Furthermore, as Jonathan Swan of Axios reported on Sunday, President Trump’s takeaway from his Senate acquittal is that he’s bulletproof. “Trump and his entire inner circle convey supreme self-confidence, bordering on a sense of invincibility,” according to Swan. “Over the past month, Trumpworld’s sense of being unbeatable has only grown. This is partly because the president sometimes defines victory in narrow terms.” The idea, perhaps best exemplified by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), that Trump has learned his lesson from the impeachment episode is risible.
So is that it for American democracy? Nah.
I do not want to minimize the illiberal nature of the Trump administration. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pitches a fit because an NPR reporter acts like a reporter and then tries to claim his behavior is perfectly consistent with press freedom, he is, you know, lying. That is not good for America. Neither is the reported effort by Trump to punish former national security adviser John Bolton for writing a memoir confirming everything the House managers said about Trump.
These petty acts of revenge, while troubling, are not the end of the republic. And even if elected officials seem to be behaving in as self-interested a manner as political scientists would predict, American politics is about more than just those officials. The American public also matters, and they have not taken too kindly to this sort of swamplike behavior.
Erica Chenoweth, Jeremy Pressman and others have detailed the rise in organized political protests since the start of the Trump presidency. This kind of civil society activism mattered in the 2018 midterms and will matter for the 2020 election and beyond. Lara Putnam and Gabriel Perez Putnam made a similar point last summer in the Washington Monthly: “Something different has been happening in Trump-era America. The local grassroots groups that arose after the 2016 election have developed a strikingly effective infrastructural mix — including new local groups, reanimated Democratic Party structures, and passionate campaigns for previously ignored local and legislative offices — to create a dense, overlapping system with multiple on-ramps to electoral action.”
Contrary to the fears of some, it would appear that Americans opposed to Trump’s brand of illiberalism are doing something about it. And regardless of what one hears about divisions among Democrats, the latest Voter Study Group findings by John Sides and Robert Griffin reveal that “Democratic primary voters are fairly unified in their favorable views of the leading candidates [and] they are even more unified in their opposition to President Donald Trump.”
Similarly, for all the talk of democracy vanishing in the United States, neither experts nor the public actually believes this. A group of political scientists founded Bright Line Watch to examine whether both political scientists and the public perceives the erosion of American democracy. Their latest wave of surveys, from the end of last year, found that “perceptions of the overall performance of American democracy remain stable among both experts and the public since we began surveying each group.”
The rise of populism has made it fashionable among political scientists and the general public to argue that there are fewer differences between democracies and autocracies than previously thought. It is certainly true that the picture is not as black and white as it used to be. Last month, however, Elizabeth N. Saunders and Susan D. Hyde published an outstanding review essay in the journal International Organization that is a must-read for political scientists. They argue that although democratic leaders might be able to reduce domestic constraints on their range of behavior, they are still more constrained than autocracies most of the time: “Our reading is that the tone of research on autocracies in [international relations] is often too optimistic, while the tone of research on democracies is sometimes too gloomy.”
The same could be said of the current tone of political discourse about the state of the American polity. Things are not great. But they are also not as bad as one would infer from online debates, which might be a bit out of touch.
Congress might refuse to demonstrate any kind of political will. The rest of the country is starting to make a different choice.