The election is over. How did America do?
Renuka Rayasam, Myah Ward :: POLITICO
But if the president was finally losing his grip on Washington, there were few signs the base was anywhere close to leaving Trump behind.
Nearly half of Republican voters — 45 percent — approved of the storming of the Capitol, according to a YouGov poll. And while Washington devolved into chaos, tensions were flaring at state capitols from coast to coast, with precautionary building closings, evacuations and protests.
REPORT CARD — The Nightly reached out to people who have been thinking about our country and its future to get their take on whether the country’s institutions proved durable during the Trump years or whether they failed.
We asked: Did four years of Trump change your assessment of American democracy? Give our system a letter grade and point out any areas that have room for improvement. Here are their edited responses.
“Our fundamental human rights are not grants from the government, but rather gifts from God. The four years that I have worked with the Trump administration on issues of religious liberty have been very productive. I’m a tough grader!” — Ken Blackwell, former Ohio secretary of State
“The system of checks and balances did not work as most people assumed they would work. As president, Trump was able to use his power to reduce the independence of the judiciary and Congress. We seem to have survived the scare. But we all learned that U.S. democracy, though old, is fragile.
“The U.S. is clearly not the world’s leading example of democracy many assumed it was. But the American people, through their vote, did put a check on the destruction of democracy carried out by Trump and his enablers. Even Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell showed last night that, when the electoral tide changes, they are institutionalists.
“Needed institutional reforms include an election of the president through a popular vote, an overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, and a better use of the Voting Rights Act to curtail voter suppression. Gerrymandering needs to be eliminated.
“We could move voting to a Sunday, and make it a real civic feast. We could even make voting obligatory — a democracy without participation is a weak democracy.
“More broadly, we need to rethink the social contract between the people and the government. We got Trump because Hillary Clinton turned the Democratic Party into the party of Wall Street. Without a reduction in inequality, we will see new crises of democracy in the future." — Gerardo Munck, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California
“I’d give our system a grade of B mainly because the party system, which is not in the Constitution, became a two-party system — an effective vehicle for political polarization. This system has also meant that most of the time James Bryce’s 1885 American Commonwealth question: ‘Why in America do the best people not run for president?’ has remained relevant.
“Trump, who surprised himself and Democrats by winning the presidency, tried ineptly to keep his promises without assessing whether they were worth keeping. He posed as addressing the grievances of his disaffected supporters who didn’t understand that he had no coherent policy and not enough political understanding to succeed. An improved method for screening candidates, and ways to remove the lock the two parties have on elections, would improve the functioning of the system.” — Mary Frances Berry, professor of American social thought and history, University of Pennsylvania
“The election of Trump itself proved that democracy was in worse condition than we had believed: That Americans would choose a conman with no political experience was an alarm bell telling us it was already too late. I would now give the system a B-, putting it well below most other European and Asian democracies, though of course above most autocracies. The two most significant areas for improvement include the whole realm of kleptocracy, money laundering, campaign finance and dark money in politics, on the one hand, and the governance of the online world — not just social media but the internet more broadly — on the other. Both have been deeply neglected, both are responsible for huge distortions in public opinion and political behavior. Fixing them, or starting to fix them, would push us slowly back up into the democratic first league.” —Anne Applebaum, staff writer for the Atlantic and author of Twilight of Democracy: the Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
“The Trump presidency dealt a body blow to American democracy — certainly not fatal, but setting the stage for future challenges to the system that could continue to undermine it. My biggest fears are for the long-term impacts of all the concerted efforts he and his team have made throughout the campaign to cast doubt on the election system itself. Overall, I would say that Trump’s entire presidency has been toxic for American political culture, and yesterday’s insurrection was the final, brutal assault.
“His time in office has entrenched at least a third of Americans on either side of the political spectrum in alternate factual universes. Without some basic agreement on what happens, political compromise and respectful coexistence become difficult or impossible, and democracy requires these to survive.
