Paul Pillar

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

The sympathy of a majority of the court toward the dominant party’s ideology has played a major role in increasing the part of money in Slobbovian politics, especially by striking down legislation intended to regulate money’s role in election campaigns.  Slobbovia is no kleptocracy, and for the most part the role of money in politics does not take the form of what is undeniably corruption, as it does in many other countries.  It is worthy of note, however, that the first attempted action by the ruling party’s members in the lower house of the newly convened national legislature was to disable an office with the mission of investigating corruption among members.  The action was scuttled after it provoked outrage.  (The incoming president criticized the timing, but not the substance, of the attempted disabling of the office.)

The increasing role of money is instead more a matter of deference to minority moneyed interests, based on disproportionate access of those interests to the corridors of power, at the expense of majority interests as would be expressed through democratic means.  This trend involves the flouting of previous custom and in some respects the flouting of law.  The incoming president, contrary to the practice of his predecessors, refuses to disclose fully his financial interests and specifically his tax returns.  He is a businessman with worldwide interests that he is not divesting, making it almost inevitable that during his administration there will be violations of a provision in the Slobbovian constitution that prohibits U.S. officials from receiving private gain from foreign governments.  The intermingling of public business with private business interests also involves members of the president’s family who evidently are going to have hands in both, notwithstanding Slobbovian law that is supposed to restrict nepotism.  Some observers have even seen similarities to family rule in North Korea.

Some senior appointees of the incoming president who also have extensive private interests that could conflict with the public interest appear likely to be confirmed in their appointments even though they have failed to complete ethics-related submissions that are supposed to be required for confirmation.  The financial donations that some wealthy nominees have made to the same members of the upper house who will be voting on their nominations may have something to do with this outcome. Also of concern regarding the intermingling of private and public interests are informal advisers who have extensive financial interests that would be affected by policy decisions and whose grey-area status keeps them outside even the ostensible legal restrictions that apply to formally appointed officials.

An overall assessment of the state of democracy in Slobbovia must begin with the observation that this is a nation with a long history and strong tradition of representative democracy.  But this tradition is visibly and seriously eroding.  The trend is unfavorable.  The defects in Slobbovian democracy are growing and becoming more obvious.  This country is increasingly a place where minority interests can, and do, use nondemocratic means to prevail over the will and interests of a majority.  As both a cause and effect of this pattern, the aspects of political culture that, at least as much as constitutional and legal provisions, are critical to the sustaining of a liberal representative democracy have been weakening.  The most important aspect of such culture is widespread acceptance that observing and nourishing democratic norms themselves are more important than any one policy outcome or the fortunes of any one political party.  Too often this is not the set of priorities one observes.