Thursday, May 09, 2019

The Trump Era Has Pushed Scholars to the Limits of Our Understanding

Guest Blogger

For the symposium on Sanford Levinson and Jack M. Balkin, Democracy and Dysfunction (University of Chicago Press, 2019).

Julia Azari

Since Trump won the 2016 Republican nomination, limits, along with their metaphorical cousin, guardrails, have dominated the discourse among a certain set of Trump critics. First, observers asked how Trump had won the nomination in the first place, in light of Republican elite opposition to his candidacy. Once Trump was elected, questions emerged about the power of institutions, formal and informal, to hold off the worst tendencies of the new administration. The past three years have been instructive, teaching us about the ability of our system to thwart different kinds of attempts to disrupt it, the limits of those limits, and about the ways in which our language for understanding politics fails to adequately grasp the situation at hand. The epistolary format of Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson’s Democracy and Dysfunction allows for the exploration of each of these ideas as they are turned over in the heads of two leading law and politics scholars. Reading their analysis allows us to contemplate three limits that have conceptual, intellectual, and practical significance.

The limits of history

Some of Balkin’s portions of the text attempt to place Trump in Stephen Skowronek’s political time framework, identifying him (as I and others have also done) as a disjunctive president whose election signals the close of the Reagan era. Understanding Trump this way helps to make sense of his relationship with the Republican Party. It also suggests some ways in which the Trump presidency might give rise to a different era in politics. Perhaps some of the popularity of this thesis as a way to understand Trump is that it provides something of a clear roadmap for how the country will emerge. But the “constitutional rot” that the authors identify has challenged the ability of would-be reconstructive actors to coalesce around key issues and constituencies. On page 74, Balkin describes how the fragmented Constitutional structure features institutions that “protect republicanism by continuously generating a cadre of opponents to contest the dominant regime, and by giving these opponents a stake in engaging in politics from within the system rather than outside of it.”

This statement helps to describe how reconstructive politics takes place. A new regime does not automatically begin because a disjunctive administration discredits the old one. Rather, building a new regime requires party building, development of a governing vision and social movements. These elements are in place in 2019 to some extent. But the current era has some features that call into question whether the reconstruction process will unfold as it has in the past. Weak parties exist alongside partisan polarization, which means that partisan opposition to the Trump administration is vehement and angry, but the linkages between social movements and the Democratic Party are more tenuous. Distrust of political parties remains an obstacle for the development of a vibrant and organized electoral and governing coalition. Partisan divisions are also driven by attitudes about race and immigration, and Democracy and Dysfunction also points out the ways in which the current era breaks from the past in this regard. The authors point out Trump’s demagoguery and reliance on xenophobic appeals. Racism and xenophobia are, unfortunately, better characterized as the historical norm, but the authors are correct that they are deployed uniquely in contemporary politics, combined with both negative partisanship and the current president’s periodic disregard for the rule of law and the values of democracy. We have both a president who is distinct in history and an era in political time that differs from previous ones in important structural ways. This combination points to the limits of history as a clear set of instructions for what might happen next.

The limits of institutions

A major theme that that the authors contend with in their exchanges is the ways in which American institutions are not serving the ends of democracy or the interests of society. However, the exchanges highlight the difficulty of coming up with objective criteria for institutional performance. Early in their conversations, as the 2016 election was still in the future, Balkin asks Levinson how to distinguish between a genuine crisis and a set of policy outcomes that his interlocutor does not favor. At times, both scholars lament the shortcomings of the Constitution as a document that ensures representation and responsiveness. Their diagnoses traverse both institutional and substantive ground; by the end of the book “income inequality, corruption, and racial animosity” have become central in the analysis of what ails American democracy. A central contradiction arises from this evolving description of the problem. Institutional solutions – new laws governing campaign finance, restructuring political representation – are low-hanging fruit for scholars of law and institutions, of course. But how much do Constitutional structures actually shape politics, and how much is the current political situation primarily a reflection of changes and problems in society. Certainly, its structures have helped to create the problems we face. The Electoral College and the Senate have elevated some voices at the expense of others, for example. However, another read on the situation is that while the Constitution’s text hasn’t changed very much, society and political conflict have changed a great deal. Powerful actors have engaged in different political strategies in order to consolidate power, whether these actions were through party patronage networks or modern lobbying and campaign finance. It may be heresy to say this in some political science and law circles, but perhaps the institutions are not the central problem.

Balkin refers to the constitution as what “make politics possible.” This is undoubtedly true in an important sense. Stable rules are a critical part of a functional democracy, and it matters how those rules work. Nevertheless, rules do not necessarily force political leaders to confront challenges head on; it may not be that the Constitution is an impediment to addressing inequality, racism, and corruption, but that these problems require substantive as well as institutional thinking and change.

The limits of the media environment  

An additional tension in the text surrounds the role of the press. The authors identify the news media as part of the initial problem; media certainly played a role in Trump’s rise to prominence; violations of norms about campaign language and behavior are bad for democracy, but tailor-made for the novelty rewarded by a commercial news cycle. Traditional and newer forms of media alike are susceptible to these incentives. Despite the critique of the media’s role in Trump’s candidacy, the authors also conclude that the 45th president’s election constituted a moment of change for this industry. Trump’s attacks – and the need for transparency and investigation – renewed the purpose of journalism. While various forms of media have responded to this new imperative with eagerness and new slogans, language has proven to be more of a problem. Recently, the New York Times came under some fire for referring in a headline to an “inaccurate refrain” used by Trump at a rally. The country’s paper of record, in particular, has drawn criticism for relying on euphemisms and weak language to describe the administration’s actions. News media is up against several challenges in the age of Trump. In addition to generally low public trust, deep partisan differences exist, with a majority of Republicans reporting very low confidence in the press as an institution. Added to these pressures are, of course, financial constraints as well as journalistic norms about remaining above the political fray.

But as the Trump administration departs further from accepted practices – the president’s tweets, the vacancies in the executive branch, the response to the Mueller investigation – the limits of history and the limits of institutions culminate in the limits of language. Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker on April 30, 2019, after observing an event with a member of the Trump State Department, Kiron Skinner, that “the language we use to construct political reality is crumbling.” Of one of Skinner’s statements, Gessen wrote, “It was like saying that someone who has carpet-bombed your city has turned your fellow-citizens into builders again: technically it’s true, but morally and intellectually it is a lie.”

In the current political moment, using language that feels honest – that correctly identifies racism, sexism, and affronts to other democratic values – requires an upfront ideological and political commitment in a way that was not the case a decade ago. Fights over language, with real stakes, have always existed, of course. But the current president has changed the landscape of political language, stymied the usual practices of reporting news and holding politicians accountable, and deepened the partisan wedge around these questions. This is a challenge to democracy that goes beyond institutions and cuts at the very meaning of a shared political community. The past is a guide, but we are entering uncharted territory.

Prof. Julia Azari is Associate Professor and Assistant Chair in the Department of Political Science at Marquette University. You can reach her by e-mail at julia.azari at

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