Academics Discuss American Democracy and the Election: Part 1
This is the first installment of a conversation among a diverse group of academics, each focused on an important issue about the 2016 election and its aftermath. See part 2.
Introduction (by Lee Jussim):
In response to a presidential election filled with hyperbole and vitriol, several of us – with a wide variety of political perspectives and identifications – decided that it might be of some value to have a calm, reasoned discussion about both the election and its aftermath.
Since the election, campuses have been hit with a double whammy. Many people on the left have been shocked, disappointed, and angered by the election, and for good reasons. The choice between major candidates was stark. The left won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote, and was bitterly disappointed. Much of Trump’s rhetoric was crude and degrading; much was beyond the bounds of normal electoral politics; some was widely perceived as racist and sexist. To many on the left, the idea that almost half the vote supported such a man was appalling.
Some have even characterized their reactions as “feeling traumatized” And to respond to the anguish of many students, some administrators have sent out mass emails expressing their concerns and efforts to strengthen “our” values.
But this “empathy” creates the second whammy. “Our values,” on most campuses, is often seen, and, usually correctly in my view, as code for “leftist values.” Is this really appropriate – for the president or administration of a university to be taking sides and affirming that it stands with the majority of students against the minority – who, by implication, do not share “our values”?
Below you will find a conversation about the election among five academic colleagues. All of us share the view that academia is at its best when it has calm, reasoned discussions, even about controversial topics. This does not mean we need to accept as normal the racist or sexist rantings of extremists. It does not mean we have to accept some of the more extreme rhetoric of the campaign as reasonable. It does not mean we cannot roundly criticize Trump, or must act as though each candidate was equally guilty of incivility. They were not.
But, by presenting this sort of discussion, in this manner, we have an overarching goal of returning to more measured and academic modes of discussion, in the wake of a very polarizing election.
This discussion is framed around several questions. The first is:
Q: Is American democracy eroding under threat from Republicans in general and/or Trump in particular? How will we know if it is?
By way of introductions:
- Robert Mather is a professor of psychology at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research is on social cognition, and he blogs as The Conservative Social Psychologist at Psychology Today.
- Lee Jussim is professor of psychology at Rutgers. He is one of the founding members of Heterodox Academy, and former chair of his department. Much of his current research focuses on scientific integrity and science reform, and he blogs as Rabble Rouser at Psychology Today.
- George Yancey is professor of sociology at the University of North Texas. He has studied race bias, but, more recently, has focused on anti-Christian bias and discrimination.
- April Kelly-Woessner is professor and chair of political science at Elizabethtown college. Her research focuses on the intersection of politics and education.
- Jarret Crawford is associate professor of psychology at The College of New Jersey.
- Jussim is a founding member of Heterodox Academy. Mather, Yancey, and Kelly-Woessner are all also members of Heterodox Academy.
So, is American Democracy eroding under threat from Republicans in general and/or Trump in particular? How will we know if it is?
Robert Mather: I believe that American democracy is alive, well, and thriving. As evidence of that, I was surprised at the wording of the question, when I was expecting a question along the lines of “Is American democracy eroding under threat from Democrats in general and/or Progressives in particular? How will we know if it is?” Given the disconnection between the wordings of the questions, that signifies to me that American democracy is just fine, but politically polarized. Progressive programs of social reform are a recent historical development, and FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society are progressive initiatives that only go back 80 years. The majority of our country’s history had no such safety nets, and Social Security, Medicaid, the Affordable Healthcare Act, etc. are all progressive programs that may not have hit the perfect note with their first iterations. Our country needs to adjust to those. However, individual liberties and free markets were some of the founding principles of our country. Giving the government too much authority to control the lives of its individuals by making them dependent on the government isn’t the answer. Helping those who need help and empowering those who need help in becoming more independent/self-sufficient may take revisions of current programs. Of all of the conservatives I have ever met, no one has ever seriously suggested that our sick, aging, or impoverished people should die in the streets of neglect. Democracy gives us freedoms: Freedom to speak, freedom to protest, freedom to discuss. Just as the Baby Boomers voiced uncomfortable social revolutions, we will get through the current discussions.
