The terms ‘democratic backsliding and ‘executive aggrandizement’ are generally used when referring to countries such as Russia and Turkey. Recently, however, they have become more relevant in describing the United States. How has America, the prior pinnacle of democracy, started to backslide? Historically, the breakdown of democratic regimes tended to take place in spectacular and dramatic fashion with news reports of military coups and authoritarian leaders seizing power. Conversely, in the 21st century, democracies have been weakened by the very leaders who used those systems to come to power. Unfortunately, the United States is amongst those democracies.
Executive aggrandizement refers to when an authoritarian executive branch of government legally seizes power from the legislative and judicial branches. To find an example of this, look no further than Russia, where the Constitution was amended in 2008 to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to serve successive terms as President and to his own actions as President in exacerbating Russian kleptocracy and corruption. These actions have allowed the executive branch in Russia to gain vast amounts of power. And unfortunately, democratic backsliding does not just stop with the seizure of such power. Rather it is aggravated and worsened when states declare emergency situations. Turkey’s democratic backsliding, for example, has been worsened by the attempted coup d’état in 2016. Since then, Turkey’s constitutional court (i.e. its judicial branch) has been rendered practically powerless.
Perhaps the easiest way through which many states begin the process of democratic backsliding is through the creation of emergency situations. When something such as a trade war or a border crisis comes to light, it makes it that much easier for the executive branch of government to take more power from the legislative and judicial. These emergency situations breed an environment of security and fear, which reaffirms the exceptional role of the executive. In other words, making any concept an existential threat implies that a government has the power to act exceptionally in order to maintain peace and order. In theoretical terms, this is known as securitization – where a government equates an issue such as border security or freedom from terrorist attacks with the survival of the state. A state only successfully securitizes any one of these issues if the audience accepts it as such. In the United States, many believe that the system of checks and balances will help withstand the increasing power of the executive. This implies that many citizens believe that regardless of the exceptional security issue at stake, the system of checks and balances as well as the Constitution will prevent any undemocratic behavior. However, how true can that be when neither the legislative nor executive branch of government are willing to show restraint?
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of executive aggrandizement that applies to the United States today is the weakening of key democratic institutions.
Looking at the US government today, many parts of government have neither direction nor leadership. For example, President Trump has failed to nominate key figures for many important positions in the American government and subsequently, Congress has failed to confirm them. Even more concerning is the lack of oversight on behalf of Congress of the President. The Republican Congress currently in power supports most, if not all, of the President’s actions – regardless of whether it goes against established Republican policy. This, however, did not start with the most recent election. The United States has never fully trusted the ‘will of the people.’ In fact, the founders were so concerned about the prospect of mob rule that they created the Electoral College along with many other organizational positions through state and federal governance. These, along with political parties themselves, have acted as gatekeepers against extremist leaders. In other words, the organizational bureaucracy of US government has protected the system against demagogues.
However, constitutional safeguards are not enough. Without the maintenance of these safeguards through strong democratic norms – it becomes too easy to sidestep such laws and follow the Constitution as it was written rather than the spirit of it. In fact, democratic norms within government may be more important than democratic institutions themselves. When the question of backsliding then comes to the forefront – the answer will lie with norms. One might think that it was the election of Donald Trump that spurred on this democratic backsliding. His actions throughout his presidential electoral run as well as his behavior in the presidency itself has certainly not been the norm for other Presidents. However, the combative nature of Republican vs. Democratic politics has been contentious since the 1970s. Throughout the Clinton, Bush and Obama eras, each respective party in power has used the opportunity to ignore the other party and work towards increasing their own power, rather than working together with the other side.
While much of the news points to the extreme nature of executive aggrandizement that the United States has been experiencing lately, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2017 report would suggest otherwise. Rather, the report states, “The decline in US democracy score [from full to flawed] reflects an erosion of confidence in government and public institutions over many years. Trump’s candidacy was… rather a consequence of it.” In other words, US democracy is weakening due to a lack of public trust in government institutions. This is one of those democratic norms that is eroding in the new era of the US.
Under Trump, executive aggrandizement is reaching a new high in the United States. Both the President and the Republican party have been weakening the role of the states in much of American life, weakening the democratic norms that have upheld the American democracy for the past 242 years. Furthermore, the creation of external threats all serves to bring more power to the executive branch. Take the new trade war with China and former European allies, the Iran nuclear threat, and the border crisis – each of these emergency situations all fall within the purview of the executive branch. To solve these issues, the President is consolidating power and weakening the legislative branch of government by acting through executive orders.
Strong multilateralism is, in of itself, a check on the executive branch.
For the US, however, it goes beyond domestic democratic systems – executive aggrandizement is also innately linked with international democratic institutions and norms. The US was a founding member of many of critical international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO and the UN Human Rights Council. Now, however, the President often calls the institutions weak and failing. Multilateralism acts a check on the executive branch of other countries, creating a reputational test for Presidents and Prime Ministers. What does it then say that the US recently withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council citing “chronic bias against Israel and a lack of reform?” Last year, the US also withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and the Iranian nuclear deal. All of these actions serve to reaffirm the President’s message that the multilateral system of the world stage is doing nothing for the American people. In fact, it strengthens his own argument that the US is alone – as other states and governments criticize American immigration actions on their own border.
The continuing executive aggrandizement in the US has troubling consequences for not only the current state of affairs in the US itself, but also for its future governing system. Unfortunately, this is not just a Trump phenomenon that can be blamed on the current leader in power. Rather, the American executive branch has been growing more powerful for decades. The polarization of different political parties has been on the rise since the 1970s and has only gotten worse through the impeachment proceedings of Clinton, the refusal to work with Bush judicial appointees and the refusal to accept Obama as a legitimate President.
What makes this particular phase of America executive aggrandizement different than the others however, is the poisonous combination of an external rejection of international democratic institutions and a distaste for democratic norms within the US. It begs the question: just how different is the US from other countries like Turkey and Russia concerning the risk of democratic backsliding? While many within the country believe in the checks and balances system that has protected the country for so long, how realistic is it to believe in that system if the people within it are not acting within democratic norms?