The Trump presidency has produced so many books about the risks to government of, by and for the people that their titles sound like they’re having a conversation. The works started appearing just weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, and although the American president is not their sole preoccupation, Trump is their inspiration, the muse of the death-of-democracy bookshelf.
But this genre is evolving from diagnosis to prescription, from what’s-going-on-here to what now. New works such as “Ill Winds” by Larry Diamond and “The Democracy Fix” by Caroline Fredrickson still detail Trump’s disdain for democratic norms and his assault on the independent judiciary and free press, but the authors devote more effort to showing a way out, and their books are packed with memos, lists, bullet-point programs and, above all, big plans.
The plans have drawbacks, however. In one case, the change required is so stark that you may have to wait until Trump is out of office to get it done, and by then the damage could be far worse. In another, the rise of Trumpism has been so insidious that the only way to counter it is, ironically, to embrace the same tactics that helped bring it about. So yes, it can happen here — but dealing with democracy’s decline may mean working on Trump’s time and Trump’s terms.
After decades of progress in building and consolidating democracies, “the world has plunged into a democratic recession” over the past dozen years, Diamond reports. One of the world’s foremost experts on democracy and a professor at Stanford University, Diamond emphasizes that the declining quality of American democracy is only part of a broader downturn from Venezuela to Turkey to Hungary, to name a few egregious cases. Rather than the outright coups of the past, democracy now suffers more discreetly, with authoritarian leaders delegitimizing their opposition, intimidating business executives, attacking the news media, influencing electoral authorities, politicizing security services, and simply wearing down state and civil institutions until all that remains is “a hollow shell.” Encouraging this worldwide havoc, he explains, are a revanchist Russia and an ascendant China.
Diamond invokes diplomat George F. Kennan’s legendary Long Telegram from Moscow in 1946 to interpret Russia’s current challenge. Just as Kennan saw an insecure and neurotic Soviet leadership, fearful of the West, Diamond sees a resentful Russian regime under Vladimir Putin, seeking to “stimulate division, increase social and racial unrest, and undermine the self-assurance of the major Western democracies — and work to divide them from one another.” In the case of Russia’s hacking and social media campaign against the United States in 2016, his conclusion is blunt: “Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention.”
Yet he is even more concerned about China: “In the long run, the greatest external threats to global democracy are the ambitions of a rising China, not the resentments of a falling Russia.” Through its massive aid and investment flows, Beijing exerts powerful leverage over leaders and governments worldwide. “These forms of influence seek to compromise the independence of critical democratic institutions, stifle public criticism of China, and preempt foreign and defense policies that could hinder China’s rise to global dominance,” Diamond writes. He describes it as a more patient and incremental approach than Russia’s, but ultimately more serious because China seeks to weaken “the vital tissues of democracies” — their media, publishing houses, entertainment industries, tech companies, universities, civil society groups, even their governments. Russia attacks from without; China corrodes from within.
Without Washington’s leadership to counter these efforts, “the democratic recession could spiral down into a grim new age of authoritarianism,” Diamond worries. He would have the United States lead a global campaign against money laundering, hitting the autocrats where they’re vulnerable, and he details a 10-step program he calls “Recovering from Kleptocracy.” It includes ending anonymous shell companies and anonymous real estate purchases, banning former U.S. officials from lobbying for foreign governments, and halting “golden visa” programs whereby wealthy foreigners essentially purchase citizenship.
Inspired by Kennan’s cable, Diamond also provides “eight strategic principles” — see, I told you there were lists — for dealing with the Russian and Chinese challenges, including educating democratic societies about the nature and scale of the threat, strengthening military resolve and capabilities to deal with it, and reinventing the postwar liberal order to fight it. (He seems a bit muddled on how to interact with Russian and Chinese leaders themselves, urging Washington to treat them more respectfully, even while proposing a new golden rule for Putin-style autocrats: “If you can’t say something critical about him, don’t say anything at all.”)
All worthwhile stuff. But how do you act on any of it with an American president so unwilling to acknowledge foreign attacks against U.S. elections that his advisers are reluctant to discuss them in his presence, and so uninterested in financial transparency that he won’t release his tax returns? The third threat to global democracy, Diamond writes, is America’s own democratic deterioration.
Diamond understands that our democracy has eroded because of “deepening congressional dysfunction, the flood of money into our politics, and racial injustices in our criminal justice system.” He calls for simplified voting registration and an end to the electoral college and voter suppression, among many other political reforms, and supports the creation of a Public Integrity Protection Agency to uphold laws and standards against government corruption. (Such an agency would be led by a “nonpartisan figure” serving for a fixed term and appointing inspectors general throughout the executive branch.)