Lee Jussim: I am not sure; I am concerned that it is eroding. I think of the republican form of democracy as resting on three main pillars:
- Majority selection of the people’s representatives. (Elections).
- Protection of minority rights (the Bill of Rights, and the amendments affording equal protections and rights to all citizens).
- The rule of law (in principle, the same laws apply to every citizen, from Presidents to janitors).
Over the last 25 years, Republicans have:
- Been primarily responsible for three govt. shutdowns (two in 1995-6; one in 2013), refusing to raise the debt ceiling, over political/budgetary differences with Presidents Clinton and Obama. A democratic government cannot be in the business of repudiating its own obligations.
- Won two recent presidential elections with minority votes. I could find nothing in my reading of documents from the founding era, such as The Federalist Papers, that advocated having the President elected on the basis of a minority. One might argue that, in 21st Century America, the Electoral College “rigs” (to use a term used freely in the election) elections in favor of small, rural states – which tend to be far more conservative than large states with many urban centers. Although this state of affairs is not “caused” by the Republicans, they have: 1. Certainly benefitted from it; and 2. Have done nothing to prevent it. This undermines the “public officials are selected by majority vote” principle.
- Impeached President Clinton for a low, not high crime. The Constitution calls for impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” My view is that lying, even under oath, about an extramarital affair, does not qualify as a “high crime or misdemeanor.”
- Adopted a political strategy of opposing anything Obama proposed. This is exactly the type of behavior that leads to the undoing of democracies. If you can’t get anything done democratically, then alternatives begin to look attractive…
- Refused, in 2016, to even bring to the floor Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court. Their stated rationale? Obama was a lame duck, and the next President should decide. But why stop there? Any two-term president is a lame duck at the start of that second term. But what is holy about lame duckness? What is to prevent starting earlier? Democrats could filibuster any Republican nominee – and wait till the next election. This is not a recipe for a healthy democracy.
- There have been many elections in the last 14 years in which, nationwide, Democratic members of the House have received more popular votes nationwide than Republicans have, and yet Republicans achieved majorities. The same pattern holds for the Senate, in which Democrats have sometimes received more votes but hold fewer seats. This is a threat to the principle of majority selection of the people’s representatives. There have been no elections in this time period in which Republicans received more popular votes, nationwide, but ended up with fewer representatives in either the House or Senate.
- Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric in the campaign (and after) was extreme and extensive. It included “lock her up,” accusations that Clinton was a murderer, “rigged election,” advocating torture of accused terrorists and killing their innocent families, and criminal punishment of flag burners. He said lots of other things that upset some people, such as accusing Obama of starting ISIS; but the list here all threaten one or more of the three pillars of democratic forms of govt.
- Trump’s election was embraced by the self-described “alt-right” which is a hotbed of racist, “white nationalist,” KKK, anti-democratic, and neo-Nazi groups.
To be sure, Clinton, Democrats, and liberals more generally have their own problems with democracy. The revelations of how Clinton did essentially “rig” the Democratic primaries also threatens democracy – however, fundamentally political parties are private organizations and can conduct themselves more or less however they choose. There has also been a growing phenomenon on many campuses whereby the illiberal left has become a greater threat to free speech than has the right. This, however, is a relatively local phenomenon, and, though deeply problematic, and is, in fact, anti-democratic, has not risen to the level of threatening our democratic form of govt.
I could be misreading this entirely. One could argue that democratic elections are at their best when people have bona fide choices. A commonly heard complaint about past elections was that there are few real differences between candidates, it is a choice between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. In this election, the candidates could not have been more different. The people chose Trump, a candidate about as diametrically different than business as usual as possible. This is plausibly viewed as exactly how democracy is supposed to work, as a testament to the strength of our democracy (whether you like the outcome or not; that Trump lost the popular vote is irrelevant to this point. If we had a different system, he likely would have run a different campaign so we cannot assume that he would have lost the popular vote if the popular vote was what counted).
Perhaps my concerns about Trump and the Republicans are overstated. How, then, can anyone ever know if our democracy is seriously threatened? First, I do not consider the following things threats to democracy:
- Trump’s tweets, no matter what they say (even Presidents have the right to free speech). 2. Trump’s selection of advisors and cabinet members that the left despises. 3. The mere embracing of Trump by racist and supremacist groups. Even racists have the right to embrace whoever the hell they choose; we will judge Trump by his actions.
