In 1997, Fareed Zakaria wrote an important article for Foreign Affairs detailing the rise of “illiberal democracy” around the world. He contrasted the term with “liberal democracy,” which he described as “marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms — what might be termed constitutional liberalism — is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy.” He then wrote a book on the subject.
Twenty years later, Council of Foreign Relations President Richard Haass tweeted out the following: “years ago @FareedZakaria wrote the book re illiberal democracies. i never thought this would fit the US but we r getting too close 4 comfort.” I am a big fan of Richard (and Fareed), but I disagree with Haass on this one. America remains a strong liberal democracy — however messy and dysfunctional — even in the age of Donald Trump. Here’s why.
1. Free Press Endures
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy, the press has been aggressive in fact-checking and challenging him at every turn. At times, a bit unfair; 80% of the coverage of Trump’s first 100 days was negative, compared to just 41% for President Obama’s. Many U.S. journalists have decided that professional responsibility demands a much more confrontational approach to this White House. The result has been coverage that is sometimes unfair and over-the-top. This drives Trump up the wall, because there’s little he can do about it. In an illiberal democracy, the state uses all sorts of tools to dominate the press and shape public opinion. Trump has friendly news outlets that help maintain support from his base, but the rest of the media is in no danger of falling under Trump’s sway.
2. Americans Love Going to Court
Americans go to court. A lot. And a lot of Americans become lawyers. As of 2009, for every 100,000 people, the U.S. has 380 lawyers. For comparison purposes, Japan has just 23 lawyers per 100,000 people; France has 70 (2010 and 2006 figures, respectively). More important than the number of lawyers is the continued faith Americans have in the legal system — as of 2016, 61% of Americans say they have at least “a fair amount” of trust in the judicial branch of the federal government, as opposed to the 51% of people who are confident in the executive branch and 35% of people who trust the legislative branch. In a liberal democracy, individuals and organizations can slow and alter the crafting of law and regulations by tying things up in court. And Americans are game — in the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency, his Administration was sued 55 times (compared to five lawsuits over the same time against Obama and Clinton, and four against George W. Bush).
3. The Courts Remain Independent
And the courts continue to limit executive power. In an illiberal democracy (see Russia and Turkey) the fix is already in when the gavel falls. For example, to tighten his grip on power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged the judicial system in Turkey after last summer’s failed coup attempt, banishing more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors (25% of the country’s total). Trump would probably settle for ditching the judges that have struck down his “travel ban” no fewer than eight times in various courts (and by both Democratic and Republican-appointed judges). Maybe add the federal judge that blocked the Administration’s ability to withhold funds from “sanctuary cities,” jurisdictions which ban law enforcement agencies from investigating, interrogating, or arresting people for immigration enforcement.
4. There’s No Deep State
To hear Trump and his surrogates tell it, any political defeat or unflattering news story about him should be attributed to a “deep state” hell-bent on trying to oust him. But there is no “deep state” in America, just a deep bureaucracy. It’s made up of professional civil servants who have dedicated years of their lives (in 2015, a full-time permanent federal civilian employee had an average of 13.7 years of service) to specific policy goals, whether from the left or right. Asking career officials at the Environmental Protection Agency to suddenly stop believing in climate change because the man elected in November doesn’t much care for science was never going to get much traction. There are obviously people in the White House and throughout the executive branch that are sabotaging political and policy moves they believe harm the nation’s interests, as they define them. Vladimir Putin doesn’t have this problem.
The bigger problem may be that the state isn’t deep enough: As of this week, the Trump White House has only managed to confirm 44 of the 558 Senate-confirmable positions in the federal government. One hundred and five people have been formally nominated, five are awaiting nomination, and 404 jobs have no nominee whatsoever. Obama had confirmed at 170 by the same time into his own presidency; George W. Bush, 130.
5. Congress Has Its Own Agenda
Finally, Republicans in Congress have an agenda: Repeal Obamacare as they promised; roll back Obama-era regulations; and cut taxes. If Trump can help, great. If they can do it entirely without Trump’s input, that might be even better. And if they start to believe that Trump will prevent them from passing their agenda and maybe cost them control of Congress? They’ll cross that bridge only if they feel they have to. But they are not a rubber stamp, as in an illiberal democracy. And the Senate voting 98-2 for more sanctions against Russia (and congressional oversight over them) last week against Trump’s wishes offers more proof.
Any democracy can become illiberal. But it’s dangerous to argue that Trump has already created one. If illiberalism one day really does threaten America’s constitutional liberalism, it will be that much harder to raise the alarm if the charge has already been raised and dismissed.