Count the votes and pray: Is American democracy in danger?
Anxious citizens gathered outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall while proceedings of the 1787 constitutional convention ended. As Benjamin Franklin left the hall, a woman stepped from the bustling crowd and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got: a republic or a monarchy?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied, “A republic—if you can keep it.”
Franklin was well aware of the fragility of American democracy, and rightly so. All democracies are perpetually in danger of totalitarianism. And as an unprecedented, unconventional president settles into office, the strength of our democracy is being put to the test.
So what are the threats to democracy? The rise of anti-democratic politicians elected into public office is a glaring warning sign. For this reason, political scientist Juan J. Linz designed an indicative test to recognize anti-democratic behavior.
Linz concluded the characteristics of an anti-democratic politician are the failure to reject violence unambiguously, a quickness to suppress a rivals’ civil liberties and the distrust of the legitimacy of elected governments.
Two Harvard government professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, argue Donald Trump tests positive, citing his campaign’s promise to prosecute rival Hillary Clinton, his habitual threats to mass media and his accusation of millions voting illegally.
The act of denying the legitimacy of the voting process (i.e. tweeting “The election is absolutely being rigged…”) is an attack upon democratic values. The accusation diminishes public confidence in U.S. political institutions, such as voting, giving more weight to the populist demonization of our institutions.
Trump also demonizes the press by using the infamous phrase “fake news.” Similar to his accusations against the voting process, his accusations against mass media are attacks upon democratic values as well.
When the media is attacked, so too is the marketplace of ideas, the voice of rival political groups, the government watchdogs and public confidence in the press. In September 2016, the Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of the population say they have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the mass media.
When the public loses confidence in the institution designed to separate fact from fiction, citizens no longer know who to trust.
As NPR journalist Mara Liasson wrote, “If citizens can’t believe anything they hear, then the easiest path is to just trust the leader.”
Trump’s complete disregard for truth deviates from one the first expectations of elected officials: honesty. After all, truth leads to better public policy.
But Trump has been far from truthful, lying about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11, his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan war, his wealth and even the weather.
That said, Trump is not a dictator. He is far from Stalin or Castro or even Putin. But he is still Trump. And a dishonest president who threatens the press and denies the validity of democratic institutions is a potential dangerous mixture for democracy. Americans must remain watchful.
Jessica Ruf is a sophomore journalism and English major from Sioux Falls, S.D.