The United States has been struck by a decay of political morality, which has been reinforced by an information revolution that provides invaluable help to the party of fear. It didn’t originate with Donald Trump, but he intensifies this slippery slope.
Washington is slowly sinking into the muddy waters of the Potomac. The phrase is excessive, no doubt, but its Shakespearean tone conveys the distress, if not the despair, of its author, a member of the old Washington elite.
A Formidable Accelerator
The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency was a formidable accelerator of the democratic crisis in America. The midterm elections on Nov. 6 could contribute, if not to reversing the trend, then at least to putting the brakes on the escape of an American democracy that its founding fathers would not recognize.
To fully assess the gravity of the crisis, just reread “The Federalist Papers,” published in 1788. Its authors, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, aspired to present and explicate the Constitution of the United States, which came into effect a year earlier. In these political philosophical reflections, Madison and his co-authors emphasized the importance of public virtues – in their eyes inseparable from private virtues – and the pursuit of the common good.
Today, the most important thing to understand is that the crisis of American democracy is not a consequence of Trump’s arrival in the White House. The crisis precedes the election and largely explains the result.
For multiple reasons, the party of fear has prevailed over that of reason in the United States (and tomorrow, perhaps in all of Europe).
In fact, since the Civil War – which took place between 1861 and 1865 – the American public’s opinion has never been so divided. Republicans against Democrats, extremists against moderates, rural states against urban states, whites against blacks, even men against women … the polarization of society is infinite.
In this context, where is the concept of the common good? The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh – Trump’s candidate for the Supreme Court – held before a Senate committee produced shocking exchanges. It is no longer a matter of pursuit of truth or choosing the person who would, in this essential role for democratic balance, be the best choice for America. On the eve of the midterm elections, senators from both parties have given themselves over to a partisan, and sometimes even degrading, exercise. To turn around the famous phrase from the Baron de Coubertin, the important thing wasn’t to participate but to win.
Cult of Events
This decay of political morality is reinforced in its negative effects by an information revolution that provides invaluable help to a party of fear to the detriment of the party of reason. The news is neither seen nor heard to inform oneself. Instead, convictions are reinforced by switching on the media that most reflect one’s biases. Continuous news stations − irrespective of their often great qualities – almost represent, by their very existence, a threat to democracy. The cult of events favors an increasingly emotional interpretation of reality that leaves no room for analysis or perspective.
When the rise of what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency” is corroborated, leading to a reversal of the balance of power in favor of the executive and to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches, this information revolution is even more dangerous.
An uncultured and unrestricted president faced with a disaffected population; isn’t that a recipe for an impending disaster? It is no longer “vetocracy,” to use a phrase from Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 book “The Origins of Political Order,” that is threatening America in 2018. Rather, it is the autocracy of an exceptionally unpredictable man with control over the executive and judicial branches, faced with a weakened legislature and a press that is perhaps as polarized as public opinion is. “I alone can fix it” has become one of the president’s favorite catchphrases.
Trump, in his individualized and centralist voluntarism, is hardly different in substance, if not in form, from some of his predecessors, from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama. But today, this extreme personalization of power allows for mobilization of the most radical and ideological voters.
The Threat of Factions
In America today, don’t factions constitute a threat against the democratic principle? It’s a threat that the authors of "The Federalist Papers" sought to prevent by slanting the Constitution to put the states’ influence in the forefront. Justice Louis Brandeis described states, in the first half of the 20th century, as “laboratories of democracy” and the best protection against the excesses of passion.
Populism Isn’t Irresistible
Make no mistake; the results of the U.S. midterm elections concern everyone, not just Americans. A significant failure for Trump and his supporters would be encouraging for the party of reason in Europe; it would be a demonstration, on the eve of European elections in May 2019, that populism isn’t irresistible. On the other hand, if the status quo prevails, if Trump keeps control of both chambers, it would be the European populists who would be encouraged, and it would be confirmation (at least in their eyes) that they embody the future of Europe.
If the democratic shift continues, we will no longer have to follow the TV series “House of Cards” to understand American politics, but rather “Game of Thrones.”