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Trump didn’t break our democracy. But did he fatally weaken it?

Susan Hyde, Professor of Political Science | January 19, 2021

Co-authored by a political scientist in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Trump supporters breaking down police barriers at U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol in Washington (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

After the Electoral College vote last month affirming his election, Joe Biden declared that “nothing, not even a pandemic or an abuse of power, can extinguish” the “flame of democracy.” His speech and the vote capped a series of victories for democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results.

Political scientists like us are trying to assess the damage from Mr. Trump’s baseless, inept and ultimately doomed attacks on democracy. Do the sharp rebukes from our courts and other institutions mean that democracy “survived,” and we can simply move on? Or does all the talk about what “saved” American democracy really show that it’s in deep trouble?

After all, that Texas lawsuit had the public support of more than half of the Republican House members. And it looks like even Vladimir Putin beat Mitch McConnell to congratulate Biden.

The problem is we’ve been treating Mr. Trump’s attacks on democracy as if they are a pass-fail test. We should instead think of democracy as both damaged and resilient, like a forest after a powerful windstorm.

In our research, we argue that though all democracies are imperfect, one of their central virtues is that they are built to be resilient — to bend without breaking, even when elected leaders pull institutions in an authoritarian direction. But just because they’re more flexible doesn’t mean democracies can’t break. Resilience — the ability to adapt and keep functioning under strain — is a resource that needs replenishing, not a guarantee of safe passage.

It’s normal for institutions to face challenges from events or from politicians who try to use them for their own purposes. When institutions survive a stress test, they may come out stronger or weaker. Ambiguous laws can be clarified to withstand abuse; regulations can be updated; and public officials gain experience in how to prevent or defend against future tests. But it can take time for the strengthening to occur.

The 2020 election provides a clear example of democratic resilience to authoritarian pressure. Election officials and judges fielding legal challenges had to adapt not only to the enormous logistical challenges of the pandemic but also to Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. His attacks — and those from elected officials in his party and from the conservative media — put additional pressure on election officials and poll workers, who faced threats, intimidation efforts and overt pressure to ignore the will of the voters.

Yet in most of the more than 10,000 electoral jurisdictions across the country, voters cast ballots without incident and Election Day was peaceful. International election observers praised the election as orderly and organized.

Both democracy optimists and pessimists can draw the conclusions they want to see from this example. Optimists can say that our election system faced the 2020 test admirably, and those who run it will be better prepared for future efforts to undermine their work. Pessimists can say that Mr. Trump’s attacks will leave lasting scars. Next time, election officials might give in to political pressure. Or the damage might be invisible, like a tree’s weakened root system, deterring people from running for office or working at the polls.

Right now, there’s no way to know if the damage will be permanent. But we do know that democracies are better able to recover from such assaults because they allow for routine, peaceful replacement of leaders or parties. Dictators are more likely to be replaced through rebellion, military coup or civil war than through constitutional processes like elections and impeachment.

This is what democracy optimists get right. Mr. Trump’s abuse of foreign policy got him impeached. His spectacular failure to govern during a pandemic got him voted out of office.

But eventually, if stretched too far, democratic institutions will reach a limit. There may not be a dramatic break, like a coup, but democracy will be twisted and warped and cannot return to its original shape.

Take the example of Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega, after losing several elections, conspired to change the voting rules such that he was able to win the presidency in 2006 with just 38 percent of the vote. He has since moved Nicaragua further toward authoritarianism.

Here at home, Mr. Trump’s refusal to accept his defeat is his most blatant threat to democracy. He has generated worrisome precedents and undermined shared assumptions about what happens after an incumbent loses. His bizarre legal strategy has failed, but he has turned the base of the Republican Party and many congressional Republicans against valuing democracy for its own sake. And those values are the ultimate source of democratic resilience.

But has Mr. Trump stretched democratic institutions beyond recognition, or, provided that they survive their near-term vulnerability, could U.S. democratic institutions grow back stronger?

There are already many reform proposals that could help rebuild democratic resilience. Many are focused on what can be reformed: institutions and the rules that govern them. For example, the nonpartisan Election Reformers Network’s proposal to reduce conflicts of interest among secretaries of state, based on successful models in other countries, and other proposals to rectify Mr. Trump’s attacks on checks and balances across the government.

But a healthy, resilient democracy also requires sufficient citizen support for democracy across the political spectrum. And that, in turn, depends on both parties embracing a commitment to democratic principles — a tall order given the Republican Party’s recent behavior.

The trouble for those wanting to put this period behind them is that it’s hard to assess whether the damage is lasting until it’s too late. Our democracy has survived for now, but we don’t yet know whether some crucial democratic institutions bent so far that faced with the next test, they’ll break.

This essay was originally published in the New York Times on Dec. 15, 2020.


Comments to “Trump didn’t break our democracy. But did he fatally weaken it?

  1. Prof. Hyde, it’s not just our Democracy that is being threatened, once again, but what you have documented is another confirmation of the failure of the current political and intellectual leaders of our country.

    Let’s admit it, the problem is not just Trump, McConnell enabled Trump to get away with it, while both political parties, as well as political scientists, failed to prevent it.

