Almost a year into the Trump administration, there is a growing body of nonpartisan (such as Freedom House) and bipartisan work examining the damage that President Trump is doing to democratic institutions here and abroad.
Appearing together on PBS’s “NewsHour,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright (who served under President Bill Clinton) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) expressed concern about a pattern of authoritarianism at home and retreat abroad, which accrues to the benefit of authoritarian states:
“America is better off and Americans are better off if other countries are democracies,” Albright said, because countries with crumbling governments can be petri dishes for terrorism and instability …
“I think [America First is] very short sighted,” Kasich said of the desire to “withdraw, take care of ourselves.”
“I don’t think that’s the fundamental problem,” he added. “But I think that was the reaction here. And the danger is, when the United States of America withdraws, it creates a vacuum, and the vacuum today is not being filled by people that we share our values with.”
Most striking is Russia’s assault on our electoral democracy, with very little action by the administration to harden our defenses. (“The thing that troubles me is [Russia] did get involved in our election process and it’s gotten so personal here that we have not really been investigating enough what they’ve been doing in Europe,” Albright remarked.)
The good news is there is evidence of energetic, widespread pushback. Conservative Evan McMullin’s Stand Up Ideas teamed up with Protect Democracy, a group founded by former Obama administration officials and now including conservatives, to produce a comprehensive report addressing the nature and scope of the problem. The report explains that democracies around the globe were under assault, but by six separate measures — “politicizing independent institutions, spreading disinformation, amassing executive power, quashing dissent, delegitimizing communities, and corrupting elections” — Trump has accelerated troubling trends that weaken our democracy at home.
With regard to independent institutions, for example, the authors find: “He has tried to undermine the independence of the Department of Justice and the FBI and may have obstructed justice in an attempt to stop an inquiry into whether he and his aides colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 election. He has also weakened the federal bureaucracy — threatening perceived enemies, pushing to gut agency budgets, leaving an astonishing number of government positions empty, and seeking to further undermine trust in public servants by accusing them of disloyalty or bias.”
The authors note that his rhetoric “has itself undermined long-standing norms, which are entirely dependent on the respect they are accorded by the presidency for any force they have to constrain others. Moreover, in each of these areas, his attacks on democratic norms and institutions echo similar behavior by autocrats who have undermined democracies around the world in recent years, from Hungary to Turkey, Poland to Venezuela.”
The report provides a detailed accounting of Trump’s assaults on the Justice Department’s independence (many aspects of which show up in the special counsel’s investigation) and disinformation (everything from lies about massive voter fraud to climate-change denial). It also provides a handy recap of Russia’s assault on our election:
What we know at this point is that Kremlin-aligned entities purchased political ads on Facebook, marshalled bots and paid agitators to fill Twitter with antagonistic messages and disinformation, and used their own media outlets to push divisive messages on the American electorate. We know that Russia weaponized information gained from their hacking operations against Democratic targets, releasing damaging information (some false or out of context) on Donald Trump’s opponents. We do not yet know the full extent of the Trump campaign’s cooperation and coordination with Russia, but we know that numerous campaign officials had repeated contacts with Russian actors, and that Donald Trump cited WikiLeaks — an outlet identified by U.S. intelligence as a platform for Russian intel operations — quite frequently in [the] last months before the election, while his son was in direct contact with the organization.
Most important are the report’s recommendations. Congress should do its part. (“It must prevent the president from placing himself or his associates above the law by interfering with the Russia investigations or pardoning anyone who might be the subject of those investigations. It must exercise its appropriations and oversight powers to restrain undemocratic behavior, including the use of taxpayer funds to spread demonstrably false information, the mistreatment of civil servants, and the various attacks on the press and the judiciary. It must assert its role in authorizing or limiting military conflicts and should immediately debate and decide what authority, if any, to give the president to confront the Assad regime in Syria or to engage in other proactive military engagements.”) There is a role for the press, for the public and even the private sector to speak out and defend the rule of law and independent sources of information.
There are dozens of specific recommendations, from expanding voter access to policing executive branch conflicts of interest to insuring a complete and accurate census. Other items include increasing enforcement of foreign agent registration “to expose state-planted propaganda and require disclosure of foreign and foreign-aligned contributions to think tanks” and encouraging more voter participation and political accountability through “the range of experiments that are happening at the state and local level including, but not limited to, jungle primaries, multi-member districts, alternative voting, etc., with the goal of widening the criteria for electoral participation.”
Several aspects of the report are striking.
First, no conservative or liberal of good will should have a problem with the vast majority of items. While the GOP remains in the grip of Trump, Democrats would be well-advised to adopt virtually all the proposals and run on a reform agenda that not only would undo Trump’s damage but also bolster creaky democratic institutions. Before we argue about the size of government, it is essential to ensure the democratic nature of our government.
Second, if Democrats do not take the ball and run with it, a third party would have a tremendous opportunity to seize the initiative and break off support from the two major parties. Instead of splitting the difference on issues such as taxes and health care, they could offer a bold, distinctive agenda focused on restoring and expanding democracy. By 2020, Americans’ historic aversion to third parties may have faded.
Finally, any candidate of either party running in 2018 would do well to adopt parts of the report, or all of it, presenting himself or herself as a leader in a new wave of pro-democracy reformers. Unless candidates begin to run on their proposals and win, there will not be a mandate for change. Perhaps the authors should approach a few prominent candidates — Mitt Romney comes to mind — to see whether they would adopt all or many of the ideas. If it works for a few high-profile candidates in 2018, the movement to restore American democracy will get a lift.
The report is worth reading in full, and credit is owed to the authors for the eye-opening and timely call to action.
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