2016 Presidential Election: The Ongoing Erosion of Democratic Institutions

by John Stafford

Note from the writer: This article assesses the 2016 U.S. presidential election from one perspective – foundational themes that underlie the race.  It does not deal with the weekly mix of campaign events, debate performances, candidate dynamics and polling trends.  By means of disclosure:  I am a Democrat, and am supporting Bernie Sanders through the primary.

One theme that has emerged is that 2016 is (supposedly) an anti-establishment election.  The American people are dissatisfied with the incompetence and gridlock of federal government, and they are clamoring for change.  In this narrative, Trump and Sanders can be seen as two sides of the same coin.  Trump is a brash, bombastic populist who rails against the ineffectual system.  Sanders is a reform-minded socialist who has also gained traction from disillusionment with the status quo.  There is validity to this interpretation, and significance in the reality that Trump (shallow, uninformed, embarrassing) is the leading Republican anti-establishment candidate, while Sanders (thoughtful, highly informed, compelling) is the primary Democratic anti-establishment candidate.  Nevertheless, one must consider deeper themes in order to better understand the 2016 race.  

Perhaps chief amongst these is that the Republican Party is in the jaws of a policy/demographic vice.  On one side of the vice is policy platform.  The Republican Party is increasingly out-of-touch with respect to the key issues of our times:  in an era of all-time highs in U.S. income inequality, it continues to both favor tax cuts for the affluent and oppose raising the (mind boggling) $7.25/hour federal minimum wage; in an era where 14 of the hottest 15 years on record have occurred since 2000, and there is a 97% consensus amongst experts on the science of climate change, it opposes a tax on carbon; in an era of mass incarceration of, and police violence toward black Americans, it responds with the ignorant retort that “all lives matter”; in an era characterized by episodic gun violence, it claims that “stuff happens” and advocates for arming more individuals to combat gun crime; in an era of expanding rights for the LGBTQ community, it pays homage to Kim Davis.  In stark contrast, all of these issues have engendered major progressive social movements (e.g., Occupy, 15 Now, 350.org, Black Lives Matter, etc.).  In short, the Republican Party is increasingly at odds with policies with (in my view) a clear moral position and ever-increasing popular support.  

On the other side of the vice, the Republican Party confronts a demographic tidal wave that operates against its bulwarks.  The party’s base of prosperous whites is in decline, while minority populations are growing rapidly.  Figures for the percentage of the U.S. population that is white:  85% in 1960; 63% in 2011; 47% (projected) in 2050.  Minority populations tend to be vehemently opposed to the aforementioned planks in the Republican platform.  Indeed, in 2012, Obama earned 80% of the non-white vote.  Thus, demographic trends increasingly compound the opposition to Republican policy.  This policy/demographic vice that embroils the Republican Party is one of the most salient forces in modern American politics.

To maintain electoral significance in the midst of these factors, the Republican Party and other conservative organizations have responded with an ingenious (albeit nefarious) approach – to denigrate America’s institutions of democracy.  This is primarily done through five channels.  First, reduce the number of voters in demographic groups that don’t support the party (e.g., increase border protections to keep Hispanics out of the country; do not offer a path to citizenship for undocumented residents; consider deporting those undocumented residents that are here illegally; oppose drug courts and other measures that reduce black incarceration rates; create obstacles to black voting – as in Alabama which just closed the Driver’s License offices in every county with a 75% or higher black population, making it more difficult to obtain a valid form of identification to vote; etc.).  Second, gerrymander districts to reduce competition and establish a base of uncontested seats (many analysts claim that less than 10% of U.S. House of Representatives seats are truly competitive; it is important to note that the Democratic Party has been complicit in this endeavor).  Third, disempower traditional sources of Democratic Party support – most notably public and private sector unions.  Fourth, remove campaign financing limits and transparency requirements (e.g., Citizens United, McCutcheon, Super-Pacs).  Fifth, have large entities exploit these expanded campaign financing opportunities (most notably the Koch Brothers’ Political Network, which will spend roughly $900 million in the 2016 election –primarily in support of Republican candidates — placing it on par in terms of spending with the two major national parties).  This strategy can be summarized as follows:  given that the institutions and demographics of American society, if allowed to operate unimpeded, will work against the Republican Party platform and its constituent groups, it becomes important to implement a straightforward and powerful solution – erode institutions, manage demographics, and skew political speech back toward the affluent white base.  In short, expend tremendous effort to thwart the authentic forces of democracy.  It will not come as a surprise that an increasingly immoral political platform requires increasingly anti-democratic machinations to ensure its survival, and an ever-less compelling cadre of Republican candidates to preside over this process.  

This denigration of our nation’s democratic institutions has had, and will continue to have (perhaps for generations) devastating effects on American Democracy.  One of these is the institutionalization of gridlock.  Gridlock thwarts the progressive agenda.  A second is an increasingly uninspired, uninformed, uninvolved and yet disillusioned electorate.  This combination rightfully leads to voter cynicism and anti-establishment sentiment.  The solution to this problem is commitment to the painstaking work of reducing the denigration of democratic and demographic institutions (immigration policy, incarceration policy, voting rights, campaign finance, etc.).  Needless to say, Trump is not the vehicle for institutional restoration.

It is worth noting that this pattern of challenging our democratic institutions is occurring at the state level as well.  When the Washington State Legislature was found to be in contempt-of-court for failure to comply with the terms of the McCleary decision (calling for an increase in K-12 spending), a number of Republican lawmakers responded by questioning the authority of the State Supreme Court, with one calling for the Supreme Court to “pound sand”.  Even more bizarre, as Washington State has fallen (between 1995 and 2012) from 11th to 36th in state and local taxes a percentage of personal income, leading to an insufficient funding stream that precipitated the McCleary decision, Tim Eyman has introduced a new initiative (I-1366) that calls for the Legislature to amend the State Constitution to require a two-thirds majority to raise taxes (a refutation of democracy), or else reduce the state sales tax by one percent (which would have devastating effects for state finances in general, and McCleary compliance in particular).

One of the ironies of the 2016 presidential election is that the anti-establishment sentiment that is characterizing the initial stages of the race is likely to fade, and eventually produce the ultimate establishment ticket:  Clinton versus Bush (Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight makes this prediction).  Indeed, many argue that the Republican Party is using Trump to increase its visibility and debate ratings, which will be useful when it comes time for the later coronation of Bush.  

In summary, one of the most important attributes of America’s modern political system is the policy/demographic vice that has established a structural dilemma for the Republican Party and its conservative supporters.  Their response has been to diminish the democratic and demographic processes that define American democracy.  The predictable results have been gridlock, small and ineffectual policy at a time when large solutions are needed, and voter disillusionment.  The solution to this legitimate anti-establishment sentiment will not be Trump and it will not be Bush.  Rather, the solution will be a prolonged commitment to the painstaking work of restoring our democratic institutions.  Until this takes place, one can expect more anti-establishment rhetoric, followed my more business-as-usual elections.

John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools and a former management consultant in corporate strategy.  He recently completed a run for State Senate in the 37th District.  He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.

Sources:  Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight; the Pew Charitable Trust.