There has been a huge amount of hand-wringing in recent years over the state of global democracy, with the rise of authoritarian great powers like Russia and China and the evident backsliding of both new and long-established democracies around the world. Much of this angst is well-deserved and understandable, but in the end I think a lot of it is overdone. A full account of recent developments needs longer treatment, but I would make these quick points:
· Both Russia and China are less impressive than they appeared a few years ago. Russia is on the back foot in Ukraine, and China is seeing a huge slowdown in its economic growth. These setbacks are due to the poor decision-making intrinsic to authoritarian government.
· There has been too much alarmism about the rise of “neo-fascism” in Europe. It is true that right-wing parties have made gains in Germany, Italy, and Spain, but they have also seen setbacks in the Czech Republic, Finland, and elsewhere. More importantly, as Sheri Berman has pointed out, those that are in power have moderated substantially and now resemble traditional conservative parties more than radical populist ones.
· The failure of much of the Global South to support Ukraine against Russia is disappointing but in many ways not surprising. Brazil, India, and South Africa all have reasons for this reticence, but they remain democracies and for all their problems are not being tempted by an alternative political model.
· Latin America has seen the rise of left-wing governments in recent years, but the more radical plans of new leaders in Chile, Colombia, and Peru have been stymied by their lack of broad popular support. What we are seeing in many places is a deterioration in the quality of government, rather than a qualitative shift to a new, alternative model of political order.
There is more to say about other parts of the world, but the place I want to focus on is the United States, because it is here that I think the most vivid threat to democracy exists.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
There are two levels to the current threat. The most obvious one lies in the fact that the leading candidate for the Republican Party in next year’s presidential election is an individual who tried to steal the 2020 election. This has not diminished Donald Trump’s appeal in the eyes of his core followers; indeed, it has burnished his credentials as a victimized outsider. Perhaps more dismaying is the fact that many less committed voters continue to see next year’s election as a normal presidential contest, in which they are being asked to choose between two candidates on the basis of policy preferences and judgments of character.
This is not the choice Americans will be making. If they re-elect Donald Trump, they will be approving an individual who has done everything he can to undermine the most basic democratic institution in our system. They will be voting to overturn not a policy, but an institution on which the Republic depends. Some voters have taken a “plague on both your houses” attitude and will opt for third-party candidates like those from No Labels, a position that fails to recognize the gravity of the choice in front of us. There are plenty of things one can complain about with regard to President Biden’s leadership and personal situation, but none of these comes close to being of comparable weight to the consequences of affirming a not-so-hidden authoritarian as leader.
At this juncture, Donald Trump is facing multiple indictments for multiple crimes, and will face many more charges both at a federal level and in Georgia. We will be treated to the spectacle of a presidential candidate sitting in the dock during election season, with vivid details of his bad behavior in the nightly news. While his popularity has held up so far, he may not survive this.
However, there is a second level of threat that will exist if a Republican is elected next year, regardless of who that individual is. A very important piece in the New York Times outlined the party’s plans to centralize power in the office of the president. This would mean ending the wall of separation between the president and the Justice Department and attorney general, making the latter a weapon available to future presidents. This is something Trump has explicitly vowed to do in order to take revenge on his perceived political foes. Under the theory of the unified executive, the president would also gain sole control over the country’s multi-member commissions like the FCC or SEC.
This would be bad enough, but in itself would not make the President more powerful than, say, a British Prime Minister. The more insidious threat lies in the promise by present-day conservatives to end job protections for all federal workers, allowing a future president to fire as many career civil servants as he wished. The purpose of this would be to completely undermine and gut the so-called “deep state,” and to replace existing bureaucrats with loyalists—people beholden not just to the Republican Party, but to the person of the president.
This plan was adumbrated at the end of the Trump administration in an executive order creating a “Schedule F” that would turn all existing federal employees into “at-will” workers who could be fired without cause. This order was reversed early in the Biden administration, but is at the center of future Republican plans to “reform” the government.
Attacks on the “administrative state” have been a staple of conservative thought since at least the 1930s. The notion that the bureaucracy is out of control and needs to be reined in by Congress has merit in certain instances. The Left has its own version of this critique, focusing not on domestic regulatory agencies but on the national security bureaucracy. All of this has been fed by Hollywood and a popular culture that feasts on revelations about hidden conspiracies at the heart of American government.
As I outlined in my “Deep State” series, overreach by the administrative state is hugely exaggerated: the problem lies not so much in the bureaucracy, but in Congress itself which has not lived up to its responsibility to exercise the powers it has to direct the bureaucracy. The political problem is that there is no one willing to provide a counter-narrative to the anti-statist rhetoric we see all around this.
So let me state this very clearly. No modern liberal democracy can survive and function well without a strong, professional, nonpartisan administrative state. It is the very foundation of modern government. It is a complete fantasy to think that the American people can govern themselves directly without delegating substantial authority to expert agencies. We are still in thrall to a vision of the New England town hall meeting in which citizens directly participate in self-government. This can and should still happen at a local level, but it is not possible to govern a complex modern nation of more than 330 million people in this fashion. Citizens should be ever-vigilant about protecting their rights against state overreach, but there are clear mechanisms for doing this that do not involve cratering the entire bureaucracy.
Republicans are planning to turn back the clock on American government to what it was before the 1883 passage of the Pendleton Act, which for the first time created merit-based requirements for the hiring and promotion of civil servants. Between the election in 1828 of our first populist president, Andrew Jackson, and the Pendleton Act, American government was characterized by the “spoils” or “patronage” system, in which virtually all federal employees got their jobs as the result of a payoff from an elected politician. This was a period of deep corruption and incompetent government, in which offices turned over with every election that brought a new party to power. The damage was limited only by the fact that the federal government didn’t do much in this era: it did not regulate securities, certify pharmaceuticals, control air traffic, forecast the weather, launch satellites, make Social Security and Medicare payments, regulate banks, or manage the money supply. There are many problems with the American government, but they will not be solved by pretending that these functions can be performed directly by “the people.”
American democracy is in greater peril at the present moment than in most other developed democracies. What happens here matters a great deal to global democracy, given America’s size and power, and the model that it presents to the rest of the world. Americans need to recognize that they will be facing a choice next year not between two normal policy and personnel alternatives, but between their existing democratic institutions and a leap into the dark of potential institutional chaos. This is deeply ironic, because the United States is coming out of the Covid pandemic is doing better economically than it has been for many decades. And yet many fellow citizens think that things have never been worse.