[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 now 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. Continue reading