Authoritarianism often begins as democracy. A democratic system’s biggest flaw is its vulnerability to the tyranny its citizens are willing to either tolerate or ignore outright.
If you don’t support democracy because it gave us Donald Trump, then you never truly believed in democracy at all. But that doesn’t mean you have to support Donald Trump.
In fact, the opposite can be true.
The reality is many of us never really considered it. I don’t mean Trump as president, though many of us never took that seriously either. I mean democracy.
We are not a direct democracy (one reason why the Electoral College exists), but rather a constitutional republic. It is, however, a democratic system: a government for the people by the people.
Except we forgot.
Too caught up in partisan point scoring and identity politics, many of us forgot how our government was supposed to actually function.
In order for our democracy to be effective and efficient, the checks and balances both within government and without it must be working in concert with one another.
And they weren’t.
Instead of governing by consensus and with bipartisan congressional action, too often President Obama was left to use executive action. Part of this was the fault of obstinate Republicans in Congress, and part of this was the president’s unwillingness or inability to sell his own policy positions. It’s a flaw he freely admitted to in recent months as he reflected on his presidency.
A polarized political media was too busy staving off the death of its business model to realize they were covering politics in a way beneficial to consumerism but not to the public good.
And politicians were politicians. They reacted to all of this by worrying more about who wins the argument than helping the American people.
Trump has a chance to change all of that—though not on purpose. And not in the way he seems to hope.
People are watching. The world is watching. More importantly, citizens of the United States are watching, carefully tracking Trump and Trumpism.
We have a chance to grow as a democratic nation because we have a chance to grow as a people. My guess is at no time in modern US history will every piece of legislation be more publicly scrutinized and studied.
I had a friend recently return from Germany saying she was so surprised with the ease people spoke about our election. People could have political discussions freely not just because they could intelligently articulate their point of view, but because they were able to shirk off the vitriol we assign one side of the argument with the other in this country. An ideological disagreement didn’t devolve into name calling and demagoguery.
When I was in elementary school, my family took a trip to Paris. We went to visit the Arc De Triomphe but it been taken over by a group of protesters. They were protesting an election somewhere in the Muslim world, far from the streets of Paris. Police in riot gear littered the Champs-Élysées and protesters were being bused out by the hundreds.
We asked the hotel manager about the protest. He looked up and said flatly, it happens about once a week.
Advocacy and resistance are part of political culture everywhere in the modern world and it had been missing from the U.S. in large numbers for decades. Occupy Wall Street was a flash in the pan and never truly brought about the kind of meaningful change it sought.
The irony is the United States were founded on the principle of a fair and open government, on the idea that tyranny is a constant threat and we ought to be perpetually vigilant. Our founders were inherently dubious of governmental power. Our independence was based on government overstepping its just bounds.
When I saw the videos from Women’s Marches around the country my first thought was that trip to Paris, how engaged a group of people were to protest an election that had happened thousands of miles away. We saw that around the world with anti-Trump marches, but also that level of engagement from our own citizens.
I wrote back in the fall about how a Trump presidential campaign had caused the political media to wake up. There were legitimate scandals to investigate, moral questions to interrogate, and a candidacy to vet in a way we don’t normally see or at least haven’t seen in years.
But it’s not enough.
Some aspect of the resistance to Trump will always be partisan. That’s not only reasonable, but necessary. It’s imperative in our governmental system that the minority party offer resistance to the ruling party to prevent tyranny. But we’ve also seen pushback from a number of prominent conservative media outlets. Will Republican politicians do the same? And how long will it take? How bad must it get?
An enthusiastic, informed, and engaged populous will help both the Democrats and Republicans act in a way that reflects the true will of the people.
With that in mind, let me offer one point of caution. Hundreds of thousands took the streets to protest Donald Trump, a much larger crowd than came to cheer on the president at his inauguration. That does not mean the “will of the people” has spoken.
Millions cast ballots for Donald Trump. Yes, he lost the popular vote, but he won the only voting system that matters: the electoral one. No, it wasn’t a landslide win no matter what he says, but it was a legitimate and democratic win.
