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American Democracy Is Dying

"About every other country has suffered a constitutional collapse at some point; our number may well be up quite soon."

"One must conclude that the impeachment mechanism basically does not work. We are right now living James Madison's worst nightmare — a nakedly corrupt demagogue who is plainly incapable of discharging the duties of the presidency is sitting in the White House, and when the constitutional method of removing him was tried, it could not get even a majority in the Senate, let alone the two-thirds supermajority necessary." (Photo: Shutterstock)

This past week was a litany of democratic disasters. First, on Monday, the Iowa Democratic Party catastrophically botched its caucus. Second, on Wednesday, President Donald Trump was acquitted in the Senate impeachment trial, after the Republican majority voted to hear no new witness testimony. Every Democrat voted to convict, and every Republican except Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah voted to acquit. What's more, we learned the attempt of a Wall Street billionaire, Mike Bloomberg, to straight-up buy the Democratic presidential nomination has a real possibility of success, as he rockets past Pete Buttigieg in national polls.

A nakedly corrupt president who blatantly tried to rig the 2020 election now has full license to try the same trick again, and the Democratic Party has proved itself incapable of carrying out elementary electoral procedures every democratic nation mastered decades (if not centuries) ago. And now a case of behind-the-scenes oligarchic corruption has metastasized into full-blown democracy for sale.

American democracy is cracking up.

The impeachment trial result was always a foregone conclusion, given the cancerous infestation of corruption and screeching propaganda that infests the Republican Party. That is why I and others argued the Democrats should use the process to uncover as much of Trump's corruption and abuse of power as possible — particularly his violently unconstitutional looting of public money into his own pockets. At least Democrats could use subpoenas to reveal what Trump is doing, in great detail and at great length, if they couldn't get him out of office.

But Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi instead chose to focus the impeachment very narrowly on Trump's attempt to blackmail Ukraine into faking up a corruption investigation into Joe Biden, and to get it done as quickly as possible. This was indeed a spectacular abuse of power, and, according to the Government Accountability Office, a violation of the law. But it left out the clearest instance of Trump's corruption and put the Democrats in the uncomfortable position of appearing to defend Hunter Biden's genuinely corrupt buckraking off his father's position as vice president (as well as explicitly defending imperialist misadventures in Eastern Europe as noble protection of U.S. national security).

By making impeachment so narrow, and letting Trump get off so quickly, Democrats may have picked the worst of all possible choices. Trump avoided close scrutiny of much of his worst behavior and now has a blank check to meddle in the 2020 election with nearly a year left in his term.

Nevertheless, Trump still very obviously deserved to be removed from office even on the narrow grounds of the Ukraine scandal. Many Republican senators didn't even dispute that he had done it, basing their vote to acquit on ludicrously tendentious arguments that the misconduct wasn't bad enough to warrant being removed from office (Lamar Alexander of Tennessee), or that Trump would be chastened by getting off the hook (Susan Collins of Maine). Republicans reacted with scandalized outrage at the idea that senators who didn't vote the party line would be attacked by GOP hacks, only to sit quietly when Romney received a torrent of abuse for exactly that.

One must conclude that the impeachment mechanism basically does not work. We are right now living James Madison's worst nightmare — a nakedly corrupt demagogue who is plainly incapable of discharging the duties of the presidency is sitting in the White House, and when the constitutional method of removing him was tried, it could not get even a majority in the Senate, let alone the two-thirds supermajority necessary.

Now, as Duncan Black points out, if Barack Obama had done even half of what Trump has, Democrats almost certainly would have supported his impeachment and removal from office, because that party is not nearly as corrupt or brain-poisoned by partisan media. But a mechanism to remove a corrupt president that only functions when used against a party that is far less likely to be corrupt in the first place can't be said to work reliably.

The American constitutional structure is simply far too brittle and unwieldy. Even the worst president in history, Andrew Johnson, escaped being removed from office by a single vote after being impeached. What's more, a major reason why Trump got off is because the U.S. constitutional system has gradually funneled more and more power to the executive. The framers of the Constitution hated political parties, feared state tyranny, and tried to design Congress and the presidency as checks on each other to prevent those eventualities. The idea was each branch would jealously guard its power and thus stymie the "mischiefs of faction," but it turns out parties are vitally necessary to the functioning of any democracy, and partisan loyalty can easily trump any checks-and-balances motivation. If different parties control different branches of government, and the parties are polarized, instead of compromise the legislative process breaks down. This problem was previously dodged when the two parties both had liberal and conservative wings (hence making compromise easier), but as they have become ideologically coherent, with a conservative GOP and a liberal-left Democratic Party, compromise gets harder and harder.

But any nation still requires government, and with Congress hamstrung most of the time power flows to the executive and the courts. The powers of the "imperial presidency" which have grown like fungus over the decades are precisely those which Trump abused to stymie investigation into his misdeeds (especially by preventing testimony from his cronies that participated in the Ukraine plot), with the active assent of congressional Republicans. What abuses might he try next to keep himself in office? Instructing Attorney General Barr to open a fake investigation into whoever wins the Democratic primary in late October? Or hacking his opponents campaign's emails and dribbling out the most inflammatory private messages over a period of months? Straight-up rigging the vote count? The possibilities are limitless.

In short, the United States has a galloping case of authoritarian rot, in large part because the fundamental ideas motivating the Constitution are poles apart from how people actually behave. A political document drafted by people obsessed with putting limits on government power has fueled a tyrannical, unaccountable president.

