American institutions failed
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
I'm tired of hearing people praise "America's institutions." It seems that American democracy has survived President Trump, at least for now. He has just been impeached for a second time, and in a week he will be replaced by Joe Biden. Barring a comeback (which may be made impossible), his political career has culminated in failure.
Some people think this reflects well on America's democratic institutions. They might indulge the exceptionalist belief that, in any other country, Trump would have easily consolidated dictatorial power and ended democracy. American institutions survived Trump, and therefore they succeeded in withstanding him.
However the survival of these institutions does not imply their success. Just because democracy still exists in America, it does not mean that American democracy is well-designed, or effective at preventing autocrats from taking over. Every institution Trump could manipulate he manipulated, and many institutions gave him a boost without his intervention. While American institutions did not create Donald Trump, they certainly enabled him, and cannot be credited with stopping him.
The Electoral College, a uniquely American contrivance, undoubtedly gave Trump a boost. When a party consistently wins elections without winning the most votes, their strategy becomes less democratic over time. It's not about winning the support of most people, but the right people in the right places. This blatantly anti-democratic system has guided Republican strategy for years, and is reflected in the candidates they field, who unsurprisingly don't care for democracy.
The Electoral College handed Trump an election in which most people voted against him. Once in power, American institutions did little to nothing to hold him to account. Despite being impeached twice, America will probably go 0-for-2 on removing him. This is because the power to remove is in the hands of the most powerful, but least representative, legislative body. The Senate is far more powerful than any other upper house in advanced democracies.
Even though Trump committed impeachable offenses, and the majority of Americans favoured his removal, the 52 Republicans who voted for his acquittal on both counts in 2019 represented less than half of the country. History is likely to repeat itself in this way with the second vote for removal. As it was originally conceived, the Senate could afford to be so unrepresentative, because it would be populated by non-partisan elder statesmen, advocating for states' interests as opposed to party interests. They would be the sober second thought needed to prevent radical change from occurring too quickly, as opposed to hyper-partisan obstructionists.
In this sense, the failure of the Senate is even more egregious than the failure of the Electoral College. The function of the Electoral College was to give states power in presidential elections, thereby making it possible to win without the popular vote. It is a relic from a time when America could not even imagine having a population of over 300 million, much less 40 million in one far-off state named "California." It also was devised in part to protect slavery. It is able to be consistently manipulated by one party that has only won one popular vote in close to thirty years. However, the Electoral College still fulfills its intended function, the same cannot be said for the Senate.
He was elected with the help of the Electoral College, and kept power with the help of an unrepresentative Senate. Thankfully, Joe Biden was able to eke out a tight victory (with over seven million more votes) in 2020. Had the election been any closer, the Electoral College may have given Trump the victory, or the Supreme Court may have gotten involved. Were that to happen, three of the nine justices would have been Trump appointees, one of whom was confirmed days before the election. All three of these justices were confirmed by very slim margins in a very unrepresentative Senate.
The make-up of the Supreme Court was essentially determined by the lifespan of one particularly tough 87-year old woman. Beyond just potentially swinging the election, this unelected body has become the most powerful player in determining reproductive rights, anti-discrimination laws, and marriage equality. Gains made in these areas are now in danger. Senate Republicans' hypocrisy was rewarded with Barrett on the Supreme Court and Garland watching from the sidelines. As long as the system rewards playing dirty, and encourages the erosion of an independent judiciary, its hard to argue that it's doing a good job protecting democracy.
Even now as Trump leaves the White House, it is possible he still will not be held accountable. He's pardoned many of his cronies, and has even considered pardoning himself. Whether or not a head-of-state can pardon themselves for crimes is not a question that is asked in healthy, functioning democracies. The framers assumed that the pardon power would be counterbalanced by impeachment, so that the President could still be held accountable. Obviously, that doesn't work anymore.
This is all old news. Yet people who are enraged by all of these issues individually fail to grasp the scope of the failure of American democratic institutions. People rant about the Electoral College and the Senate, yet praise the American system all the same. Beyond the aforementioned contrivances, what institution is distinctly American? America does not have a monopoly over the separation of powers or an independent judiciary. Perhaps they are blinded by American exceptionalism, or perhaps they are assuaged knowing that American democracy has survived at least this long, and made it through the Trump years (assuming this is the end of the Trump years).
But America's institutions were never an impediment to Donald Trump. The credit for stopping him shouldn't go to American institutions, but voters. They limited his power in 2018 by overwhelmingly voting for Democrats and taking back the House. Seven million more people voted for Biden than for Trump in 2020. Those votes are the reason things did not get worse than they already are. The American people, and not American institutions, deserve the credit.
Trump's approval never crossed fifty percent, confirming that wannabe autocrats are unpopular in the United States. He also may have been too incompetent to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to him. He did not court the military nearly enough to pull off a successful coup. Any substantial response to the Covid-19 pandemic may have given him the "wartime President" boost he needed to win in 2020.
The American people fought hard to negate the advantages offered to an anti-democratic President by America's institutions. Many of these institutions are close to 250 years old. While some may think that is to their credit, it is also the reason they are so byzantine and outdated. Some (like the Electoral College) were also created before the United States really constituted a democracy, specifically towards the end of preserving a vile and distinctly undemocratic system of chattel slavery. Others, like the Senate, were created under assumptions of non-partisanship that are laughable nowadays. The Electoral College, the unrepresentative Senate, the Supreme Court, and the pardon power have failed.