In Domestic and Foreign Affairs, ‘It’s the Institutions, Stupid’

17 November 2016, 0848 EST

tl;dr: This is a ~3.5k word essay on why the biggest threat posed by a Trump Presidency is to liberal-republican institutions at home and abroad. It suggests placing specific policy debates  on the back burner in favor of forming and maintaining a broad political coalition—one aimed at preserving those two aspects of American liberal order.  In brief, you can always change tax rates, but once democratic institutions and America’s web of international partnerships are gone, they will be monumentally difficult to put back together. Focusing on this kind of action is a matter of prudence; one hopes that it proves unnecessary. The essay does not discuss the fate of democracy in other countries, although that too remains a major concern. The piece collects and synthesizes arguments that I have made in other social media, most notably Twitter.

A number of people are sharing stories about Trump and his circle with the caption “This is not normal.” The pieces range widely in subject matter. They range from  apparent purges of insufficiently loyal members of Trump’s transition team to Kansas Secretary of State—and transition-team member—Kris Kobach’s discussion of “drafting a proposal for his consideration to reinstate a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries.”

They are right: none of this is normal.

My wager in this post is that Trump’s election may amount to an inflection point in the institutional fabric of our political system. And by this, I do not simply mean our domestic republican institutions. I also mean the broadly liberal-republican international order constructed after World War II.  Indeed, these two sets of institutions are profoundly bootstrapped to one another. This dual threat amounts to the greatest challenge to the American experiment since the early years of the Cold War.

The nature of this challenge requires us to set aside normal politics. It requires a broad coalition—of liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, and moderates—to come together with the purpose of monitoring and protecting the health of those institutions. Such a coalition will fail if it becomes divided by policy differences. At this moment, many of the standard debates—about taxes, the level of economic regulation, and size of the defense budget, and so forth—are of secondary importance. Indeed, their elevation to existential concerns helped bring us to this point.


As I’ve argued on Twitter, most Americans—and academics—operate with the assumption that political institutions are sticky. Once constructed, they prove difficult to radically transform—in the absence of huge shocks such as revolutions, wars, and economic collapse. And, in many respects, that’s a reasonable assumption. Institutions structure political competition and cooperation, create vested interests, and otherwise generate their own mechanisms of perpetuation.

In the American system, we have multiple “veto points” spread across our Courts, Congress, and the Presidency. Our federal system devolves a fair amount of authority to the states, making top-down change harder than, say, in France. Indeed, France is on its Fifth Republic, but the United States has enjoyed the same fundamental law—its constitution—since 1789. On top of that, we have a complex, professional bureaucracy that requires immense knowledge and willpower to set in a radically different trajectory.

All of these factors may rightly provide reason to discount my alarmism (and I am being deliberately alarmist). But this is not a good year to bet on the stability of liberal-democratic institutions. The Philippines, with its wave of extra-judicial killings and the deaths of elected officials, is seeing rapid democratic backsliding. Turkey looks in danger of quickly moving through the hybrid-regime phase into outright autocracy.

Americans generally look at democratic backsliding as something that happens “to other people.” As the well-known phrase itself calls into question, we believe that “it can’t happen here.”

But underneath the trappings of continuity—a longstanding continuous currency, the US Constitution, and the like—the United States has indeed undergone radical change. In practical terms, American institutions look almost nothing like they did prior to the Civil War.


Consider this way of thinking about the first 190 years of American political development: We first tried a confederation. We quickly gave up on that and built a semi-centralized federation. That federation collapsed into civil war. The victors established a more centralized federation. We further struggled over the terms of central authority through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. The post-war period saw the combination of a more national-state apparatus combined with a regional race-based hybrid regime. The Federal Government, pushed by a great social movement, ended many of the institutional props of those regional apartheid systems.


Moreover, during the long nineteenth century, the United States was a continental empire. It established settler colonies and displaced indigenous inhabitants. After the Spanish-American War, the US explicitly established an overseas empire. Vestiges of those empires still remain, even if many of the territories of the first became part of the American federation.

We could discuss many more examples. In fact, the history of ethnic, religious, and racial inclusion and exclusion itself supplies a great deal more empirical material. But all of this evidence would all point in the same direction: beneath the superficial stability of the American system—beneath its apparent equilibrium—lies great political instability and ongoing transformation.


The same is true of the post-war liberal international order, including the World Bank, the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). To these, and other, institutions we might add more recent ones, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), and the EU’s predecessor agreements and institutions.  Beyond these ‘named’ organizations lies a host of relationships, networks, partnerships, and alliances. In this diplomatic and military web, the US is at least primus inter pares.