Protests can’t and don’t change that. He’s still the president and it doesn’t mean the Republicans, who won a resounding victory in Congress regardless of the presidential popular vote outcome, don’t have a constituency to represent.
All of that is to say, an engaged populace works both ways. Winning the battle of who has a bigger protest is not the end of the story (no matter what POTUS says). The Democrats and Republicans will hear the voices of their constituents. This is a good thing for our democracy.
Hundreds of thousands also marched in D.C. in support of pro-life legislation, something the Trump administration has already taken swift action to accommodate.
Public opinion polling consistently finds capping refugee and immigrant numbers, as well as Trump’s various plans for Muslim immigrants, have always had stronger numbers than most in the media and on the left expected or hoped for.
Those voices will be heard as well. Ideas must find champions and battles must be waged over who has not only the best ideas but those which are most morally just. That a broad swath of Americans support something doesn’t mean they’re right to support it. That’s why we elect leaders. That’s why we have a republic. History has proven this a hundred times over.
Resistance in this country isn’t just to government itself, but to ideas and ideologies, along with the people who represent and perpetuate them. It makes us all stronger.
Public discourse, discussion, and ultimately adjudication of ideas is the foundation of a healthy and strong democracy.
It’s like any workout: The more resistance you add, the stronger it becomes over time.
To borrow a phrase from the protests, “This is what democracy looks like.”
People don’t get to vote on everything, you vote on people to represent you. This is precisely why all people, even Democrats who agreed with many of the executive actions taken by President Obama, ought to be dubious of governing by fiat.
When the president can, with a quick flip of his pen, make it nearly impossible for the United States to help in the greatest refugee crisis of our day, it should concern every citizen.
It was easier when President Obama sat at the head of our democratic system because even though there were those who disagreed with him ideologically, they believed he would govern faithfully, legally, and with some level of moral foresight.
That is not the case with President Trump and he has already been accused of a slew of ethical and constitutional violations. It’s worth nothing there isn’t a legal consensus on any of this as there’s very little historical legal precedent to go on.
Interestingly, Trump can and is swayed by public opinion. Outcry over a Rudy Giuliani cabinet position cost the former New York City mayor a post. Ditto for Trump’s gag order of the EPA.
It’s a near certainty public outcry caused the White House to soften its stance on green card holders as part of its executive order on refugees and immigrants from a group of majority-Muslim countries.
Our voices are heard, and perhaps ironically, it’s Trump’s very tempestuous demeanor that makes him unpredictable (and potentially scary) that also causes him to put his finger in the wind to make decisions.
But this is why we have a democracy and not a monarchy. It’s why we should have always insisted on limits for executive orders, worried about our standing to carry out extrajudicial killings via drone strikes, and a host of other thorny issues on which liberals and conservatives alike have too long remained silent.
The irony of this is not lost on American conservatives. I suspect you’ve seen it either in writing or in your social media feeds. A friend of mine who works in politics in D.C. recently wrote on Facebook, “After 8 years in the wilderness, only a few more hours until Democrats re-discover their love of the Constitution, separation of powers, checks and balances and a distaste for governing by executive order!!!”
Republicans and Democrats can disagree on all sorts of things and still agree on the above (except maybe the wilderness part). It should never have been a question, but political power has never been wielded by a figure like Trump.
Perhaps we will finally take ownership of our political destiny.
We’ve taken for granted that our system works, forgotten the lessons history has taught us and continues to teach us from around the world—the corrupting power of power itself.
It is fair to wonder how many who believe in expansion of government as a force for good have fully considered that same power in the hands of a tyrant.
Steve Bannon has said outright his goal is to blow up the state. It’s up to the American people to disarm that bomb.
If our democracy can be taken down by one man, then it wasn’t a very strong democracy to begin with.
But that’s why democracy is a unique system. The people have a voice. The system is only as good as the people in it, who engage with it, who drive it forward and refuse to move it back.
The people are the driving engine of democracy. If you don’t believe in it because Trump was elected, that is an indictment as much on you as it is anything else.
Regardless though, the future is not written. We must still blaze our own trail moving forward.
The world is watching. So too are the eyes of history.