Democracy Is in Shambles -- or Is It?

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Supporters hold signs in support of Democrat Phil Murphy, who was elected governor of New Jersey on November 7

It would be easy to conclude one year after Donald Trump’s election that American democracy is in shambles.

Trump’s assaults on press freedoms, judicial independence, and democratic norms are unprecedented in an American president. His administration has set the tone for self-dealing and ethics violations at the highest levels of government. And the U.S. has abandoned its traditional leadership role promoting accountability, transparency, and liberal governance internationally, just when democracy is on the wane around the world.

Yet for all that, the one-year anniversary of Trump’s election has also shed light on the resilience of American democratic institutions and civic life, and on some silver linings. The nation’s democracy stress test has galvanized a wave of activists and candidates to enter the public square for the first time, and prompted a state-level push for new ethics, campaign finance and transparency laws, even as Washington remains mired in gridlock.

There’s still plenty for democracy advocates to worry about. The nation remains increasingly tribal, polarized, and suspicious of public institutions. Trump has done his best to widen the growing gulf between educated, urban elites, and minority voters, on the one hand, and less educated, white working class and rural voters on the other. The political parties are at a low point—the GOP caught in a civil war, the Democrats squabbling over what comes next.

Nevertheless, crises of governance have a way of setting the table for new ideas, and the magnitude of threat posed by Trump is prompting even some Republicans to mull reforms. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of course, will never abandon his absolute opposition to all political money restrictions. But Robert Mueller’s steadily advancing probe of Russia’s interference in last year’s election has aroused GOP national security concerns. Republican Senator Charles Grassley, of Iowa, has authored legislation that would broaden disclosures under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Arizona Republican John McCain has cosponsored a bill that would shed light on who pays for internet political ads.

“Almost every person involved in the process thinks the process is not only broken, it’s dysfunctional,” said campaign-finance reform advocate Meredith McGehee at a Common Cause conference Tuesday on advancing integrity in American democracy. McGehee, who handles policy and strategy for the bipartisan democracy reform group Issue One, said she no longer has to convince lawmakers, regardless of party, that the system is broken. The Trump presidency has underscored the glaring need for ethics and lobbying fixes, she noted.

The Trump administration’s ethics travails have also prompted state legislatures to pursue a wave of new ethics reforms outside the Beltway, Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said at Tuesday’s conference. South Dakota will vote next year on a ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to create an independent ethics commission. Missouri activists are backing a ballot initiative that would toughen state ethics, lobbying and campaign finance rules. Trump’s failure to release his tax returns, going against decades of tradition, has also prompted dozens of states to pursue legislation that would require any presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns to get on the ballot in that state.

The outlook for democracy reforms also brightened Tuesday when Democrats, who have led the charge for ethics, lobbying, and campaign-finance changes, decisively beat Republicans in election contests around the country, including in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. Virginia Democrats also made substantial gains in the legislature, led in part by a wave of first-time women candidates. More than a dozen Virginia candidates endorsed by Every Voice, which backs campaign finance changes, won their state legislative races and have pledged to push for legislation to get big money out of politics. Virginia has no campaign-finance limits, and the recent elections shattered fundraising and spending records there.

Democrats’ takeover of the legislature in Washington state, thanks to a special election win by Democrat Manka Dhingra, sets the stage for enactment of a stalled bill that would require more disclosure from politically active tax-exempt groups. Also in Washington state, all three candidates for city office running under a new Seattle law built on democracy vouchers won their contests.

There’s no guarantee that Democrats will retain their momentum through the 2018 midterms, or that even if they do, democracy fixes or more meaningful checks on Trump will follow. But for better or worse, Trump’s deep unpopularity has left him frustrated and stymied on several fronts. The courts have imposed some checks on Trump, and Mueller’s investigation may yet call his administration to account. But the ultimate check on presidential abuses lies with voters. Trump’s erratic and divisive presidency has alarmed voters, but it has also awakened them. That may spell better days for democracy ahead.

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