“Perhaps the most important area for improvement in this regard is a national debate over proper regulation of hate speech and anti-democratic activities in social media and the media overall. Until 1987, U.S. broadcastmedia outlets were required to air and print views from both sides of the political spectrum in order to retain their licenses — some reintroduction of this balance should be considered, with a similar framework developed for online sources.” — Darren Kew, executive director and professor, Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development, UMass Boston
“To move forward and learn from this episode, especially the debacle of last night, we need to reassess our institutions and consider reforms to break the sclerosis of our two-party system — for example, ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts. We need to address the crass role of money in politics and unfettered capitalism giving rise to ever-growing income inequality, and in turn, the disempowerment of ordinary citizens. And we need to address head-on the historic racism that has blighted our country from its inception, and will continue to polarize us until we can come to terms with the fact that we are a multiracial democracy.” —Jennifer McCoy, political scientist at Georgia State University who focuses on polarized democracies and former Director of the Carter Center Americas Program
“My assessment of the U.S. democracy during the last four years is the following: Liberal component of democracy (which refers to checks and balances): downgraded significantly (from A to C). Encroachments/attacks on the media, another aspect of liberal democracy, has also been downgraded considerably (from A to C). Abuse of presidential power vis a vis the bureaucracy downgraded as well (from A to C). But I do see other aspects of democracy being strong and differentiate the U.S. from other countries in which we see serious democratic backsliding: Civil society is still very strong, vocal and well organized; the courts for the most part are very strong and independent. I believe these are the two assets upon which the American democracy might be reconstructed in the next years.” —Agustina Giraudy, professor, American University School of International Service, and the author of Democrats and Autocrats
“The beauty of our system is that anyone can become president. The problem is that with the election of Trump, anyone did. Churchill is alleged to have said that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the voter.’
“It looks like the guardrails have held up for the time being. But Trump has provided us a cautionary lesson. A guardrail might keep you from careening off a cliff if you fall asleep at the wheel of your Mini Cooper going 30 mph. But when you lose control of your 90-mph semitrailer while doing blow off the steering wheel, eating a Quarter Pounder and tuning in Mark Levin’s show on your CB, well, the guardrail is going to be something of a touch-and-go proposition. Like the Capitol itself, our system is more violable than it appears. Our democracy is only as healthy as its sickest participants.” — Matt Labash, former national correspondent for the Weekly Standard and the author of Fly Fishing With Darth Vader
“It’s been very fashionable to insist that Trump is a weak and ineffectual president, and that because of the formidable strengths of institutions which ‘held’ he was unable to do lasting damage. But Trump both corroded and weakened the very institutions that allegedly protected us — look no further than the Justice Department that is a shell of what it became post-Watergate — and also revealed the degree to which American democracy tuned on norms, rather than laws. The events of Wednesday’s insurrection illuminate the ways in which the storming of the seat of government to pressure lawmakers to throw the election to the losing party can be recast as a joke, as admirable free speech, as trivial norms violations. The same can be said of the Muslim ban, the shutdown, the Covid response. The institutions didn’t hold in any of those episodes, nor did they hold as Trump incited a crowd to invade the Capitol. We continue to confuse the fact that we are lucky, with the proposition that institutions are holding. A D- if we do not survive the next two weeks without a functional chief executive.” — Dahlia Lithwick, writer for Slate about the courts and the law, and host of the podcast “Amicus”
“I have always considered the strength of U.S. democracy to be based on institutions and the rule of law, not on human beings. But the Trump era has demonstrated the ways that institutions can be hollowed out and the rule of law degraded by individuals — either through sustained attacks, repeated falsehoods or simple failure to uphold institutional or legal integrity. One bright spot is that many local and state election officials — Democrats as well as Republicans — along with judges across the country, including those nominated by Trump — have stood up resolutely to defend the results of the 2020 elections against Trump’s baseless claims of fraud. This demonstrates a broad-based commitment to the defense of democratic principles. That said, great efforts must be made to restore confidence on all sides in the fairness and integrity of the U.S. electoral system.” — Cynthia Arnson, director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
“A lot of the institutions held and some individuals need to be commended, big shout out to the Georgia secretary of State, but the entity Homer Simpson called 'The Electrical College' absolutely has to go, and Puerto Rico and D.C. need to become states immediately.” — Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Lake Success
“The system is passing, but just barely, and on the brink of spiraling into failure. Trump was the best we could have dreaded in a would-be autocrat: He had no real managerial experience, no knowledge of how to work the levers of government, and no curiosity whatsoever at learning how to be effective. Setting aside his politics and ethics, he was astoundingly incompetent at achieving his goals. And, yet! Look at all the chaos and damage he wrought! I am devastated to learn how fragile —and apparently unprotected —our democracy is.