    We were warned by Will and Ariel Durant’s paramount conclusion in their epic “Story of Civilization” many decades ago:
    “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life but through the failure of its political and intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”

    I think I might have even learned something like this when my future wife and I took POL SCI 120 in the 60s.

    Let’s admit it, one other root cause we keep failing to deal with was amplified by President Eisenhower in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation:

    “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    Another grave warning was documented in our own “Global Warning” special issue of California Magazine in the 2006 cover story “Can We Adapt in Time? conclusion about a similar political and intellectual leadership failure to protect the human race today:

    “Whether resistance to global warming lies more in the hungers of American culture, or because our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future—this matters less now than it may have a few years ago, because the future has arrived.”

    Or, is George Smoot’s root cause documentation of our survival problem in his 2007 Edge Annual Question “WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?” contribution “Correggio Domani Sara Peggio!” (Courage for Tomorrow Will Be Worse!), the most inconvenient truth of all:

    “— the history of human society in cooperatively plundering the resources of a meager but beautiful planet with currently abundant resources, who can possibly be optimistic about the long-term future of humanity? How many examples do we have of humans addressing global problems in an efficient way and with enlightened self-interest? Historical experience is that humans have generally been engaged in warfare, exploitation for personal gain and religious strife. Real issues are generally not addressed until they become serious crises and often not even then. We could mention here, various episodes of genocide, large-scale pollution, and ecological devastation, which are often interrelated.”

    So, my question to you, and your academic colleagues is, can Berkeley produce solutions and implementation so we can adapt in time?

    Anthony St. John ‘63

    • Prof. Hyde, I sure wish you academics would stop confirming Nicholas Dirks’ “Administering Change” interview comment in the Summer 2013 issue of California Magazine, documenting your academic failure mode that considers the public to be too impure to communicate with:

      I’ve actually been thinking about the question of purity because of reading Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”

      No wonder our Democracy, and the human race are in such grave jeopardy today.

      • Yesterday, 44 republican senators voted against American Democracy.

        Why do intellectuals/academics continue to refuse to communicate with the public to inform, educate and motivate us to fight back for American Democracy?

        Instead, you continue to ignore Hofstatdter’s warning, and fail to act upon the lessons of history documented by the Durants.

        Thus, your culture is enabling the destruction of one more, possibly last, civilization.


        • Once again today, 43 republican senators voted to overthrow American Democracy, even though Trump threatened the life of our former VPOTUS at the same time as he motivated his followers to kill and injure over 100 peace officers who risked their lives to protect everyone in the capitol, even risking the lives of families, and senators who voted against American Democracy while following his orders.

          Meanwhile, once again, the world’s best and brightest intellectuals/academics continue to fail to act upon the lessons of history in a timely manner, refusing to unite and join together to inform, educate and motivate We The People to save our Democracy, and our civilization. If American Democracy is at grave risk today, the lessons of history prove that our civilization is also at grave risk because too many nations depend on the United States of America to defend and protect our civilization, ever since we won WWII to save and protect our civilization.

          The worst of it is, when it comes to protecting and perpetuating an acceptable quality of life for all future generations, intellectuals/academics today just watch and do nothing but protect your own self-interests, proving beyond all doubt that your culture is just as destructive as the self-interests of republican senators.

          As Will and Ariel Durant documented, when political leaders fail to meet the challenges of change our last resort is our intellectual leaders, a fact which now threatens our legacy for our newest and all future generations.

          The closing arguments by Rep. Jamie Raskin say it much better than I ever can. If his words don’t inspire you to make the right things happen with the greatest sense of urgency, in the time we may have left, then nothing can. As a capitol hero asked, is this America? America, and civilization is in your hands. God Help America!

  2. I don’t think Trump did anything to diminish democracy.
    I see the left constantly trying to silence people that don’t disagree with them by controlling speech, big Media and cancel culture. The usual accusations are name calling Nazi, white supremacy, male toxicity and numerous others.
    I’m curious how people that read this will reply!

  3. It is obvious this is written with completely liberal ideas. Conservatives are not evil people. We work, raise our children, volunteer to help others, and vote for those we think are the best for America. I am sorry those at Berkeley only see us through the eyes of Berkeley thinkers. And conservatives are called a cult? Maybe those at Berkeley might look a little closer look in their own mirror before judging others so harshly as to who might be a cult. And no, I am not sayng in any form or fashion that what happened at the Capitol was okay. It was not. Trump left the office of presidency with no disruptions and as he should have done. Please do not send me hatefull emails. I am expressing my own opinion which, as far as I know, I for now have the right to do so.

  4. Thankfully the outrageous, treasonous behavior of storming the U.S. Capitol
    is being followed-up with intensive video reviews and arrests around the nation.

    Many of the perps though are knuckleheads and will probably not plea bargain
    but instead will plead not guilty and insist on jury trials
    in which they will undoubtedly state that they could not have been breaking any laws
    because they were simply following the verbal directive of the President of the United States.

    The prosecutors would then have to subpoena Donald Trump
    and ultimately these defiant criminals
    could appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

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