By Barry Livingstone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
By Barry Livingstone (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Of course, many observers—and certainly political scientists—tend to think of international institutions as much less ‘sticky’ than their domestic counterparts. But right or wrong, we’ve grown accustomed to this overall topography of the contemporary international system. American policymakers largely take it for granted, as do many allies—and rivals.

Much of this order was designed around particular diagnoses of ‘what went wrong’ in the 1920s and 1930s. If the world was ‘never again’ to experience fascism and global warfare, it needed mechanisms to prevent global depression, to limit protectionism, and to make interstate war more difficult and less attractive.

How well this worked is a matter of some debate. Interstates wars have been markedly less common since 1945, and again since 1991. But the system failed to prevent genocide and mass deaths in China, Cambodia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and many other countries. And the Cold War threw a serious wrench into the machinery. It should go without saying that the current version looks rather different than the one developed in the 1940s, including very significant changes in the economic projects pursued by, say, the IMF.

At the same time, NATO did succeed in “keep[ing] the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” After the Cold War, NATO expansion to former Warsaw Pact states—and eventually to the Baltic states—was part of a second major wave of US-led order building.  One pursued—at least in intent—to prevent a power vacuum in central and eastern Europe, consolidate democratic institutions, and, overall, constitute western Europe as a “democratic security community” in which war would prove very unlikely. Although this is a matter of debate, I do not see NATO expansion and the EU project—particularly its extension—as ultimately separable. They facilitated one another.

By DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison [Public domain]

As all of this suggests, we can find a lot of upsides and downsides in international order—just like we can in any domestic order. Economic globalization has produced winners and losers. It seems highly correlated with rising class inequality. Although Daniel Drezner argues that “the system worked” in preventing the Great Recession from turning into the Second Great Depression, the rise of right-wing populism suggests that it did not do quite so well after all. Progressives and populists alike believe that the system has become captured by economic elites—and particularly by financial interests—in a way that both drove the crisis in the first place and exacerbated inequality in its wake.

I tend to agree with this diagnoses—which I will try to write about at a later time—but we should not confuse two different questions: “which liberal order?” and “whether liberal order?” Again, just like a domestic order, the institutions and instruments of international order can be used for better or for worse. Perhaps NATO expansion contributed to a backlash in Russia—the matter is actually far more complicated than participants in the debate often admit—but it also has created a security community among most of its member-states, and therefore restrained dangerous (and costly) militarized power politics.


This example highlights an important feature of contemporary institutional order. As Daniel Deudney argues, the post-war international order needs to be understood in light of the US republican project. One of the greatest long-standing threats to republican liberty lies in militarization. This is not simply a matter of Caeserism—of military leaders undermining and overthrowing republics.


Rather, great-power competition erodes republican institutions through a variety of mechanisms. It expands the coercive capacity of the state to maintain high-level military mobilization. It encourages the suppression of domestic dissent in the name of national security. And it, as Thucydides recognized, corrupts the culture of democracy through abuses abroad. It should be obvious that these three mechanisms have operated even within the liberal order. But they would prove much worse without it.

For example, imagine a world in which the United States could not count on ‘zones of peace’ and needed to worry about the threat posed by military capabilities of (merely) all of the eight largest economies. In nominal terms, that adds Japan (#3), Germany (#4), the United Kingdom (#5), France (#6), and Italy (#8) as large powers outside of the American security system.  And imagine a world in which the United States’ military campaigns looked like Russia’s in Syria.

If you are unmoved by such concerns, consider the significant blow to American influence that would result from a collapse of this diplomatic and military web. This is what Alex Cooley and I have termed Washington’s “exorbitant geostrategic privilege.” It is, in fact, a great deal of what sets the United States apart from its nearest great-power peers. Moscow envies it—and is doing its best to wedge it apart. Beijing would like to build something similar for itself.

In fact, the order is under a variety of pressures. For example, economic dislocation, particularly after the Great Recession, has eroded support for it among Americans and Europeans. It’s also under a variety of strains from ongoing shifts in the global distribution of power. It remains unclear whether new institutions will net undermine or enhance key features of the current international order.