Nevertheless, Diamond also concludes that many of our challenges begin and end in the White House, home to a “new American Caesar” who has inflicted “profound damage” on U.S. democracy by stoking fear and prejudice, undercutting the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary, and showing brazen contempt for norms of presidential behavior. “So long as he remains in office,” Diamond asserts, “much worse is possible.”
And so long as Trump is in office, Diamond’s lovely list of proposed policies and reforms is moot. (Can you imagine whom Trump would pick to lead a new Public Integrity Protection Agency — and how soon he’d fire them?) “We can still reassert American democratic leadership in the world,” Diamond writes. “But this will only be done with a different president.” For all his focus on the influence of Russia and China, he acknowledges that “we cannot defend and renew free government around the world unless we do so at home.”
In “The Democracy Fix,” Fredrickson offers a plan for precisely such a defense and renewal of democracy at home. While Diamond draws inspiration from Kennan’s Long Telegram, Fredrickson invokes the Powell Memo, a 1971 document that was drawn up by tobacco industry lawyer and future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell and that became, she describes, “the road map for conservative dominance of policymaking.”
Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, is a former general counsel of NARAL, a onetime special assistant to President Bill Clinton and an unabashed progressive, yet she looks upon the American right with a mix of contempt, jealousy and grudging admiration. Powell’s memo, written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, proposed a sustained response to growing environmental regulations and consumer protection initiatives that threatened corporate power. “The Democracy Fix” is, in large part, the story of how that memo inspired the creation of corporate philanthropies and conservative think tanks, right-wing media machinery to counter and discredit the mainstream press, and a pipeline of conservative jurists to fill federal and state courts. “What Powell grasped,” Fredrickson writes, “is that policy victories come after gaining control of the levers of power — and not before.”
In this telling, a panoply of Washington research outfits, advocacy groups and quasi-academic institutes loom as pernicious influences over the nation’s public life — the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Federalist Society and Judicial Watch, to name some of the most notable — and certain political strategists (cough, Karl Rove, cough) emerge as the evil geniuses behind fake voting-fraud allegations and other nefarious efforts at tilting the democratic playing field hard right. Indeed, this is a book that uses the term “evil geniuses” with complete earnestness.
Yet Fredrickson does a persuasive job of making connections that span decades. Conservative think tanks drive pro-corporate political narratives and groom personnel to enter key government policy roles; legal activists work diligently to discourage corporate litigation and to appoint and influence judges at all levels, including the Supreme Court, who will sustain their preferred agendas; and political operatives and funders focus on key legislative races that will help the Republican Party exert control over the redistricting processes and thus entrench legislative power. Whether the Powell memo truly unleashed all this (some suggest that its historical influence has been exaggerated) grows less relevant as the chapters progress. What does matter, Fredrickson emphasizes, is that the right had a long-term plan, and the left didn’t.
Yet it often seems that Fredrickson is more interested in boosting progressivism than in strengthening democracy, even though she assumes they go together. She simply wants “good judges,” she assures, a formulation that later morphs into “good, progressive judges.” It is not enough to find originalism suspect as an interpretation of the Constitution; the case must be made that the document is inherently progressive. By the end of the book she is hailing Powell as a “visionary” to be emulated, not a cautionary tale of how political activists can hijack a system. “We’ve been screwed for too long,” Fredrickson laments. “It’s time to grab the pen and write our own rules.” Powell’s road map, she concludes, “is as valid for the Left as it was for the Right.” And she appends a public memo of her own, addressed to “Progressive Americans” and calling for a well-funded infrastructure on the left, reformed voting laws and, of course, those “good” judges.
Fredrickson may be correct in her political analysis. But this all seems more a fix for American progressivism than for American democracy.
In the first Democratic presidential debate in June, a moderator asked the candidates to name the essential issue they’d focus on first as president. Climate change came up. A middle-class tax cut. A family bill of rights. Ending gun violence. And Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Ind., gave an answer close to the spirit animating this book genre. “We’ve got to fix our democracy before it’s too late,” he warned. “Get that right [and] climate, immigration, taxes and every other issue gets better.”
Political reforms, electoral design, campaign-financing legislation — these may not have the visceral appeal of debates over gun rights or taxation or the environment, but they are just as critical, even more so if we consider that a functional democracy is needed to tackle all our other challenges. “If we cannot summon the courage to defend our founding values,” Diamond warns, “the light of the American experiment may dim, flicker, and go out.”
Trump’s eventual departure may indeed be necessary before reform is possible, as Diamond suggests. But citizens concerned about democracy have already been waiting — be it for Trump to self-destruct, Congress to impeach, Republicans to stand up, the base to shake loose, the opposition to coalesce, or Mueller to save the day. (Reminder: None of that has happened.) And a strategy that laments yet hopes to mimic the undemocratic instincts of one side to uphold the political preferences of another feels shortsighted.
These are two well-intentioned books on the challenges to American democracy. One appears thorough yet insufficient; the other determined yet narrow. And here we are still.