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14/11/2016 AmericanDemocracyIsDying,andThisElectionIsntEnoughtoFixIt|ForeignPolicy

American Democracy Is Dying, and This

Election Isnt Enough to Fix It
The foundation of our political system is broken. And repairing it will take more than just
your vote.


U.S. prosperity and stability over the last two centuries has been built on the countrys unique brand of

inclusive institutions. The United States has laws that protect private property, encourage innovation, and

facilitate the functioning of the market while preventing it from being monopolized by a few. It has a political

system which prevents the domination of one group over the rest of society, provides the people with a voice

on how they should be governed, and enables most Americans to access education and share in the process of

wealth creation. These institutions dont function just because they are written on parchment paper. Our

much-revered Constitution, Bill of Rights, and all of the protections for freedom of religion and speech and

assembly and more that emanate from them only mean something because we have all agreed to respect

them. The Supreme Court is a powerful body only because we have developed political norms that make it

well-nigh impossible for presidents to cast its opinions aside when they please, as heads of government have

done in so many other countries.

Two norms, in particular, combine to hold the whole system together: respect for the law, and an openness to

the right of the people to organize, get engaged in politics, and demand from their representatives good

governance and societal change when necessary. Our institutions are not, and have never been, perfect. They

can create gridlock. They can also be captured: The vast American bureaucracy, the Congress, and even the

Supreme Court are always vulnerable to undue inuence by well-organized actors in society. But consensus

on the norms undergirding them a combination of respect and resilience has ultimately given these

institutions the exibility necessary to endure despite periods of popular discontent. It was this consensus

that allowed the United States to abolish slavery and enfranchise former slaves, shake o the dominance of

the robber barons, limit monopoly, and later build the beginnings of a social safety net.

Today, our institutions and the underlying political norms are facing some of the most challenging times they

have encountered in the modern era. American politics is in an iconoclastic phase, and the icons being

targeted are the moral foundations of our democracy. 1/9
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It is a recipe for political disaster that our system has largely brought on itself. First came the failures of

omission. Our institutions and political system stood by during the last three decades as the economy made

huge gains but most Americans beneted only a little or not at all. Both the bewildering array of new

technologies and the rapid rise in international trade made us much richer than our parents generation, but

also created massive dislocations, as millions of workers saw their jobs automated by machines or taken away

by cheap imports or oshoring. The inaction of those with the power to make the gains shared more equally

started chipping away at the foundations of a political system based on the belief that a rising tide should lift

all boats.

Then came the failures of commission. It wasnt news to anybody that large corporations and Wall Street,

which had been pouring billions of dollars into political inuence via lobbying and campaign nance, had an

outsized voice in Washington. It nonetheless was jarring that in the midst of the severest recession since the

Great Depression, the government sprang into action to save auto manufacturers and big banks (which were

almost certainly the right moves to prevent the recession from metamorphosing into a depression), but did

not deem it necessary to bring help to millions of households suering joblessness, foreclosures, and

debilitating uncertainty (which was as surely the wrong move both economically and, in hindsight,


On top of all this came the Republican Partys capitulation to Donald Trump. Building on the shoulders of

other political sinners, who have similarly polarized society and debased the public discourse, Trump has

managed to tear down the last vestiges of respect for American democratic institutions and an inclusive spirit

in public life. He exploded the ssures of our economic, political, and social life with the curious force and

strange attraction of his iconoclastic personality and the toxic energy of right-wing populist movements he

courted. 2/9
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We are now in the midst of the resulting whirlwind, which has been knocking down the unwritten laws of U.S.

public life. The presidential campaign has seen Trump demonize his opponents, aunt his rampant tax

avoidance, make almost-overt calls to violent action, and relentlessly question the motives of institutions,

such as the judiciary and the media, meant to keep unscrupulous businessmen and politicians, such as

Trump himself, on the straight and narrow. He has declared that he would see his opponent jailed if elected.

He has even pronounced that he may not recognize an electoral defeat. To top it o, Trump has trampled on

the norms protecting the disadvantaged: women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities and the disabled. He

has done all this and still been accepted as a legitimate candidate by the Grand Old Party.

In Why Nations Fail, James Robinson and I argue that inclusive institutions have a lot of staying power. They

come with inherent checks on power and an openness that makes it dicult for them to be hijacked. Trump,

however, has brought us to the brink of destroying the two political norms on which this system of inclusivity

depends. That Trump has demonstrated a agrant disrespect for the law is clear. But he has also accepted,

and even encouraged, the right of the powerful to bully the less powerful, and by doing so, has endangered the

openness that has been so crucial to our political systems long-term survival. How could we expect, without

this openness, people to continue to make demands for justice from politicians and businessmen more

powerful than themselves? Without these demands, how can our institutions continue to evolve to

accommodate changing needs, rather than collapsing?

Perhaps unwittingly, Donald Trump has thus created a critical test for our political system. Can we survive

him? Can we rebuild?

