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Columns, Opinions

Walsh ’23: Widespread support for Trump shows that democracy is at stake

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, November 13, 2020

Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump last Tuesday with both a healthy electoral college margin and a significant popular vote majority. But the fact that more than 71 million voters chose Trump, the most anti-democratic president in American history, is more than enough proof that faith in our democratic institutions has eroded substantially. And if we fail to recognize this reality, populist demagogues could become commonplace in American elections. To begin restoring trust in the system, a Biden administration must pursue bold change to improve people’s livelihoods. 

In democratic countries like the United States, a government’s legitimacy — that is, the popular acceptance of an administration  — tends to come from a faith in the fairness and functionality of the system. And the survival of democracy requires that, as long as there is no evidence that anyone has cheated the electoral system, all stakeholders (be they voters or politicians) agree to accept the results that the system produces. A president who rejects this duty is simply anti-democratic. Equally important, for a country to remain democratic, everyone must concede to the decisions of fair democratic processes ― even if they come into conflict with their ideological and personal interests. If a candidate makes a credible threat to democracy, voters ought to vote against them, regardless of their political alignments.

Those who voted for Trump rejected these core tenets of democratic participation by enabling his anti-democratic behavior. Despite the overwhelming evidence that voter fraud is rare, the Trump administration floated a myth that mail-in voting would result in massive fraud in favor of Democrats. And as state legislatures passed vote-by-mail laws during the summer, Trump intensified his rhetoric, going so far as to refuse to promise a peaceful transfer of power. The peaceful transition between presidents has been an unbroken norm as long as the presidency has existed in the United States. It even occurred after Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent John Adams in 1800, an election often regarded as one of the most bitter in the country’s history. And there’s evidence that this tradition is important for upholding democracy elsewhere in the world as well, so even a verbal threat to the peaceful transfer of power shows a lack of respect for fundamental democratic norms. A vote in favor of Trump, therefore, reveals a lack of commitment to upholding democracy.

In August, Postmaster General and Trump mega-donor Louis DeJoy began to make significant changes, likely intended to slow down the mail. The changes were enacted as Congress was negotiating its second round of an economic stimulus, which Democrats hoped would increase funding for the USPS to handle mail-in voting. In an August interview with Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, Trump even admitted that he was holding up the stimulus negotiations because he objected to the inclusion of greater USPS funding. While Trump has not been the only obstruction to a second stimulus (Congress has yet to pass anything), he still tried to use the power of the presidency to compromise an apolitical bureaucratic agency and tilt the election in his favor. It was likely unprecedented. Yet, this was no dealbreaker for the 71 million and counting Americans who voted for Trump. 

Trump has waged many more attacks on democracy that date back to the very beginning of his presidency. But the two I’ve mentioned are the most recent and the most alarming. A democracy can weather a gutted civil service, a diminished ability to discern fact from fiction or a president that lies all the time. But once the electoral system — the very means by which the government becomes representative of the popular will — is compromised, it becomes hard to call a country truly democratic. 

Stable democracies are reliant on a trust in the validity and fairness of the system. The theory goes that even in bad times and amid incompetent administrations, most voters remain committed to democracy. That means rejecting anti-democratic candidates like Trump. But given the large support for Trump on Nov. 3, it’s clear that many Americans are no longer fully committed to upholding democracy. Whatever they liked about Trump, be it his staunch conservatism, personalistic style or rejection of common political decorum, was more important to them than the integrity of our republic. 

Donald Trump is a symptom of a government that has failed to improve the livelihoods of its citizens. His continued popularity reveals that even in supposedly stable democracies, performance can’t dip too low if democracy is to remain. In the U.S., despite widespread reverence for democratic ideals, low government performance has lasted for so long that many are now willing to vote for an anti-democrat like Trump if they believe he will make their lives better. And the evidence for declining trust in government in the past 50 years in the U.S. couldn’t be clearer, thanks to Watergate, political polarization, congressional gridlock and ever-growing economic inequality. Had there been stronger government performance over the past 50 years, it’s likely that many voters would have had an easier time rejecting a demagogue like Trump last week. Instead, they saw him as an antidote to the country’s myriad problems. 

Thus, we can’t take it for granted that people will trust the system and reject anti-democrats. We need to give them a reason to do so. Preserving the status quo of the last 50 years is not enough, for it will only perpetuate the trends that eroded democratic trust in the first place. 

Rather, the U.S. needs fundamental policy changes to restore faith in the system and prevent budding authoritarians like Trump from ever ascending to office again. If the Biden administration makes bold efforts to diminish income inequality, it could improve the livelihoods of many Americans and elevate their trust in both government and democracy at large. But if Republicans retain control of the Senate, and bold economic action proves difficult, the next best option for Biden is to find common ground with the other side. Since congressional gridlock erodes trust in government, promoting bipartisanship — that is, showing that the government can actually get things done — could increase trust and decrease the demand for a strongman like Trump. 

There’s evidence that citizens’ declining trust in government may make them wary of initiatives that increase the size and power of the federal government. But is there an alternative option? If the Biden administration fails to make people’s lives noticeably better, then trust in the system will stay low, and we’ll remain prone to electing anti-democratic demagogues like Trump. Democrats must aim high and do everything in their power to enact change — because democracy may quite literally depend on it. 

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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