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American Democracy: Still the envy of the world

American Democracy: Still the envy of the world
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In the four years since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, America and the world witnessed a barrage of worst-case scenarios relating to Mr. Trump’s impact on American Democracy, and its role in the world. Reputable historians claimed he represented the coming of fascism. Political opponents accused him of tearing down democratic norms and institutions. The media tarred him nonstop as a white supremacist and a secret agent of Russia.

On the Democratic Party side, supreme confidence in a new progressive — “woke” — America inspired promises for all sorts of radical changes to the U.S. political system once they wiped out Mr. Trump and his Republican Party in the November election. The new Democratic Senate majority would end the age-old filibuster rule, eliminating any Republican opposition. New seats would be added to the Supreme Court to more than offset Mr. Trump’s three appointees, guaranteeing a judicial rubber stamp for President Biden’s policies and actions. New states like Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. would be added to the union, assuring future electoral-college wins and Senate majorities for the Democrats.

In other words, in their passionate desire to “save American Democracy” from future Republican Trumps, the Democrats — some of them anyway — were actually willing to unravel it.

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Then the 2020 election actually happened.

And in an instant, it became clear (to paraphrase Mark Twain) that reports of the death of American Democracy had been greatly exaggerated.

Indeed, the results of the 2020 election, and the 2018 midterms that came before it, offer textbook validation of the unique democratic republic that America’s founders invented back in the 18th century. The durability of the system was once again shown in the way it naturally pushed back against the worst instincts of Trumpism, while also checking the potential for a massive Democratic overreach in response.

In the case of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE, his tendency was to govern with the reckless rhetoric of a strong-arm dictator. But the political institutions and natural democratic checks — cornerstones of the American political system — created roadblocks every step of the way.

So, while President Trump may have wanted to create a “total Muslim ban” for immigrants coming to the United States, that initiative was blocked by multiple courts, significantly watered down, and targeted for annulment by the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in 2019. And though he may have used inexcusable language regarding America’s free press (“enemy of the people”), tanks were never actually dispatched to surround the New York Times building in Manhattan — if anything, the press in this county has perhaps never been freer and more rambunctious than during the Trump presidency. 

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None of this is by mistake.

To America’s founders, like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, one of the gravest potential threats to the republic was the rise of a corrupt demagogue-president who would use his “factious temper … local prejudices, or sinister designs” to cajole the American people toward tyranny. So, they put in place checks and balances between three co-equal branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial); ensured that national elections were never more than two years away; and handed Congress the most important power in all of government: the power of the purse.

And now, this supposed “American Hitler,” will simply return to real estate and reality TV.

And American Democracy will simply return to what it has been doing for the past 230 years (including during the Trump years): holding elections, fighting over politics, and debating what’s best for the future of the country.

But the 2020 election is instructive for another critical reason. Many in this country, mostly on the coasts, viewed the rise of Donald Trump as the cause of America’s political consternation in recent years, rather than as a symptom of deep underlying disaffection with the direction of the country, in both domestic and foreign policy. They also came to view strong opposition to Mr. Trump from within traditional Republican and conservative strongholds (like the white suburbs) as a green light to begin planning for a permanent Democratic-progressive majority.

This misreading, and the shift of the Democratic Party decisively to the left in response, accounts for the starkly mixed results of the 2020 election: Yes, Democrats took back the White House, but the election was otherwise a near-disaster for the Democratic Party. Not only will Republicans most likely retain the Senate majority by two seats (stopping any progressive agenda dead in its tracks), they also picked up roughly 10 seats in the House — and gained strength at the local level in nearly every state.

Again, none of this is by mistake. This is the very “gridlock” system championed by James Madison, the most important architect of the U.S. Constitution. When one power center seems to be gaining too much strength, the natural tendency is for countervailing forces to jump in the way. As famously remarked by Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, who was swept to power in the 1994 Republican midterm landslide, “My constituents… elected me [in 1994] to protect them from Bill Clinton. And two years later they reelected Bill Clinton to protect them from me.” If the Democratic Party does not moderate its promises and expectations, they stand to lose much more in the 2022 midterms, and beyond.

Nearly two centuries ago, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville stood in awe of what he called America’s great “experiment in democratic liberty.” He understood that what made American Democracy so “exceptional” in the world was not just that it was dominated by a mix of rowdy democratic passions and prudent middle-class values. It was that these forces operated within stable republican political institutions, which perennially check themselves.

Even in the chaotic “Age of Trump,” the wisdom of the American voter — and the genius of the American system — managed to fashion the most prudent of outcomes. The ongoing quest to create a “more perfect union” continues.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches international affairs and public policy at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).