Most voters in the USA still care about their democracy’s institutions

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by Hans Dembowski

Why Trump lost decisively last week

Right-wing populists around the world – from Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Germany’s AfD, from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Italy’s Lega party – feel inspired and encouraged by US President Donald Trump. Given that the USA is the world’s most powerful country and was the most important promoter of democracy in the past century, it is of great international relevance to assess how successful Trump is. My impression is that the media tend to underestimate how bad the results the mid-term elections were for his camp last week.

I have read a lot of comments, and the common narrative goes like this: while the Democrats, who oppose Trump, managed to win a majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans managed to gain seats in the Senate, so both sides have something to celebrate. How this will play out in terms of who will presses ahead with their party’s agenda in ways that will help it to win presidential elections in two years, remains to be seen. Both parts of this narrative are fundamentally misguided:

  1. It does not make sense to compare House results with Senate results. All 50 states held House elections, but only one third held Senate elections. Republicans won Senate seats in states where they are traditionally strong, whereas the Democrats managed to flip house seats in places they were traditionally weak. Moreover, Democrats prevailed in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where narrow majorities gave Trump an overall majority in the electoral college two years ago. One should also keep in mind the system skewed in favour of the Republicans. The people of Washington DC and Puerto Rico are not represented in the Congress, for example. They would be unlikely to elect Republican legislators. In many states, Republican administrations have designed voting districts in ways that serve their political interests. The most prominent example is probably North Carolina. Judges decided recently that its voting map is so unfair that it has to be redrawn. The court had to acknowledge, however, that it was too late to do so in time for last week’s election. In that state, Republicans have now won seven of ten House seats with a mere 50,3 % of the popular vote. In the USA, states must redefine voting districts every 10 years, taking account of census results. That will happen before the next election, and given that the Democrats have become stronger in many states, they will have more influence on what the maps look like.
  2.  It makes even less sense to consider political agendas in terms of business as usual. Republicans did not run on any kind of meaningful legislative agenda. The president's personal priority is to shield himself from all sorts of investigations. In the past two years, Republican majorities in both houses of Congress ensured that he was not taken to account. Quite obviously, Democrats will now begin to scrutinise to what extent his family is benefiting the business terms from his presidency, to what extent it is raking in money from foreign governments and to what extent his election campaign cooperated with Russia in 2016. Trump refused to inform the public about his tax records, which only makes sense politically if he wants to hide something. Otherwise, it would be convenient to provide transparency to stop the discussions. It is striking that various former members of his cabinet as well as leaders of his campaign staff have been forced to quit in scandal, and several have  either pleaded or been found guilty in lawsuits.

The American people have empowered Democrats in two important ways. Both have great institutional relevance. The Democrats will be able to correct some, though certainly not all of the flaws of the voting system which puts them at a disadvantage so far, and they can finally exercise congressional oversight of the Trump White House. The question now is not which party will more skilfully draft policies and promote them, but what kind of dirt the scrutiny of scandals will reveal.

When Trump looks strong, right-wing populists all over the world feel encouraged. Accordingly, media coverage makes a difference in many countries. Portraying him as more successful than he actually is means to facilitate reckless political behaviour. Read accurately, the midterm results show that a strong majority of US citizens reject Donald Trump. The fight between Democrats and Republicans is increasingly one over whether Republican control of constitutional bodies allows them to manipulate constitutional principles. The fight used to be one over which party convinced more voters, but today it is obvious that Republican power increasingly depends on suppressing minority voters, preventing the investigation of scandals and trying to gain control of the courts. What is at stake is increasingly not the democratic mandate, but the democratic legitimacy of government agencies. This is definitely not politics as usual. The depressing truth is that the Republican Party is no longer truly democratic (small “d” of course). Trump has turned it into a right-wing populist organisation.

As regular readers will know, I think that Jan Werner Müller, a political scientist, has assessed accurately how populist leaders advance their authoritarian agendas. His book “Populism” is excellent. Some of the core points bear repetition. Trump has several things in common with most right-wing leaders that have been gaining power and influence in recent years:

  1. They claim to directly represent the people in the sense of a homogenous entity which they define as they please, excluding who they call “corrupt” elites or “parasitic” minorities.
  2. They deny the legitimacy of anyone who opposes them, whether in the media, civil society or state institutions. 
  3. They peddle conspiracy theories and blur the distinction between accurate facts and mere opinions.
  4. Their grand promises of restoring some kind of past greatness are impossible to fulfil, so they keep hounding scapegoats to distract from their fundamental dishonesty.

I think another common trait is that they deny climate change and oppose environmental protection. The background is that they actually protect vested interests. Their anti-elite rhetoric is deceptive.

Democracies depend on checks and balances. Only strong institutions can keep leaders with authoritarian leanings in check. The most important message of the midterms in the USA is that most voters want those institutions to be strengthened. That is why the Democrats have become considerably more powerful. If you don’t trust my judgment, check out what the New York Times’ Paul Krugman wrote.

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