Complacency is dangerous: History is full of examples of the collapse of institutions that at one time appeared

to be robust. The once-inclusive institutions of Venetian Republic were captured, in the early 14th century, by

an oligarchy of the richest merchants, which no longer allowed others to have a say in the republics key

decisions and used its increased political power to further enrich itself a warning, perhaps, about the

increasing dominance of the rich in American politics. The Roman Republic, too, self-destructed via a series

of civil wars in the rst century BC, in part because some members of the republic stopped respecting the

political norms that had been so central to its survival: namely, respect for democracy. The widening gulf

between the rich and poor, and the growing size and duration of the military campaigns of the late Roman

Republic, led some Roman citizens to feel disempowered and receptive to the promises of would-be tyrants. 3/9
14/11/2016 AmericanDemocracyIsDying,andThisElectionIsntEnoughtoFixIt|ForeignPolicy

It is the Roman example, perhaps, that we have to watch out for most. The damage to the norms of respect for

democracy and rule of law that Donald Trump has wrought and the incipient slide in the publics trust in

institutions will not be blotted out by a Clinton victory on Tuesday. But its equally important to not forget the

pre-Trump sins of omission and commission by our political elites, the Democratic Party included. They also

played a role in corroding public trust by giving the impression that the political system is incapable of

identifying and responding to the problems of our age and that our leaders are less concerned about the plight

of Americans at large than about campaign contributions and the interests of big businesses, unions, and

other organized interests.

The test facing our inclusive institutions is a dicult one, but there is still no need to lurch from complacence

to despair. The challenges faced by Abraham Lincolns Republican Party, the progressive movement, or

Franklin Delano Roosevelt were no less severe, and the society in which they were situated was no less

polarized. But they had one thing going for them. They started with a clearheaded diagnosis of the problems.

Post-election, this must be our rst step, too.

At the root of our problems is our inability to create shared prosperity and the unwillingness of the political

system to discuss and tackle this problem. To equal our modern-day challenge, our institutions therefore

need to show that they can make the gains from new technologies and trade more widely shared; build a

much stronger and more rational social safety net; reform our tax and entitlement system; reduce the

increasingly onerous red tape confronting small businesses; improve our badly failing educational system (if

necessary over the objections of teachers unions); start investing in our long-neglected infrastructure; and at

last, recognize some of the most debilitating problems facing our societys most disadvantaged, including

violence in our inner cities and mass incarceration in our prisons. All this needs to be done without further

deepening the polarization that laid the tracks for Donald Trumps rise. Its a tall order, though not an

impossible one. And it will require that American elites recognize that the battle to save American democracy

wont be over on Tuesday, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Contributor


14/11/2016 AmericanDemocracyIsDying,andThisElectionIsntEnoughtoFixIt|ForeignPolicy






Chinese Kids Want to Believe in America, but

Were Not Making It Easy for Them
China has had a loving, and long-running, sibling rivalry with the United States until
Donald Trump barged in.


In a courtyard house in Beijing, I teach the future Chinese elite the past failings of America. My history

students, all Chinese, are bright high school seniors on course to study at top Western universities. AP U.S.

history is a perpetually oversubscribed course at the after-school academy, pulling in ve times the numbers

of its European equivalent. But in the past few months, the rise of Donald Trump has given a worryingly

eschatological feeling to the class, as if we were living through a long-predicted apocalypse. 5/9
14/11/2016 AmericanDemocracyIsDying,andThisElectionIsntEnoughtoFixIt|ForeignPolicy

In teaching history, its hard to escape the shadow of Trump. When we talked about the Founding Fathers fear

of demagogues and the ckle mob, he was there. When we talked about the Know-Nothings, the anti-

immigrant party of the late 1840s, or the fever of anti-Chinese hatred in California in the 1880s, he was there.

When we talked about the wartime panic that marched Japanese families into internment camps as potential

terrorists, he was there. I just hope the world is done with him by the time we get to the civil rights movement,

or hell be there in every picture of hateful faces screaming at black children.

Racism is the single hardest part of the American experience for idealistic Chinese teenagers to grasp. China

has plenty of ethnic prejudices of its own, but it has nothing that matches the poison of chattel slavery and its

aftermath. Chinese historiography, as taught in schools and absorbed through media, is crudely Marxist;

when I asked my students which factor determined voting preference more than any other in the United

States, three-quarters of them said class none said race. A gulf between the wealthy and the masses makes

instinctive sense to them; they see it in the streets and hear it in their parents discussions every day. Race


In fairness, nor does a lot of U.S. politics. One of my favorite techniques is to nd the most ridiculous parts of

the system and unpick their historical origins with the class. Theres a particular Wait, what! face my kids

make something like a confused owl when confronted with yet another absurdity, whether its

gerrymandering, libustering, or the fact that Wyoming, with about as many people as the average Beijing

district, has as many senators as California, with about as many people as the average Chinese province.

