Sadly, this is part of a pattern of violations of democratic norms — and perhaps laws. The Mueller report reveals that Trump actively sought to curtail or end the special counsel’s investigation. Trump has allegedly dangled pardons for officials who might break the law in carrying out his immigration agenda. He has repeatedly lambasted the investigative agencies of government or, even worse, pressured them to investigate his political opponents. He has ignored congressional subpoenas and refused to turn over documents, including his tax returns, and he has enriched his businesses through his position. He has attacked the judicial branch and the media, often calling the latter “the enemy of the people.”
Trump is a particularly egregious example, but his misbehavior fits a global trend. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in a political maneuver — suspending Parliament — that the nation’s high court unanimously ruled was “unlawful.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken and governed in ways that have terrified his country’s minorities and eroded its secular culture. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has praised extrajudicial killings. And leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Viktor Orban of Hungary have managed to change the constitution to assist in one-party — or one-man — rule.
Many scholars and writers have chronicled the “democratic recession,” but it remains unclear why this is happening in so many places. Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk have compiled data showing that across the globe, enthusiasm for autocrats has grown. Between 1995 and 2014, there were large increases in the share of people who would like to see “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections,” growing by nearly 10 percentage points in the United States, almost 20 points in Spain and South Korea, and around 25 points in Russia and South Africa.
Why is this? The best I can guess is that we are living in times of great change — economic, technological, demographic, cultural — and in this swirl, people feel insecure and anxious. They believe that existing institutions, elites or established ideologies are not serving them well. Of 27 democracies surveyed by the Pew Research Center (if you consider Russia and Hungary democracies), a majority in 21 countries say they see little change regardless of who wins an election. So people are open to supporting populist leaders who play on their fears, seize on scapegoats and promise to take decisive action on their behalf.
Add to this the rising reality of tribal politics — the sense that each of us is on a team and that our team is always in the right. Tribalism is the enemy of institutions, norms and the rule of law. After all, the whole point of the rule of law is that it applies to everyone, friend and foe. In a recent book, “When Crime Pays,” Milan Vaishnav showed that politicians who have been charged with a crime are more likely to win elections in India. In tribal politics, people actually celebrate leaders who break the law because they supposedly do so to help their tribe.
Political parties used to act as gatekeepers and norm-setters, keeping out populists and demagogues and forcing their members to adhere to certain rules. But parties are old-fashioned institutions, unable to stay strong in an age of entrepreneurial politics. Politicians can now raise money and gain a following through direct appeals to the public, using social media to exploit the very anger and emotion that parties often used to moderate.
The key enabler of American populism has been the Republican Party. The movement’s rise began with Newt Gingrich’s assault on the old Republican Party of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, which Gingrich pilloried as weak and accommodationist. It is further enabled today by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was willing to violate norms on something as important as a Supreme Court nomination simply to serve the Republican agenda.
In his 1960 study of American politics, Clinton Rossiter declared: “No America without democracy, no democracy without politics, no politics without parties, no parties without compromise and moderation.” American democracy today desperately needs the GOP to uphold democracy rather than feast on its destruction.