“Banks have to undergo occasional stress tests —and anything less than near-perfection is grounds for losing your banking charter and going out of business. These stress tests are a good idea, because, if nothing else, they impart a message: During an emergency, if you don’t do the right thing immediately, you’ll go broke. America just experienced a mild stress test, and it ended with rioters in the Senate chamber. I’m terrified about what happens when the next Trump —someone disciplined and curious, surrounded by a team who knows how to perform —emerges. We desperately need to strengthen our democratic and political infrastructure. And we must ensure there are consequences for those who bent under the stress test, lest that flexibility become the norm.” —Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, writer for the New Yorker and author of “The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better”
“The Trump presidency illuminated the tensile strength of our democratic system: judicial independence; state officials standing up to intense political bullying. But even more, it has illuminated its weak points, and provided a road map for future assaults on the system that have left it highly vulnerable.
“We learned that ‘institutional’ protections — our political parties, our political co-equal branch of government (as opposed to the judicial branch) — were willing if not eager to surrender their roles as long as they were given transactional rewards. More worrisome, we saw in the very assertion of independence, by courts and state officials, how easy it would be to alter the outcome of even moderately close elections. State legislatures, exclusively in the hands of Republicans in almost every battleground state, now know exactly how to restrict the franchise; the most zealous voters know where to remove ‘uncooperative’ officials through primaries, replacing them with officials happy to reject results they do not like. All this, it should be noted, to score an Electoral College victory, making it apparent that the Republican Party simply does not believe it can win the popular vote anytime in the foreseeable future — a belief that once would have been a disqualifying feature of a major political party.” — Jeff Greenfield, a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author
“The Trump years threw the dangers of our electoral system’s structural small-state bias into stark relief. The founders didn’t envision an urbanized America dominated by mega-cities with populations in the millions. The small-state bias of the Senate and Electoral College leaves the substantial majority of Americans who dwell in multiracial, multicultural cities politically under-represented and therefore vulnerable to domination by the overwhelmingly white, conservative, non-urban minority. This is plainly unfair, but it’s also dangerous. Fair democratic representation is about basic self-defense. It’s how groups gain the power to ensure that their basic rights and interests are recognized and protected. The fact that, in the end, America’s multiracial urban majority was able to mobilize its immense numerical superiority to just barely reclaim governing power is both a success and failure of our democracy. Unless the majority party swiftly deploys its new power to assure fair representation and banish minority domination, American democracy might not get another chance.” — Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center
“There are 13 days in the term left to fail completely. Our democracy got a four-year stress test and the flag is still there — but barely, and tattered, and missing two necessary stars for Puerto Rico and D.C. As for ‘improvements,’ a gut renovation is more like it. First we take stock of the rubble around us. Grieving is necessary. But when thinking toward shoring up our democracy, four areas of dire vulnerability that must be addressed: the pandemic, the economy, racial justice and the climate crisis. To that I’d add radical reform in social media to address the fact that our brains have been weakened by digitization and the Enlightenment itself is endangered.
“In at least one case, an edifice of democracy literally needs riot-proofing.
“Sometimes, when a person decides to get sober, they worry it’s too hard because they’ve lost everything: marriage, friends, money, job, house, health, all of it. The answer is always: Your path is cleared. That is America now.” —Virginia Heffernan, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, Wired and the Economist’s 1843, and the host of the podcast “Trumpcast” (series finale: Jan. 27)
“We will never have a truly representative democracy until we deal, as a nation, with white supremacy and systemic racism. The parties have taken opposing positions on whether the traditional social hierarchy should (or still does) exist. This is not a debate with an acceptable compromise position for either side —which is a dangerous position for a democracy.
