Saturday, November 2, 2019

America's regime cleavage risks a Trumpian last refuge

Bear with me. All that in the title will become clear.

David Gordon, writing in Blog for Arizona, observes that Republicans in the House of Representatives heard the call of History and Hung Up on It..

In a vote to formalize the next phase of the impeachment process, all the Republicans, who had complained, without much validity, that they had been shut out of the process in the closed-door depositions (Republicans and their counsel are in the room during all the withness presentations), just voted against the next stage which includes rules for public hearing, the release of transcripts from the closed-door depositions, and due process protections for the President.

Note “all” - even those few who are critical of Trump?

Jennifer Rubin (Washington Post), along similar lines, comments on how Every House Republican just ignored their oath of office. The key word here is “every”.

It was a sad spectacle, a confirmation that not a single House Republican (even those who are retiring) appreciates his/her oath of office, that not a single Republican can step away from partisanship and look to the greater good, and not a single Republican who is concerned enough about the extortion of a foreign government to influence our elections to do anything about it. For whatever they do in politics and in life, the vote on Thursday setting forth the procedures for public hearings on impeachment and the inevitable vote on articles of impeachment will define their public life.

Unless they see the light and vote for articles of impeachment, not a single one will be able say that, when the chips were down and the most dangerous president in history attempted to delegitimize our elections (by inviting interference) and to co-opt the government for private political gain, they put country over party. None will be able to claim that they stood against an invitation for a foreign government to investigate a U.S. citizen.

Not even Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), …

He’s the guy who will not run for reelection because, supposedly, of his negative opinion of what Trump is doing.

The quotes I’ve provided above are evidence of a growing fundamental divide in American politics. At some deep level, I suspect that Republicans all acknowledge Trump’s misdeeds and, no way to sugar coat it, his horse-shit character.

So, assuming I am correct, what prevents the GOPlins from doing the right thing?

(You might also observe that the very fact that I ask that question is evidence of the divide.)

Also, Mrs. Scriber chimes in thinking that Trump really believes he has done nothing wrong. Hence our very views of ethics and morality, what is right and what is wrong, are at odds.

So here’s one theory, if you will, about what all this means for our democracy. (With thanks to the tip from Scriber Subscriber Mark Mandel.)

Thomas Pepinsky, “a professor of government at Cornell University and a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution,” explains Why the Impeachment Fight Is Even Scarier Than You Think. Political scientists have studied what our democracy is going through. It usually doesn’t end well.

For decades, Republicans and Democrats fought over the same things: whose values and policies work best for American democracy. But now, those age-old fights are changing. What was once run-of-the-mill partisan competition is being replaced by a disagreement over democracy itself.

This is particularly evident as the president and many of his allies crow about the illegitimacy of the House impeachment inquiry, calling it an attempted coup, and as the White House refuses to comply with multiple congressional subpoenas as part of the probe.

This marks a new phase in American politics. Democrats and Republicans might still disagree about policy, but they are increasingly also at odds over the very foundations of our constitutional order.

Political scientists have a term for what the United States is witnessing right now. It’s called “regime cleavage,” a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself—in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions and laws may be ignored, subverted or replaced.

And there are serious consequences: An emerging regime cleavage in the United States brought on by President Donald Trump and his defenders could signal that the American public might lose faith in the electoral process altogether or incentivize elected politicians to mount even more direct attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. Regime cleavages emerge only in governing systems in crisis, and our democracy is indeed in crisis.

Just look at the hardening split among the American people on impeachment: The fraction of citizens who oppose the impeachment inquiry is the same as that who approve of the president, signifying that partisan disagreement over policy has turned into a partisan divide over political legitimacy. This cleavage shows up in discourse across the American political spectrum that labels one’s political opponents as un-American, disloyal, even treasonous. But it is clearest in the argument that it would amount to a “coup” to remove the president via conviction in the Senate, and thus that the regular functioning of the legislative branch would be illegitimate. These divisions are over the laws that set out plainly in our Constitution how the president can be subject to sanction.

Regime cleavages are different from other political “cleavages.” Conflict between left and right, for example, over issues such as taxation and redistribution, is healthy. Other cleavages are based on identity, such as racial conflict in South Africa, or religious divides between Hindus and Muslims in India or Protestants and Catholics during the past century in the Netherlands. Identity cleavages can be dangerous, but they are common across the world’s democracies and can be endured, just so long as different groups respect the rule of law and the legitimacy of the electoral process.

Regime cleavages, by contrast, focus the electorate’s attention on the political system as a whole. Instead of seeking office to change the laws to obtain preferred policies, politicians who oppose the democratic order ignore the laws when necessary to achieve their political goals, and their supporters stand by or even endorse those means to their desired ends. Today, when Trump refuses to comply with the House impeachment inquiry, he makes plain his indifference to the Constitution and to the separation of powers. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that impeachment overturns an election result, he is doing the same. In the minds of Trump, his allies and, increasingly, his supporters, it’s not just Democrats but American democracy that is the obstacle.

American politics is not yet fully consumed by this current, emerging regime cleavage. But if it continues without a forceful, bipartisan rebuke, we can expect that politics in the United States will increasingly come to be characterized by the kinds of intractable conflicts between populist outsiders, old-guard politicians, and the machinery of the state that have characterized presidential democracies in countries like Argentina and, more recently, Taiwan. Our regime cleavage has not yet hardened to the extent that it has in these countries, but if it does, it will not be possible to elect a president who can “end the mess in Washington” because both sides of the regime cleavage will argue that the other is illegitimate and undemocratic. Voters, understandably, will lose what faith they have left in the value of democracy itself. In the worst-case scenario, presidents and their supporters would be entirely unaccountable to Congress, while their opponents would reject the legitimacy of the presidency altogether.

Even worse: What if Trump refuses to acknowledge defeat by a Democratic opponent in 2020? What would happen in that case? Might the president’s supporters resort to violence? Might broad segments of the GOP simply refuse to recognize an elected Democratic executive as well?

Let me jog your memory. Trump has incited violence in past rallies. And can you imagine this guy, having been defeated at the ballot box, going meekly to join the ranks of other one-term presidents? That you cannot marks this as another indicator of the regime cleavage that threatens our democracy.

Protecting the rule of law, defending the separation of powers and restoring constitutional order to Washington increasingly seem as though they will require the impeachment, conviction and removal from office of the current president. At the very least, Americans of every political persuasion must demand that the administration take part in the impeachment proceedings, even if the Republicans in the Senate ultimately weigh partisanship over evidence in their vote. So long as the executive and legislative branches respect the procedures and powers outlined in the Constitution, we must all respect their legitimacy—regardless of the outcome. If we fail to agree on and abide by our common democratic principles, our emerging regime cleavage will harden, and the future for American democracy will be bleak.

I’ll close with this famous quote from the science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov.

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” -Salvor Hardin in Foundation - Isaac Asimov, US science fiction novelist & scholar (1920 - 1992).

Whatever else you might think of Donald Trump as president, I suspect that “competent” is not on your list. It’s not on mine. What we must hope for, then, is that Trump and his tribal followers do not embrace that last refuge.

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