So, what constitutes red flags of bona fide dangers?
- The less the results of national elections reflect the popular vote, the more the principle of majority selection of representatives is weakened.
- If and when policies and practices threatening our fundamental rights – speech, religion, association, press – are even proposed, those rights are threatened. We know what this looks like. Blacklists. Loyalty oaths. Illegal surveillance. Torture. Tacit support for harassment and violence by “private” individuals and groups.
- If and when the federal govt advocates, not changing laws, but violating laws, the rule of law is threatened.
- Rising popularity, membership, and political action among so-called “alt-right” white separatist hate groups, and neo-fascist movements.
George Yancey: I recognized early on that Trump was unlike any other politician we had seen before. When he became a real threat to win the Republican nomination I did something I had not done before in a presidential race. I became vocal in my opposition to him. After he secured the Republican nomination I continued to address the fears I had for a Trump presidency. Indeed because of my work on academic bias I had access to conservative Christian publications and used them to encourage those Christians to vote third party rather than for Trump. I do believe I convinced some individuals to do so but obviously those of us who called ourselves “NeverTrumpers” lost this election. I have decided to withhold further criticism of Trump until after he is president but my silence should not be interpreted as comfort with the upcoming Trump administration.
But to assess the threat to democracy by a Trump, it is worth pointing out that democracy is not in the safest hands with the Democrats. Beyond the vote fixing noted by Lee, Democrats have not been very supportive of issues of free speech. Note the push to punish Global Warming dissenters. They have not been very open to issues of freedom of conscience. Recent attempts in California to cripple Christian colleges and university illustrate this point. Those of us in academia should be concerned about these actions and freedom of speech and consciences are innately linked to the type of academic freedom we need to do out work. So it is important to realize that we never had a choice between a pure supporter of democracy and a pure opponent of it. There are excesses among Democrats and progressives that must be addressed over time. Indeed I believe that it is some of these excesses that paved the way to make a Trump presidency possible. His critics, such as I, found it hard to warn others of the authoritarian nature of his campaign when his supporters could rightly point out the hesitation Democrats have to ensure the democratic freedom of the “deplorables”.
Nonetheless, Trump is a different type of creature. He has talked about controlling the media in quite scary ways. He has already used the threat of his office to change the actions of a private business. He has suggested draconian punishment for those who burn the American flag. He talks of wall building as if he is a king, and not a president. Some of his support come from elements in society that promulgate oppressive ideologies. Although I do not know of any current efforts to limit academic freedom from Trump, he is cultivating a strong man image that can easily lead to efforts to control academia. To that extent we should fear the unique way Trump gained power. It is true that some of the fears are irrational. We are not going to see Jim Crow coming back. But we could see new rules that reduce or eliminate dissent by a Trump administration that could threaten the funding of colleges or universities. The damage Trump can do is not likely to be to the core of our democracy but he can go great harm to it at the margins.
What does give me hope is that we do have a series of checks and balances that should contain a President Trump. What he wants to propose has to get past a Republican congress that will want to get reelected in 2018. It will have to get past the Democrats in the Senate who can filibuster unwanted legislation. It has to be allowed by a court system that is separate from him. I do not trust Trump. I do not always trust these checks and balances. But I do believe that our fears can get away from us as I think the president-elect will soon find out the limitations of what he can do. We must keep an eye on our government and not take our democracy for granted. We can channel our fears to keep watch over the government. But until he can get past the Democrat opposition in the Senate and the court system then the damage to our democracy will be limited. For this reason I remain cautiously optimistic.
April Kelly-Woessner: While I am concerned about the state of American democracy, I think that Trump’s rise to power is a symptom of what ails us, rather than the disease. In fact, Trump will be president because a large number of Americans already thought the democratic process was broken; electing a bombastic reality show star with no political experience and little in the way of an actual platform is an effective means of showing disaffection.