China’s position might best be described as ambivalent: Beijing (in crude terms) likes the economic openness, likes sovereignty norms, and dislikes liberal rights insofar as they threaten domestic stability. Russia is much more hostile, and would like to see its interests accommodated or the system overhauled entirely.  But to the extent that more patrons—whether hostile or indifferent to these norms and practices—are available to regimes to play off of one another, this puts pressure on international liberal norms and institutions.

What is clear is that western powers—most notably the United States—will need to make adjustments to accommodate new powers or newly assertive old ones. What was less clear, until November 8th, was the possibility that Washington itself might become a problem for the arrangements that have served it—and its core allies—so well.


Which takes us back to domestic institutions. The end of the Cold War was supposed to herald a golden age for American democracy. Instead, it saw the continuation of old problems and the emergence of new ones.

For one, the end of the Cold War did little to unwind the so-called “Imperial Presidency.” The Clinton-Gore “Reinventing Government” initiative did lead to reductions in the ‘size’ of government.  There was something of a “Peace Dividend.” But any substantive gains on these fronts have been basically erased by the War on Terror.

In qualitative terms, executive power has only expanded since 1991. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have done anything to reverse course. Indeed, the only genuflection in this direction was Obama’s desire to replace the post-9/11 Authorization for the Military Use of Force (AUMF). It went nowhere, even as Obama stretched the limits of the existing AUMF.

Most politically conscious Americans are aware of the debate over the use of executive orders—and about the apparent hypocrisy of the political parties on the issue. In almost no cases did Bush or Obama actually exceed their legal authority—and neither did in an unambiguous way—but what’s at stake here is more than simple legality. It concerns the norms by which American institutions function.

These norms have been under sustained assault. Consider the gridlock that drove Obama to rely on executive powers. In the most general sense, we’ve seen a breakdown of basic governance norms. In the last six years, for example, the GOP congress has: refused to fix problems—even technical ones—with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) out of a desire to see it fail; flipped positions on policies of mutual agreement simply because the Democrats support them—we will see a number of these pass in the next six months, because GOP President; and declined to hold hearings on the President’s Supreme Court nominee on the grounds that the final quarter of a four-year term constitutes a “lame duck” session.

But, whatever Democrats may say, this isn’t only a story of the Republican party. Our post-war institutional arrangement is not particularly well-suited for extreme political polarization. And weaponizing that polarization creates extremely grave consequences. Not least of which is producing circumstances in which partisans—who know a candidate is unqualified, ignorant of the basic workings of our system and government, and quite possibly dangerous—vote for him or her out of tribal allegiance.

By Chris hare84 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0]
By Chris hare84 (Own work) [CC BY 3.0]

The rot is not simply at the top. The assault on voting rights that has played out in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and elsewhere obviously harkens back to the old Jim Crow. But its widespread acceptance among Republicans—and tolerance by people ‘who know better’—is as also about partisanship. That is, if African American were not some of the most loyal Democratic voters, Republican majorities would not seek to minimize their political power. And before the rants start, I need to say that I know that the reasons for these circumstances lie firmly with the Civil Rights realignment, and I know race is woven into the fabric of our politics. No question. But keep in mind that these efforts also target college students. Race undergirds all of this, but I submit that it is partisanship that facilitates, shields, and normalizes this process of democratic backsliding.

To take stock.

First, we have the breakdown of governance norms. Put differently, we have policy disagreements—over tax rates, subsidies, or the manner in which we regulate the health-care market—treated as existential threats to the Republic of such intensity that any tactic becomes acceptable.

Indeed, we have now seen presidents and presidential candidates who—whatever their faults and whatever their incremental contributions to executive overreach—are most certainly within the realm of normal (such as Obama, Romney, and Clinton) demonized as clear-and-present dangers to the country.

Second, we have voter disenfranchisement. Even if you believe that fraud exists, the scale of the ‘lost votes’ to restrictive voting measures easily exceeds that rate of fraud.

What else do we have?

We have Fox News.

And no, the problem with Fox News is not it’s conservative bias. Conservatives—along with those holding other political ideologies—have a right to worry about bias in other organs of the mainstream media. In fact, the US is a bit unusual. Many democracies have overtly partisan presses.

Rather, the problem is that Fox looks, sounds, and feels increasingly indistinguishable from what you would see on state-run media in authoritarian and hybrid regimes. When Obama was President, this didn’t seem so bad. For instance, what’s a bit of harmless ‘fun’ about the hidden ‘muslim image’ in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit logo.

But it becomes another matter entirely when Fox is not simply a vector for the neo-Birchers on the right, but when someone like Trump is President.