They make these faces because they care about America, and they nd its failings frustrating and scary. I

assigned them Hamilton for homework over Chinas national holidays, despite their skepticism about what

exactly a musical was and why they should spend three hours listening to it. The week after, I asked them how

it was and got a tumult of delighted responses: Oh my god! Unbelievable! So good! When I turned up

early for class a few weeks later, they were playing it on their laptops. They argue about U.S. politics and

history in Chinese after class. (Was Andrew Jackson a Republican? No, you twat, he was way before the

Republicans.) 6/9
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In most ways, my students are radically atypical: They are smart, well-traveled, and from families able to

aord my extortionate fees, for starters. But their fascination with the United States is shared with a huge

number of their peers. The United States is covered constantly in China in papers, on TV, in books, in

heated online discussions. Much of that is ltered through state media coverage that uses an increasingly

sour and paranoid lens. Yet beneath that, a strain of Chinese faith in the United States survives and my

students, in their inquisitiveness and engagement, reect that.

Throughout the 20th century, many educated Chinese maintained a deep, abiding belief in U.S. democracy. It

wasnt just a reference point for intellectual discussion, but a kind of faith, sometimes open, sometimes

maintained in secret. In the early years of the Peoples Republic, returnees from America, educated at Ivy

League colleges, brought back with them a varied mixture of socialist idealism and trust in U.S. principles

only to be persecuted as spies or traitors in the Cultural Revolution.

One of them, 30 years later, described the years he spent locked in an improvised prison, a morgue, for being a

counter-revolutionary. Speaking to the journalist Justin Mitchell, he said, I would wake up every morning

and go to the small window where I could see the sun and recite the Gettysburg Address. My friend Ami Li,

born in 1986 in the provincial town of Shijiazhuang, told me how his father had taught him about George

Washington, Thomas Jeerson, and Abraham Lincoln the great men of history.

Faith in the United States produces some odd acolytes, like my buddy Rick, who has never left China but was,

for years, a fanatical libertarian who spent his spare hours arguing on both Chinese and American political

forums. Being an acolyte of Ron Paul in China is like being a Trotskyite in America a position adopted as

much to piss o the people around you as for its own virtues. But underneath that was a devout belief. When

Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Rick blamed it on his lack of true libertarianism but increasingly

warmed toward Obama because he believes in the country and so do I. He is less enthusiastic about the

present Republican nominee. At a dinner just after the conventions, munching on a hamburger, he told me,

If Trump wins, I am ready to take up arms and ght him.

The ability to believe in America has taken a battering over the last two decades. The debacle of Iraq, followed

by the global nancial crisis inevitably, and not unfairly, referred to by Chinese media as the U.S.-caused

nancial crisis took the shine o American glory. That wasnt helped by some Chinese dissidents hailing

neoconservative ideals, such as future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, who wrote a cringingly awful

essay backing the Iraq War called Victory to the Anglo-American Freedom Alliance. 7/9
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But at the same time, as Chinas emerging urban rich began to engage with the United States more directly,

the country started to play an even greater part in the public imagination. Suddenly America was somewhere

you could go on holiday to, where your kids went to school, where you might plan an escape from polluted air

and sink the $500,000 needed for an investment visa into a business of your own. Online forums started to

explode on a daily basis with arguments about whether the United States was heaven or hell, about whether it

was amazing that you could turn up at an emergency room and the doctors had to treat you even if you

werent uninsured, or whether it was disgusting how much a meal cost.

For a mongrel like me, born in Britain to an Aussie mom and with family scattered across the West, Chinas

obsession with the United States can be a little frustrating, especially when its referred to as the be-all and

end-all of democracy and the welfare state. Other countries have functioning health systems! I cry. We

have sensible ranked voting! We only had one school shooting ever! And yet it makes sense. The United

States is the only country that matches Chinas size and scale. European countries, even Asian neighbors like

Japan and South Korea, are easy to dismiss as small nations that dont have Chinas problems. The ability of

the United States to hold, every two years, a free and fair(-ish) election cant be shaken o the same way.

And the truth is, I believe in the United States, too. I have ever since reading the rst Doonesbury collection I

picked up when I was 10 in Manchester, when I couldnt understand half the jokes but wanted to. I believe in

the country that saved the Soviet Union from starvation, that rebuilt its defeated enemies after World War II,

that created and embraced jazz and rock and hip-hop, and that makes the best TV in the world. I dont want

students to come away from my class disillusioned with the United States or pessimistic about its future. I

think of myself like a Jesuit scholar teaching biblical criticism at seminary; I want them to be believers, but I

want them to be smart believers. I teach them Americas failings because I want them to understand how

remarkable its successes are; how amazing it is that a ragtag nation, born in tar and feathers and whips and

chains, could mean something 200 years later to a man in a Chinese prison looking at the sun.

And I want them to understand the kind of women and men who did those things, who fought daily in the

pursuit of unlimited ends life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with limited means. I want them to

understand how hard and tiring it was and how many people never saw the promised land. I want them to

know how awed and broken many of those people were, how many of them were drunks or racists or just

given to waving their junk on Air Force One. I want them to know these things because I want them to ght for

the same things in another great country when theyre adults. 8/9
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And so I hope that I can keep believing in the United States after Tuesday evening, because I want them to

believe in it, too.

Photo credit: China Photos/Getty Images