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I have posted two connected essays on the phenomenon of constitutional rot on SSRN; the essays began as posts on this blog. Each approaches the problem of constitutional rot from a slightly different angle.
The first hundred days of Donald Trump's presidency led many commentators to ask whether the United States was in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Drawing on previous work written with Sanford Levinson, this essay explains why that is not the case. Trump's demagogic rise to power, however, suggests that a different phenomenon is at work: constitutional rot.
When politicians disregard norms of fair political competition, undermine the public's trust in government, stroke polarization, encourage mutual fear and hatred of fellow citizens, and repeatedly overreach to rig the political system in their favor, they cause the system of democratic and republican constitutionalism to decay. The decay of norms that maintain a democratic republic is the phenomenon of constitutional rot. Many claims about "constitutional crisis" during Trump’s presidency reflect a growing recognition of the constitutional rot in our nation’s political institutions.
The essay explains the differences between constitutional crisis and constitutional rot and how the two are connected. Whereas constitutional crises normally occur over brief periods of time, constitutional rot is often a long and slow process of change and debilitation, which may be the work of many hands over many years.
The election of a demagogue like Trump is evidence that our institutions have seriously decayed, and judging by his presidential campaign and his first hundred days in office, Trump promises to accelerate the corruption. The constitutional system in the United States may well be able to survive even Donald Trump’s misadventures. But Trump’s rise to power, his conduct of the presidency, and the inability (or unwillingness) of members of Congress to stop him, are signs that all is not well in American constitutional democracy. At some point, if we put too much weight on our democratic institutions, they will snap. There is currently no actual constitutional crisis in the United States. But if constitutional rot continues, we are living on borrowed time.
Constitutional rot refers to the decay of features of a constitutional system that maintain it as a healthy republic. Constitutional rot has been going on for some time in the United States, and it has generated the country's current state of dysfunctional national politics. Constitutional rot has made American politics increasingly less democratic, less republican, and more oligarchical.
The causes of constitutional rot are four interlocking phenomena, which we might call the Four Horsemen of Constitutional Rot: (1) political polarization; (2) loss of trust in government; (3) increasing economic inequality; and (4) policy disasters--important failures in decisionmaking by our representatives, such as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis. Each of these four phenomena exacerbates the others. In addition, America's inadequate response to globalization has hastened constitutional rot.
As a political system becomes increasingly oligarchical, it also becomes less equal, more polarized, and generates greater distrust, both of government in general and of political opponents. People not only lose trust in government, but in other people who disagree with them. Political opponents appear less as fellow citizens devoted to the common good and more like internal threats to the nation.
When people lose faith in government, they are likely to turn to demagogues who promise to make everything right and restore former glories. The rise of Donald Trump, who has many of the traits of a traditional demagogue, is a symptom of constitutional rot, rather than its cause.
Constitutional rot not only allowed Trump to gain power; he also has incentives to increase constitutional rot to stay in power; for example, by increasing polarization, and sowing distrust and confusion. Many of his actions as president—and his media strategy—make sense from this perspective.
Moreover, Trump, like many populist demagogues before him, has maintained populist rhetoric while abandoning any serious effort at pushing for genuinely populist policies. Once populist demagogues take power, they often discard the people who helped put them there; instead, they substitute new backers who are easier to deal with and/or pay off to stay in power.
The United States still retains many structural advantages that might allow it to halt and reverse constitutional rot, including an independent judiciary, a free press, and regular elections. In fact, Trump's presidency likely represents the end of an enervated political regime, and not the necessary future of politics. Although the present situation looks bleak, the next several election cycles offer the possibility of political renewal if Americans can rise to the challenge.