Much of the analysis of the 2016 Presidential election has focused on the specifics of the campaign: Donald Trump’s ability to appeal to angry white working class voters; Hillary Clinton’s “baggage” as a candidate; the oddities of the Electoral College system. However, these issues may miss the larger point altogether.
Trump’s victory may be less a portent of transformation of the political system and more the product of factors long preceding his candidacy. For those who worry that our democratic system is at peril, this risk goes far beyond Trump himself.
The election was so jarring because none of the normal expectations of electoral politics seemed to apply. Trump won despite disregarding long-standing political norms, overcoming personal disclosures that would have sunk any traditional candidate and giving little indication of how he would govern. His candidacy seemed in many respects more an assault on the political system itself than a forecast for what his presidency would be like.
In fact, the political system was already incredibly wobbly although we have been largely blind to that reality. And, more significantly, the weakness of our basic institutions is, if you reflect, the result of years, even decades, of undermining by well-organized political forces.
The decline in trust in government, reflected in the chart above, can be traced to events such as Watergate and the Vietnam War, as well as to the slowdown in economic growth in this country. Another significant factor has been the demonizing of government by politicians. Ronald Reagan’s critique of government as “the problem” opened the floodgates for that era. The drumbeat of attacks on Washington, on bureaucrats, on government overreach, has taken its toll on American voters.
The campaign against government has also been furthered by conservatives arguing that all taxes are bad, that they should always be reduced and never increased. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy that government is not capable of responding to the needs of the country. Infrastructure is crumbling, schools are in decline, the safety net is being shredded.
Additionally, Republicans who controlled Congress for most of Barack Obama’s term as president demonstrated a single-minded determination to prevent him from accomplishing anything. Voters saw gridlock and stalemate in Washington and attributed it to inherent failings of the political system rather than to a deliberate strategy to incapacitate a political opponent.
As a result, when Trump promised to “drain the swamp”, he was plowing ground that had been made fertile by years of systematic attacks on the very concept of government.
Another institution under assault is the media. The president-elect didn’t invent press bashing, but he certainly made an art form of it. While the press has always had its faults, the founders of our constitutional system still saw an independent media as an essential safeguard for a democratic system.
That institution is under siege from three directions and what its future in our political system will be is far from clear. One challenge is the rapidly shifting economics of the media. The Internet has undercut the traditional revenues streams and forced the press to reconfigure itself in ways that are still evolving. As a consequence, the press is left with significantly fewer resources and less capacity than it once had.
A second challenge is the proliferation of media outlets and disagreement about the very definition of news. Multiple web sites, bloggers and the appearance of “fake news” have created a cluttered environment for news consumers. Where once we could confidently describe Walter Cronkite as the “most trusted man in America”, no one can claim that mantel today. The phenomenon, well-documented, of people relying primarily on sources that reinforce their own views has altered the role of the media in this country in ways that diminish its ability to be the watchdog of democracy.
Finally, and perhaps most distressing, the credibility of the media has been seriously damaged. Some of that is self-inflicted but most results from constant criticism. Trump made the media a prop for his campaign and urged his supporters to disparage reporters at every opportunity.
The logical, or illogical if you prefer, conclusion of these trends, has been the assertion that we are in a post-factual era. Certainly, fact-checking of Trump during the campaign seemed to have minimal impact on his supporters. Now, some of his advocates are claiming that there is no such thing as facts, only perceptions and opinions.
My conclusion, based on these observations, is that safeguarding democracy in this country and avoiding the more ominous dangers of a Trump presidency will require more than the steps that have been generally discussed so far. The foundations, the basic institutions of our political system, have been under sustained and systematic attack for years. Without a common understanding of what is essential for a democratic system, we get the kind of destructive actions that characterized the election of 2016.
Finding ways to rebuild trust in our most cherished institutions is going to be essential if the United States is to have any chance of preserving the basic values of the constitutional system. Ben Franklin, after the convention in Philadelphia in 1787, was asked what sort of government the delegates had established. His answer, very much relevant today, was: A Republic if you can keep it.