The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A group of political scientists says Trump’s attacks on our democracy are unprecedented and dangerous

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As a general rule, political scientists tend to shy away from taking public stands for — or against — candidates that might make them appear partisan or somehow lacking in scientific objectivity. So it’s notable that a large group of political scientists has now signed an open letter warning that their academic experience persuades them that Donald Trump poses a unique menace to American democracy.

The letter, which was signed by hundreds of political science professors at U.S. colleges and universities, defends the decision to weigh in on this particular election by noting that “our profession has always had strong normative commitments” to the convictions that “peace is preferable to war, freedom to tyranny, justice to injustice, equality to inequality, democracy to authoritarianism,” as well as to John Adams’ notion that our government must be one “of laws, and not of men.”

It then says:

It is in this spirit that we are voicing our collective concern about Donald Trump. Throughout the course of the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly questioned and attacked the core institutions and norms that make democracy work. Such attacks by a major presidential candidate are unprecedented in American history but they are entirely familiar to those of us who study other parts of the world. Specifically, we are deeply concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency for the following reasons:
1. He has cast doubt on the validity of the election process, without any supporting evidence.
2. He has stated that he may reject the outcome of a free election if he does not win.
3. He has encouraged supporters to engage in voter suppression and intimidation.
4. He has threatened to jail the leader of the opposition party.
5. He has questioned the independence of the judiciary and the impartiality of judges based on their race, ethnicity, religion, and parentage.
6. He has impugned the loyalty of citizens and other persons in the United States on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and country of birth.
7. He has endangered freedom of the press by intimidating individual journalists, banning major news organizations from his rallies, and promising to change libel laws.
8. He has called for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
9. He has threatened to destroy the strategic basis of NATO, the most important security alliance of the last seventy years, by questioning the commitment of the United States to regard an attack on any member state as an attack on all.
For all these reasons and despite our own indifference on matters of politics and partisanship, we stand united in the conviction that a Trump presidency would pose a grave threat to American democracy and to other democratic governments around the world.

Gretchen Helmke, a professor of political science at the University of Rochester, tells me that over 350 political scientists representing around 185 U.S. colleges and universities signed the letter. “I was astounded by how many responses we got in such a short period of time,” she says.

I asked one of the letter’s signatories — Susan Stokes, a political science professor at Yale University who specializes in Latin American studies — to elaborate a bit on the letter’s argument. Specifically, in what sense does what we’re seeing now from Trump resemble similar attacks on democracies in other parts of the world? And if Trump should lose tomorrow, what does his rise tell us about our own democracy’s weaknesses going forward?

Stokes emailed me:

The alarm among many political scientists is acute. We have seen other countries where democratic institutions have come under assault. Venezuela had a stable two-party system for decades but was thrown off-kilter by a leader who weakened the courts and placed controls on the press. Russia had an emerging, competitive multi-party system and at least the promise of a balanced system of government. This emergence of democracy was stopped cold by an authoritarian leader and his inner circle, who has made steady incursions on the opposition, the press, and leaders in civil society.
Of course American democracy is more than two centuries old and has survived civil war, depression, and many other threats. And countries in the developing world face challenges that are much more acute than the ones faced by wealthy and established democracies like the United States.
But there’s still cause for worry. Even if Trump loses tomorrow, he has cultivated a large following of citizens who are convinced that our elections are rigged, that the mainstream press can never be trusted, and that federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, produce intentionally misleading information. A culture of such deep distrust does not augur well for American democracy.

Just in case you needed a reminder of just how much is at stake in this election — and that, no matter what happens, this story will not end tomorrow.