We heard them. We are now talking about the needs of the white working class voter. In that way, it is tempting to conclude that democracy worked. Yet, I do not believe that Trump represents the will of the people. I am skeptical that his presidency will actually bring about the sort of change his supporters seek. The 2016 election revealed that our current political climate impedes a thoughtful, deliberative, democratic process.
First, even if we were to argue that democracy is nothing more than “majority rule,” I would argue that Trump does not represent the will of the majority. Rather, due to dysfunction and poor leadership, both parties nominated candidates who had weak popular support. As the New York Times reported back in August, only 9% of America voted for either Trump or Clinton in the primaries. Exit polls show that, when forced to make a decision between these two unpopular choices in the general election, only 10% of voters were enthusiastic about their choice. In 2016, most Americans felt that they had no good options. This is not the sign of a healthy democracy.
Second, democracy clearly requires more than majority rule. The promise of democracy is only realized if people are capable of holding their leaders accountable. Thus, many democratic theorists posit that a free press is essential to democracy; a free press provides a check on government power by creating an informed, alert citizenry, which is capable of asserting its collective will.
When the information environment is filled with distortions, manipulations, and lies, government is no longer accountable to the people. The 2016 election was decided in a toxic information environment. Americans, who increasingly get their news from social media, were bombarded with one-sided propaganda. Not only did social media encourage people to retreat into political echo chambers, but these chambers were also filled with fake news. Too many Americans seem unable to sort out fact from fiction. Elections driven by propaganda, fear, and gross distortions of fact are not consistent with democratic theory. While I would not favor government-imposed limits on speech or the press, it is clear that Americans need to become better consumers of political information.
Finally, the post-Trump political environment promises to hasten the erosion of deliberative democracy. The 2016 race for the presidency was full of vitriol. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and Clinton’s vilification of Trump’s “deplorable” supporters further polarized the electorate into diametrically opposed camps, making it even less likely that partisan voters will listen to arguments from the other side.
I have to conclude that the recent election environment is a threat to democratic vitality. Civics education programs, with an emphasis on fostering political tolerance and reasoned dialog, may offer some hope if teachers and professors are committed to educational goals rather than political ones. We cannot continue to treat some perspectives and experiences as more valid than others. In adopting a political mission, institutions of higher education lose the credibility required to create dialog across lines of difference. Fostering understanding between groups in conflict requires that the people in power play the role of arbitrator, rather than the role of prosecutor.
Jarret Crawford: I agree with several of the points already raised. I agree with April that Trump is a symptom of a democracy in jeopardy. What I’d add to this is that that echoing Lee, Republicans are more to blame for setting the table for a Trump presidency. Polarization has increased, but evidence suggests that polarization has increased more rapidly on the right than on the left. Republicans’ near decade of obstruction succeeded in eroding support for institutions. Their embrace of fringe, racist conspiracy theories were bent on illegitimizing Obama. There has been little obvious concern with the well-being of our country or our democracy, and more concern with winning, with the ends justifying the means, no matter how craven. So, yes, I believe for many of the reasons Lee mentioned that Republicans have threatened democracy more so than Democrats, and for many of the reasons both Lee and George mentioned, I fear these will only get worse under a Trump presidency. I am afraid I’m not as optimistic as George. Filibusters can be easily broken by going nuclear. The despicable decision to stall Obama’s court pick not only guarantees Trump one Supreme Court nominee, but the aging court (especially with two liberal members in their 80s) makes it highly likely Trump will not only be able to shape the court immediately to his will, but will change the court for a generation.
To the list of anti-democratic and dangerous Trumpisms, I’d add flirting with calling for Hillary’s assassination (“2nd Amendment folks”), the sustained vitriol toward the press which has resurrected terms for the press not heard since Nazi Germany (Lugenpresse), and Trump’s embrace of tyrants and despots worldwide (including those, like Erdogan, who have suppressed university professors).
April’s comments about the press really resonate with me, too. We’ve seen the press attacked (Trump; fake news; social media echo chambers) and failing from within. Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” was mild compared to the information environment we find ourselves in today. I agree that we need better education in civics and information literary–but these goals are working in the face of robust motivated biases, and information sources tailored toward people’s priors.
Like George, I am not going to be taking our democracy for granted, and I believe that we require vigilance to protect whatever is left of it.
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