The kind of tribalism often found on Fox—our side is morally pure, except when they’re traitors, and their side is awful—is not limited to right-wing media. Indeed, if equivalent claims in Democratic media had a comparable reach, and Democrats controlled the government, we’d have cause for alarm. This kind of absolutist representational framework is dangerous. It justifies not only withholding protection from victims, but also victimizing them twice over as targets of political repression.

Even more dangerous, however, is alleging that people exercising basic rights of political action are ‘professional’ provocateurs operating on behalf of shadowy foreign interests—for example, foreign-born Jewish financiers.

Fox News:

10: Here’s a recent exhibit 👇. This is textbook delegitimatizing of civil society organizations & mobilization.

— Daniel Nexon (@dhnexon) November 15, 2016

Such rhetoric is literally part of the playbook found in post-Soviet autocracies. More broadly, this is what authoritarian and hybrid regimes do: they relentlessly demonize protestors and those engaged in open acts of dissent as tools of foreign agents. If you studied comparative politics, and saw a wave of this rhetoric appear on state-run media in a fragile democracy, you would be ringing alarm bells.

Roger Stone, advisor to President-elect Trump, has claimed that violence at Trump rallies was all ‘false flag’ work by ‘goons’ linked to, among others, Soros.

And that’s why we should be very worried, indeed. Our next Republican President is not Romney. It’s not Jeb. It’s not Rubio. It’s not Kasich.

It’s Donald Trump.


If you’ve made it this far, then you don’t need a comprehensive list of ways in which Trump’s rhetoric and offhand comments suggest a lack of deep commitment to democratic liberties and institutions  (you can find links to reporting across the political spectrum in his name). Nor do you need a reminder of the textbook demagoguery of his campaign, the strong indicators that he—or his inner circle—values loyalty above competence, his complete lack of preparation, his appointment of a white ethnonationalist as special advisor, the central role played by his children and son-in-law in shaping his government, or the known  and ‘known unknown’ financial conflicts of interests involving the Trump family.

On their own, these things are a cause for concern. Taken together, they should terrify you. They suggest an indifferent President, easily molded by his inner circle, and with an administration quite possibly staffed largely by loyalists who lack deep commitments to—or understandings of—the institutions of governance.* Add to that the massive powers of the contemporary Presidency—including the justice department and foreign policy—and the lack of checks created by undivided governance in an era of extreme partisanship. Then recall that Trump has openly campaigned on unconstitutional policies.

Indeed, despite the significant stimulus likely to flow from Trump’s initial policies, we are very likely to face a recession in the next four years. Also, international crises, terrorist attacks, and other shocks loom. All of these could encourage doubling down on the politics of division—and even repression.

In foreign policy, while Trump has made some efforts to calm the nerves of allies, his long-held worldview has been consistently antithetical to liberal order. He sees foreign relations through a short-term, transactional lens that places little intrinsic value on, say, NATO. Indeed, America’s European and Asian allies remain profoundly nervous and our autocratic partners pleased. Moscow sees great opportunities.

The optimistic case is that these institutional structures are too robust for any administration to break beyond repair. But the thing about institutions—domestic or international—is that you often don’t realize until too late that they’ve changed beyond recognition. Or how fragile they are until they collapse. The other thing about democratic norms and institutions is once they break, they’re very hard to put back together. What is true domestically is doubly true internationally.

In other words, we can change policies. If you’re a libertarian, you can hope to undo Trump’s likely military budgets. If you’re a liberal, you can rebuild the welfare state. If you’re a conservative, you can push for balanced budgets. Climate is a bigger problem—because major reversals now could make meeting optimistic targets very, very hard—but even here environmentalists can live to fight another day.

But if we lose our institutions, we are in serious trouble. Often, the United States has played the “White Knight” pushing democratization. What country can play that role for the United States if we head towards a hybrid regime? What all of this means seems to me quite clear: We should hope for the best—that Trump is a successful President who tames his worst impulses and receives wise council—but prepare for the worst.

That means building a broad political coalition with one goal: keeping these institutions alive. Doing so requires setting aside policy differences (in fact, on routine policy matters I see no problem with Democrats and country-first Republicans working with Trump). It requires putting country over party. And it requires doing this because of something basic we know about creeping authoritarianism and hybrid regimes—the strongest force for democracy is a united opposition; divide-and-rule tactics are the first resort of the autocrat. 

*Here there remains hope that the cabinet, at least, will include committed public servants with experience and independent constituencies. But the next level down still looks dicey.