Yascha Mounk, an unassuming academic born in Germany and now a fellow in New America’s Political Reform program and a lecturer on government at Harvard University, is the quintessential man for the moment. A specialist in liberal democracies and the rise of authoritarian states around the world, he has become the go-to expert to analyze and explain President Trump.
In an article adapted from his new book, “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger & How to Save It,” he writes: “Donald Trump won the presidency for many reasons, including racial animus, concerns over immigration, and a widening divide between urban and rural areas. But public-opinion data suggest that a deep feeling of powerlessness among voters was also important.”
However, Trump is a charlatan and “has no real intention of devolving power back to the people.” Mounk points out: “He’s filled his administration with members of the same elite he disparaged on the campaign trail. His biggest legislative success, the tax bill, has handed gifts to corporations and the donor class. A little more than a year after America rebelled against political elites by electing a self-proclaimed champion of the people, its government is more deeply in the pockets of lobbyists and billionaires than ever before.”
We want both a technocratically adept, professionally run government to help navigate through a complex, chaotic and dangerous world and responsive politicians to tune into the concerns of ordinary Americans and address their problems. (Hence, the exit polling question, “Does candidate X care about people like me?”) Mounk argues:
It is true that to recover its citizens’ loyalty, our democracy needs to curb the power of unelected elites who seek only to pad their influence and line their pockets. But it is also true that to protect its citizens’ lives and promote their prosperity, our democracy needs institutions that are, by their nature, deeply elitist. This, to my mind, is the great dilemma that the United States—and other democracies around the world—will have to resolve if they wish to survive in the coming decades.
We would offer three concrete mechanisms by which we might address the competing demands between expert government and democratic responsiveness. We should also note that Trump — by stifling dissent, attacking the free press, challenging apolitical law enforcement operations, undermining the very notion of truth and seeking to sow division — is hobbling the very qualities that make a democracy nimble and especially well-suited to adapt to new challenges. When all knowledge, when truth itself, is controlled from on high and trust is undercut, the dynamism, entrepreneurialism, diversity and creativity that are essential to problem-solving are crushed.
First, it is essential to protect the professional, nonpolitical men and women who do the work of governing, regulating, enforcing, analyzing and informing from political favoritism and pressure. It’s not a coincidence that in his State of the Union address Trump pledged to “empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
In the hands of solid, credentialed Cabinet secretaries, this is simply a matter of good government; in the hands of lackeys and unqualified hacks appointed by Trump, it is a recipe for retaliation and suppression of information that contradicts their dogma. It’s no small thing when the House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) talks about “cleansing” the FBI or the administration bans independent scientists from sitting on advisory boards or Republicans vilify the Congressional Budget Office, long considered a neutral umpire on budgeting matters.
In practice, this would mean beefing up the resources of the inspector generals, installing mechanisms such as the “dissent channel” at the State Department throughout the federal bureaucracy, and insisting on installation of outside, neutral boards to consult with relevant experts. It also means updating and enforcing the Hatch Act so that civil servants are hired and paid purely to perform nonpolitical roles and not to corrupt the bureaucracy for partisan ends.
Second, on a bipartisan basis, former high-ranking government officials need to lend their expertise and advice to the public and to the administrations that follow. When there are grotesque violations of the norms that govern the relationship between the White House and law enforcement, former heads of the applicable agencies and departments have a role to play in alerting the public and explaining what standards are being subverted and the consequences that flow from such actions.
The temptation for these former officials to remain mute so as to preserve access and influence is great, but they kid themselves that they can have real influence behind closed doors; the reality is that they are easily co-opted and their voices muted. Their role as respected voices in the public debate is vastly more important. By the same token, the organized legal bar, local and state officials (who often enjoy more credibility than federal officials), and civic and business leaders need to be engaged when they see corruption, norm violations and malfeasance.
Third, many of the norms we thought were secure — the president doesn’t tell the FBI whom they should and should not investigate, the president does not keep businesses and self-enrich while in office, the president discloses his taxes — are not secure at all. Congress should address these issues by legislation, if need be. Congressional and executive branch ethics offices need far more resources and enforcement mechanisms to discover and police conflicts of interest. Rules on stock purchases and on lawmakers’ interventions with law enforcement agencies (on their own benefit or on behalf of constituents) must be reviewed and upgraded.
Perhaps Trump will act as a wake-up call to spark a new era of civic engagement, revived interest in federalism (which devolves power away from Washington), and rethinking of campaign finance rules (parties not shadowy third-party groups or billionaires should be beefed up). Our democracy needs many more formal structures to address the competing concerns of expert governance and popular responsiveness. Ultimately, however, there is no substitute for an active, educated and purposeful electorate.
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