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Trump Has Questioned Basic Norms of our Democracy. Is He Setting a Dangerous Precedent?

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Trump Has Questioned Basic Norms of our Democracy. Is He Setting a Dangerous Precedent?

Matthew Green

Watching the recent presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I was struck by several comments made by Trump:

* During a discussion of the two candidates’ economic plans, Trump remarked that “we have a Fed(eral Reserve) that’s doing political things…The Fed is not doing their job. The Fed is being more political than Secretary Clinton.”

* When Clinton accused Trump of paying no federal income tax, Trump replied, “That makes me smart.”

*Later, in a back-and-forth about foreign policy, Trump said to Clinton that President Obama was “your” president.

* At the end of the debate, when asked by the moderator whether he would “accept the outcome of the election” even if he lost, Trump avoided answering the question before finally admitting, “if she wins, I will absolutely support her.”

Some commentators shrugged off these remarks as further examples of Trump’s well-known penchant for bombastic, populist rhetoric. Indeed, Trump has said some of them on the campaign trail before, and they are arguably par for the course for a candidate who, as USA Today wrote in an unprecedented editorial, “is erratic” and “speaks recklessly.” But taken together, they represent an unprecedented critique of domestic political beliefs and institutions that, up until now, presidential candidates of both parties publicly agreed upon.

Consider, for example, Trump’s attack on the Federal Reserve. The Fed is an independent government agency, led by a well-respected economist (Janet Yellen) and a seven-member Board deliberately selected and term limited, as the San Francisco Fed’s website notes, in order “to shield them from political pressures.” Yet while many people routinely criticize the decisions of the Fed, it is unusual for a major presidential party nominee to openly accuse the entire institution of participating in partisan politics.

Similarly, I cannot think of a single time in modern debate history that a major presidential nominee bragged about not paying taxes, implied the president only represents (and by implication only has authority over) citizens of his party, and hesitated before accepting the sanctity of the election process.

What makes these comments so disturbing is that their targets are fundamental institutions and norms that underlie American democracy. Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties—not to mention the vast majority of American citizens— have long agreed that election outcomes represent the will of the people, paying taxes is the duty of all citizens, and presidents and the central bank serve the entire nation. These articles of faith matter because they help ensure functional and stable governance, respect by elites for the will of the people, and the peaceful transition of power from one party to another.

Scholars have long recognized that a working democracy relies not only on a set of written rules but social acceptance of democratic norms.   The great political scientist Robert Dahl noted this in his famous 1961 study Who Governs?, an analysis of the politics of New Haven, Connecticut. “A substantial decline in the popular consensus” around the “democratic creed,” he warned, “would greatly increase the chance of serious instability” (325). Trump, however, seems to be calling core elements of this creed into question.

There are two reasons why we cannot dismiss Trump’s words as empty. First, presidential candidates have a huge public platform, so their remarks may sway voters, shape their party’s platform, or encourage other candidates to mimic them. Second, and more disturbing, his remarks may alreadyreflect how many ordinary American citizens feel. One recent survey found that nearly half Americans (and nearly 70% of Trump supporters) believe election fraud happens somewhat or very often, even though the evidence for this is extremely thin. (To be fair, Bernie Sanders, who lost his bid to be the Democratic nominee, also repeatedly suggested that his defeat was unfair and undemocratic.)

Maybe these public attitudes—and Trump’s—reflect citizens’ healthy skepticism towards leaders and institutions that have done little to earn the public’s trust in recent years. That lack of trust, its origins, and ways to rebuild it is a growing focus of scholars and reformers, some of whom discussed the issue at a conference held at Catholic University earlier this year.

But there is a clear distinction between criticism designed to reform, and thus rebuild trust in, our democratic institutions, and criticism that further erodes the public’s faith in those institutions for no other purpose than to get a single person elected. The latter, I would argue, reflects a potentially dangerous precedent in presidential politics. We should hope that the leaders of our political parties will reject it.