Trump failed to destroy democracy. But he exposed flaws that demand attention.
American democracy just passed a four-year stress test. It didn’t pass with flying colors, but it did pass. We can be confident that government of the people, by the people, and for the people will outlive the outgoing president. But here’s the thing about a stress test: Even when its object survives, the test may reveal structural weaknesses and expose hidden liabilities—all of which help us prepare for future shocks.
To a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate in 2016, pushing the American political system to the point of collapse was the point. As Steve Bannon said before the election, while still leading Breitbart: “We call ourselves the Fight Club. You don’t come to us for warm and fuzzy.” In that spirit, the burn-it-down Trump administration went to work, with attempts to mobilize the Department of Justice as an army of personal henchmen that would settle scores and protect the president from legal scrutiny; with social media as a bully pulpit where truth was bent at will; and with a thousand transgressions against the norms of governance and decency. Theirs was an affront not just to liberal policies but to the republican idea itself. As Walt Whitman wrote in the 1860s, “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.”
The project of destruction was unsuccessful for several reasons. The institutions of American democracy have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient. Take the federal bureaucracy, much maligned by the conspiratorial Right as part of “the deep state.” Countless career civil servants carried on as before, albeit with a significantly higher level of mental strain. They will long outlast the president. Likewise, the Supreme Court repeatedly deferred to precedent over president. This was no certain outcome: In Hungary, President Viktor Orbán managed to turn a fully functioning constitutional court into a servant of the executive branch in a matter of years.
Institutional resilience was matched by popular vigilance. It was not self-evident that Americans would respond to political dysfunction by becoming more politicized; that people who had never protested would take to the streets; that words like “systemic racism” would become part of the everyday vocabulary. There were strong reasons to seek refuge from the punishing news cycle these past four years, and to choose apathy. But when enough people accept the erosion of democratic norms, autocracy finds fertile ground. This did not happen.
Americans do not receive enough credit for their political acumen and engagement. While lamentations about our polarized society are justified, the republic was saved by a broad coalition this time: not just the Democratic Party base of urban college-educated liberals and minority voters, but also conservative swing voters in the suburbs who came to regard the president as unfit for office. The foundations are holding.
It is difficult to think of politics today without thinking about the technology that underpins it, above all social media. Yet most tech companies have refused to address this in a serious manner. That, too, is beginning to change. Whether the proposed responses to disinformation—Facebook’s ban of political ads, or Twitter’s labeling of misleading tweets—are correct is a matter of debate, touching on thorny issues of censorship and free expression. But tech companies are finally reckoning with their unmatched role in the future of political discourse.
Thankfully, the stress test came from a particularly inept administration, whose dysfunction limited just how much it could break. One never shed the notion that Trump saw the presidency as another reality show, acted before a larger audience and subject to the principles of drama rather than strategic planning. It’s less clear that the institutions of American democracy would be able to recover from a more organized effort to dismantle them.
While the 2016 election launched the stress test, the fractures within American democracy long preceded Trump. Historically, too many citizens have been excluded from political participation because of race or gender; too many remain excluded because of felony convictions. Federal decision-making has been too remote in this vast and varied country to feel like government “by the people.” And the outcomes of those decisions have too rarely been “for the people,” favoring moneyed interests and loyal factions instead of the general public. When the sociologist Arlie Hochschild writes of the mostly conservative voters in rural Louisiana, saying they feel like “strangers in their own land,” she captures not just a cultural cleavage but a failure of the democratic system. It is not surprising that trust in democratic institutions has been declining for decades.
American history is characterized by a failure to truly democratize the nation’s democratic promise. Many of the structural flaws cannot be legislated out of existence with the stroke of a pen. High polarization and rising levels of inequality will remain detrimental to political discourse regardless of who controls Congress and the White House. Other flaws are so intertwined with the two-party system—gerrymandering, the politicized Supreme Court, the increasing divergence between the popular vote and the Electoral College—that reforms appear unlikely. And some flaws would require a shift within each party. For Democrats, this means abandoning the misplaced faith in “demographic destiny”—the idea that nonwhite voters, as they increase as a proportion of the American electorate, will remain guaranteed supporters of the Democratic Party. For Republicans, it requires disavowing Trumpism.
All of this illustrates another value of stress tests: to identify long-term liabilities that may be difficult to resolve, but can be planned around. This is already underway. For example, laws that remove barriers to voting have been relatively successful in recent years. Voter suppression today is more visible and less socially acceptable than in the past, but not necessarily worse. In Georgia, an automatic voter-registration law has significantly enlarged the electorate. The state demonstrates that democracy does not have to be perfect in principle to be resilient in practice. Sometimes, “slightly better than before” is all we can hope for—but also all we need.
Martin Eiermann, an associate editor at Persuasion, is a doctoral candidate in sociology at University of California Berkeley. He is writing a book on the politics of privacy in the United States.