That brings me to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. This party is in the first stages of picking its nominee, who will contest the only method still remaining for turfing Trump out of office — namely, the election this November. And at the very first contest, the party faceplanted in unprecedented fashion, botching the caucus worse than it has ever been botched.

Now, there were new rules and new numbers which had to be recorded (partly the result of requests from the Sanders camp for additional transparency), which surely made the caucuses more difficult to conduct. But the new procedures were mostly not that complicated, and the Iowa party has had several years to prepare. But instead, the party elected to use a phone app to report the results that had been slapped together in a matter of weeks, had severe security flaws, and had not even been given a full test before the day it was used.

Then when the app unsurprisingly failed completely on caucus night, the Iowa party headquarters apparently did not have enough people manning the phone banks to record the results in a timely fashion. Precinct captains attempting to call in their results were stuck on hold for hours (though to be fair, apparently 4chan trolls somehow got hold of the number and jammed it up).

The people contracted to build this app are part of an incomprehensible labyrinth of Democratic-connected nonprofits and consulting firms whose main purpose is to enrich party insiders. The primary figure behind the app, one Tara McGowen, previously worked for the main Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016. As Alex Pareene writes at The New Republic, "almost immediately after she failed to win the most important election she had ever worked on, McGowan managed to convince some of the wealthiest liberals in the country to shower her with money to produce ineffective trash."

But even after all the results had been delivered, the party still had tremendous difficulty actually tabulating the results. Days passed as results trickled in — and those that did were riddled with errors and arithmetic mistakes. (Election analysts are speculating that many of the caucuses may not have been conducted properly, and we may never have clear results.) And when it looked likely that Bernie Sanders would take the lead in both state delegates and the popular vote, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez abruptly demanded a recanvass. Sanders supporters understandably wondered if this all wasn't somehow semi-deliberate.

At a moment when the whole world was focused on the Democratic Party, wondering if it will be able to unite the anti-Trump factions among the American population, the party failed in truly spectacular fashion, undermined by a termitic infestation of corruption and insider self-dealing — and in the process sowed division and suspicion among the rapidly-growing leftist segment of its base. As Eric Levitz writes at New York, "those failures haven't just undermined the Democratic Party's attacks on Trump's incompetence. They've also inflamed the party's most wrenching internal disputes and demoralized its most ardent activists."

That brings me to Mike Bloomberg. The Wall Street billionaire (who made his money by assembling a quasi-monopoly on financial communication technology), has funded his campaign with $200 million of his personal fortune as of a week ago — a gigantic sum for a presidential primary but only a tiny fraction of his estimated $58 billion fortune. After the Iowa debacle, Bloomberg doubled his already-gargantuan ad spending and brought his staff up to over 2,000.

It is absolutely inconceivable that Bloomberg could be a Democratic presidential contender without his money. This is a guy who was a Republican until 2007 (well into his 60s), who endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 and thanked him at the Republican National Convention for starting the Iraq war, who has numerous sealed sexual harassment lawsuit settlements, and who reportedly plagiarized huge chunks of his 2020 campaign platform.

This isn't even the first time Bloomberg has bought an election. In 2008, he spent big to overturn New York City's term limits law so he could get a third term as mayor (and bought off the billionaire who had originally pushed for the limits by promising him a seat on a powerful city board), and spent a further $102 million to win the ensuing election. As my colleague Damon Linker argues, Bloomberg is without question a Russia-style oligarch whose campaign is "an expression of highly developed rot at the core of the American political system."

If Trump is undermining faith and trust in American democracy from the top down, the Democratic Party is undermining it from the bottom up, and the corrosive concentration of wealth in the billionaire class is dissolving it from the inside.

Americans often boast that the United States is the world's oldest democracy. It's a dubious claim, but it is true that the U.S. Constitution has been in continuous operation longer than any other. What we see today is the sclerosis of age. The founders made a decent effort for the 1780s, but constitutional design has come a long way in 240 years. American-style separation of powers has proved far inferior than European-style parliamentary systems. Literally every other country that followed the American model saw their democratic institutions collapse into dictatorship or revolution — indeed, when U.S. occupation forces set up governments in Germany and Japan after the Second World War they did not copy the American model.

I see two basic paths forward for the United States: Either a crusading reformist president and Congress breathe new life into the American system with a major overhaul of both its structure and economy, or a right-wing (or oligarch) president finishes coring out the few remaining elements of republican government and buries the American Constitution for good, auguring in a Napoleon-style period of overtly authoritarian rule. And given the absolute shambles the Democratic opposition has made of the 2020 campaign so far (not to mention the strong economy buttressing Trump's support) I would not remotely count out the latter possibility.

The end of American democracy would be a disaster, of course. But it may not last long. Dictatorships tend to be unstable, because they are incompetent, corrupt, and tend to suffer succession crises. Vladimir Putin has kept a grip on power in Russia for over two decades, but Napoleon lasted less than 16 years from the coup of 18 Brumaire in 1799. It goes without saying that Trump is no Putin, much less a Napoleon.

At any rate, all this is to say that we live in dangerous times. A lot of history may well happen very quickly in the next few years. Patriotic Americans should work to the utmost to defend our democracy, but failing that, we should also be prepared for to rebuild it from the ground up.

About every other country has suffered a constitutional collapse at some point; our number may well be up quite soon.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.

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