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Are Democratic Institutions Critically Wounded by Trump?

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

After the Electoral College vote last month affirming his election, Joe Biden declared that “nothing, not even a pandemic or an abuse of power, can extinguish” the “flame of democracy.” His speech and the vote capped a series of victories for democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results.

Political scientists like us are trying to assess the damage from Mr. Trump’s baseless, inept and ultimately doomed attacks on democracy. Do the sharp rebukes from our courts and other institutions mean that democracy “survived,” and we can simply move on? Or does all the talk about what “saved” American democracy really show that it’s in deep trouble?

After all, that Texas lawsuit had the public support of more than half of the Republican House members. And it looks like even Vladimir Putin beat Mitch McConnell to congratulate Biden.

The trouble for those wanting to put this period behind them is that it’s hard to assess whether the damage is lasting until it’s too late.

The problem is we’ve been treating Mr. Trump’s attacks on democracy as if they are a pass-fail test. We should instead think of democracy as both damaged and resilient, like a forest after a powerful windstorm.

In our research, we argue that though all democracies are imperfect, one of their central virtues is that they are built to be resilient — to bend without breaking, even when elected leaders pull institutions in an authoritarian direction. But just because they’re more flexible doesn’t mean democracies can’t break. Resilience — the ability to adapt and keep functioning under strain — is a resource that needs replenishing, not a guarantee of safe passage.

It’s normal for institutions to face challenges from events or from politicians who try to use them for their own purposes. When institutions survive a stress test, they may come out stronger or weaker. Ambiguous laws can be clarified to withstand abuse; regulations can be updated; and public officials gain experience in how to prevent or defend against future tests. But it can take time for the strengthening to occur.

The 2020 election provides a clear example of democratic resilience to authoritarian pressure. Election officials and judges fielding legal challenges had to adapt not only to the enormous logistical challenges of the pandemic but also to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. His attacks — and those from elected officials in his party and from the conservative media — put additional pressure on election officials and poll workers, who faced threats, intimidation efforts and overt pressure to ignore the will of the voters.

Yet in most of the more than 10,000 electoral jurisdictions across the country, voters cast ballots without incident and Election Day was peaceful. International election observers praised the election as orderly and organized.

Both democracy optimists and pessimists can draw the conclusions they want to see from this example. Optimists can say that our election system faced the 2020 test admirably, and those who run it will be better prepared for future efforts to undermine their work. Pessimists can say that Mr. Trump’s attacks will leave lasting scars. Next time, election officials might give in to political pressure. Or the damage might be invisible, like a tree’s weakened root system, deterring people from running for office or working at the polls.

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Right now, there’s no way to know if the damage will be permanent. But we do know that democracies are better able to recover from such assaults because they allow for routine, peaceful replacement of leaders or parties. Dictators are more likely to be replaced through rebellion, military coup or civil war than through constitutional processes like elections and impeachment.

This is what democracy optimists get right. Mr. Trump’s abuse of foreign policy got him impeached. His spectacular failure to govern during a pandemic got him voted out of office.

But eventually, if stretched too far, democratic institutions will reach a limit. There may not be a dramatic break, like a coup, but democracy will be twisted and warped and cannot return to its original shape.

Take the example of Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega, after losing several elections, conspired to change the voting rules such that he was able to win the presidency in 2006 with just 38 percent of the vote. He has since moved Nicaragua further toward authoritarianism.

Here at home, Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat is his most blatant threat to democracy. He has generated worrisome precedents and undermined shared assumptions about what happens after an incumbent loses. His bizarre legal strategy has failed, but he has turned the base of the Republican Party and many congressional Republicans against valuing democracy for its own sake. And those values are the ultimate source of democratic resilience.

But has Mr. Trump stretched democratic institutions beyond recognition, or, provided that they survive their near-term vulnerability, could U.S. democratic institutions grow back stronger?

There are already many reform proposals that could help rebuild democratic resilience. Many are focused on what can be reformed: institutions and the rules that govern them. For example, the nonpartisan Election Reformers Network’s proposal to reduce conflicts of interest among secretaries of state, based on successful models in other countries, and other proposals to rectify Mr. Trump’s attacks on checks and balances across the government.

But a healthy, resilient democracy also requires sufficient citizen support for democracy across the political spectrum. And that, in turn, depends on both parties embracing a commitment to democratic principles — a tall order given the Republican Party’s recent behavior.

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The trouble for those wanting to put this period behind them is that it’s hard to assess whether the damage is lasting until it’s too late. Our democracy has survived for now, but we don’t yet know whether some crucial democratic institutions bent so far that faced with the next test, they’ll break.

Susan Hyde
The Berkeley Blog

This article was co-authored by Elizabeth N. Saunders, a political scientist in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

This essay was originally published in the New York Times on Dec. 15, 2020.