Opinion

The ongoing assault on American democracy

Three worrying trends that suggest our system of government is in trouble

American democracy isn't quite dead, but it is getting awfully close. The signs are all around us.

The latest indication came last week in Lansing, Michigan. Legislators there decided to cancel their Thursday session and close the state capitol — not because they had finished their business, but because of death threats against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and the armed anti-lockdown protesters who have been made the state's other elected officials fear for their own safety.

"Michigan is a failed state within a failed state," Charles Pierce wrote for Esquire, and he is right: If the people's duly elected officials cannot meet and do business because they fear violence, then democratic government has been deeply undermined, if not killed outright. As Pierce suggested, though, this isn't just a Michigan problem. The trends that shut down the legislature there have been increasingly apparent at the national level for several years, and brought to a head by the coronavirus pandemic.

Democracy is complex and fragile. It depends on more than the assent of the governed, though that is a critical element. To survive, traditional American governance also requires accountability, adherence to the rule of law, and — at its most basic — the simple ability for citizens to vote for their leaders. Recent weeks have seen terrible developments on each front.

Accountability: On Friday night, the Trump administration announced its intent to fire the State Department's inspector general, Steve Linick — the latest in a series of IG firings that The Washington Post dubbed a "slow-motion Friday night massacre." Inspectors general are on hand to detect waste, fraud, and abuse in government programs — a vision of accountability that is anathema to President Trump's sense that the federal bureaucracy is meant primarily to serve his interests. In this case, Linick was reportedly investigating alleged abuses of department resources by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A few Senate Republicans have expressed concern about the firings, but unless they take some action, the president is well on his way to eliminating a layer of protection against executive branch malfeasance.

Rule of law: The president's efforts to wipe away accountability are of a piece with his overall project to undermine the fairness of the federal justice system in favor of a process that shields his friends — and himself — from legal scrutiny while threatening prosecution against Trump's political enemies. Attorney General William Barr is in the vanguard of the efforts, having the Department of Justice seek to dismiss the criminal case against Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — after Flynn had already pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI about his interaction with Russian officials. More than 2,000 former departmental officials have signed a letter protesting "political interference" in the matter — but even if a judge dismisses the motion, it is likely Trump will pardon Flynn anyway.

At the same time, the president is trying to criminalize his political rivals. In the last few weeks, he has baselessly accused MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of murder, and former President Obama of a conspiracy to undermine his 2016 election victory. Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. even went so far as to smear presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a meme — again baseless — suggesting Biden is a pedophile. Sunday night, Trump himself accused the media of "illegally smearing" him. At the very least, these accusations are slanderous. Combined with executive power, they seem like a dangerous threat to those who might criticize or contest the president. As former Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer has noted, it's likely Barr "will use his powers as attorney general to promote the 'deep state' conspiracy narrative." In other words, the Department of Justice is an arm of Trump's re-election campaign.

Elections: Now that impeachment has failed, the one hope Americans have to stop such abuses is to vote President Trump out of office in November. That may prove problematic in the pandemic era — the safest way to vote will be by mail, but Republicans have dedicated themselves to fighting initiatives to make that possible. Trump railed against the process during a meeting with the media last week, suggesting without evidence that mail voting is vulnerable to fraud. That follows years of conservative actions — neutering the Voting Rights Act, passing voter identification requirements, a virtual poll tax on ex-cons — designed to keep Democratic constituencies away from the polls. Voting is the simplest, most fundamental act of participation in democracy. The ability to cast a ballot, however, is becoming increasingly difficult.

Is there a solution to all of this? At this point, we are down to a few strands of hope — that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) can find other Republicans to take a stand against the IG firings, that the judge in the Flynn case will refuse to go along with Barr's abuse of prosecutorial discretion, that the number of anti-Trump voters will simply be too large to suppress.

Maybe one or more of those things will happen. Maybe not. And even then, it is no sure thing that they will be sufficient to stop the anti-democratic tide that has swamped our nation.

Many Americans understand that Trump and his allies have given the country's norms and institutions quite a beating, but they may not realize how close our democracy is to outright failure. The breakdown will not come all at once, in a single moment. Instead, constitutional governance might die a death by a thousand cuts. The shutdown of the Michigan legislature is a warning sign: American democracy is still alive, for now, but the end could be nearer than we think.

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