“Even in the wake of a Trump-inspired violent and desecratory takeover of the national Capitol building, more than 100 Republican legislators continued to vote for the seditious attempt to reject a legitimate election. Anti-democratic forces are at the center of the Republican Party’s politics. In a two-party system, this is a devastating development.
“We haven't failed entirely, but were perilously close to failure.” — Lilliana Mason, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity
“Wednesday night’s vote to thwart the certification of Biden’s Electoral College win was in no sense an aberration or departure. It was the culmination of a half-century’s worth of norms-shredding and anti-constitutional impunity, peddled as merely the erratic course of the American right’s holy crusade to shrink government and foment culture-war hatreds. Insofar as a functional democracy must rely on a basic sense of historical continuity — to say nothing of a shared grasp of consensual reality, as conveyed in the conduct of popular elections — I’d give our institutions of public deliberation and constitutional oversight an F-minus, but I guess in the spirit of desperately needed new beginnings in Washington, I can be persuaded to provisionally upgrade it to an incomplete.” — Chris Lehmann, editor of the New Republic
“It is hard to give a letter grade to one of the world’s oldest and consistent democracies. When we look at the free world today, we see a lot of polarization and lack of trust towards institutions. That is worrying, sure. However, I am confident that President-elect Biden is a statesman who builds bridges in the U.S. and beyond. The last four years have also demonstrated that the system is resilient enough to stand strong and uphold many of the challenges it has faced. In our times when democracy, human rights and liberal values are questioned and challenged globally, U.S. democratic institutions and ambitions serve as a model and inspiration.” — Jüri Ratas, prime minister of Estonia, Center Party as told to Ryan Heath
FALLOUT GROWS— The latest after Wednesday’s Capitol chaos:
— Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for Vice President Mike Pence to immediately initiate the removal of Trump, declaring him a seditious threat to the country who can’t be trusted to finish even the last two weeks of his term, and lending significant weight to a mounting Democratic effort to oust the president.
— White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany tried today to distance Trump’s administration from the riots at the Capitol, even though the president had encouraged his followers to move on the building the previous day.
— Pence is expected to attend Biden’s inauguration later this monthafter overseeing Wednesday’s chaotic certification of the president-elect’s Electoral College victory.
— Elaine Chao is resigning as Transportation secretary, citing the troubling nature of Trump’s rally and the chaos that it later spurred.
— Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said today he would vote to remove Trumpfrom office if he were still part of the administration.
Nightly asks you: What are you most hopeful about heading into 2021? Send us your answers through our form, and we’ll use select responses in Friday’s edition.
BORIS BLASTS TRUMP— U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned Trump’s encouragement for the “disgraceful” behavior of his supporters Wednesday.
The comments, at a Downing Street press conference, marked a significant departure for the prime minister, who has so far stopped short of condemning the president personally. Johnson also attacked Trump for “consistently” casting doubt on the U.S. election result.
Johnson told reporters: “All my life, America has stood for some very important things, an idea of freedom and an idea of democracy and … in so far as he encouraged people to storm the Capitol, and in so far as the president consistently has cast doubt on the outcome of a free and fair election, I believe that that was completely wrong.”
YOU HAD ONE JOB — Matt Wuerker, our Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, emails us:
The thing that precipitated this whole sad day, a day that really will be a “day of infamy,” was the ceremonial counting of the votes of the Electoral College by a joint session of Congress. You know that jokey cliche, “You had one job…”? It applies perfectly here. Instead of being public servants and doing their job, an astonishing 147 Republicans, heedless of the fractious mood of the country and the mental state of the sitting president, thought this would be a good day for political posturing. It all got me thinking about who’s serving who and just what kind of public servants we’ve got — if they’re capable of doing their job upholding the constitution and keeping our republic right side up. Fortunately, this time a majority of them proved to be public servants. But what about next time?
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