, or sickness, of democracy in foreign countries has long been a matter of concern in the United States, notwithstanding disagreements regarding exactly what the United States can, or should, do to promote democracy abroad.  Consider the case of the following country—for now, let us call it Slobbovia—as outsiders would view it and as it might be the subject of something equivalent to a State Department dispatch or a report from a nongovernmental organization concerned with democracy.

Slobbovia has a legal and constitutional structure that provides for political and civil rights and is in the form of a representative democracy with built-in checks and balances.  In practice, much political activity derives not from that legal and constitutional framework but instead consists of crude use of levers of power by those with access to those levers.  Elements with the most power routinely show less regard for democratic procedures than for solidification of their own party’s power.  Ultimate motivations for such behavior may include retention of power for its own sake and the advancement of minority economic interests that would be unable to prevail under majority rule.

The ruling party—the party that as of later this month will be in full control of both the executive and legislative branches of the national government—aggressively uses non-democratic means to preserve and expand its position.  Among these has been enactment at the state level—where the ruling party also controls most of the legislatures—of laws designed to impede voting by citizens deemed more likely to vote for the opposition, by imposing requirements difficult for many of those citizens to meet.  The rationale for such laws has been to counter voting fraud, even though such fraud has been so rare as to be almost nonexistent.  The voter suppression laws have effectively disenfranchised what is probably a substantial, although admittedly impossible to quantify, portion of the electorate.  The rationale—echoed by the incoming president, who has made accusations, without support, of widespread voting fraud—also has undermined confidence in Slobbovian democracy.

Both the ruling party and the principal opposition party extensively manipulate the boundaries of legislative districts to benefit their own party and to entrench incumbents, but this practice has disproportionately benefited the ruling party because of its control over most state legislatures, where the manipulative line-drawing occurs.  Because members of state legislatures can draw their own district boundaries, this districting technique is another way for a minority to continue in power even after it has lost whatever majority support it once had.  At the national level, the manipulation of district lines has enabled the ruling party to retain a majority of seats in the lower house of the legislature even when it has won fewer votes than the opposition party did.

The ruling party also benefits from an archaic feature of Slobbovian presidential elections—a holdover from a system devised partly to propitiate slave-holding interests—in which the candidate winning the most votes does not necessarily get the presidency.  This has happened twice in the last five presidential elections.  The oddity was especially marked in the most recent election, in which the presidency is being given to a candidate who finished a full two percentage points behind the opposition party’s candidate.

When the opposition party has managed despite these handicaps to make inroads—as it did in winning the two previous presidential elections—the dominant party has used its position in the national legislature to flout the majority will and to impede the ability of the other party to govern.  Its techniques have included a form of extortion in which, lacking the votes to enact its policies through normal democratic means, it threatens to shut down the government altogether or to destroy Slobbovia’s credit rating through a debt default if it does not get its way.  The party’s leader in the upper house of the national legislature openly declared his intention, as his highest priority, to make the president a failure.  He and his party acted consistently with that declaration.  This approach included automatic and total opposition to what was the principal domestic policy initiative of the day, even though this meant the party did not have any alternative to offer once it regained full control of the policymaking branches of government.

The ruling party has placed heavy emphasis on controlling as well the judiciary, which is significant in that Slobbovia’s highest court has become in effect another policymaking branch of government, with justices in ideological camps that clearly correspond to the preferences of the two major political parties.  The death a year ago of one justice threatened a loss of the dominant party’s hold on the court.  The party’s members in the upper house of the legislature—which the constitution says must provide advice and consent regarding presidential appointments to the court—disregarded that constitutional provision and refused to consider the incumbent president’s nominee, even though it meant the vacancy would last at least a year and the nominee in question was a moderate.

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