As someone who studies politics, it is very clear to me that political institutions are orders of magnitude more important than individual policies. Policies and initiatives can be reformed, reversed, or expanded. Institutions, though, are far more fundamental and can’t be so easily modified, and this makes their preservation paramount.
Truly democratic institutions are relatively new to the political landscape. Indeed, even relatively liberal countries like Britain and the U.S. only fully expanded the franchise in the early to mid-20th century. Before that, politics was completely dominated by oligopolistic cabals of elite landowners, and the vast majority of citizens and their interests were barely represented at all. That so many people have forgotten this period and now take functional democratic politics for granted is both fantastic – it demonstrates how far we have come – but also dangerous – it allows dangerous democratic backsliding to occur because people don’t appreciate the vulnerability of democratic institutions. Voters from both sides need to step back and stop ignoring the forests for the trees. After all, if there isn’t a functional democratic ecosystem, policy change and reform will lack the environment they need to succeed.
Perhaps the clearest example of this flaunting of democratic norms was many Democratic voters’ wish that the Electoral College vote for someone other than Donald Trump for president. This wish is, to be kind, ill-advised. Frankly, it is irrelevant that the Constitution probably allows mass defection on the part of electors because norms, more than laws, shape and constrain political systems. As David Hume famously pointed out, a purely legal system makes no sense. One can sign a legal contract, but what ultimately compels someone to honor the contract? A person could sign another contract to honor the first, but then she could then just choose to violate both. The only solution to this paradox is the creation of societal norms that constrain action and pressure people to accept legal mandates. The kind of coup endorsed by distraught anti-Trump Democrats is unprecedented in the almost 250-year history of the United States and, while it probably would not violate the Constitution, would certainly damage American democratic norms, degrading the legitimacy of the institutions designed to select the American president. Overturning a deeply entrenched institution simply because one is mad that he lost an election is what illiberal authoritarians do, not democrats. Sure, there are many valid reasons to fear Trump and view his win with skepticism. He is manifestly unqualified, he may have received assistance from hostile foreign actors like Russia, and his policies will likely prove deeply damaging to the United States. But he won legitimately. It’s not like any of the aforementioned information wasn’t known before the election, so his victory is predominantly the fault of Clinton and the Democrats who allowed him to win in spite of all of his flaws. If he breaks the law – and let’s be real, he almost certainly will – then voters should force the government to hold Trump accountable and, if worst comes to worst, impeach him. Until he has actually done something wrong, though, it is entirely unacceptable to call for his overthrow. That is treason.
Sadly, this flagrant disregard for democratic norms and institutions is not a partisan issue. North Carolina Republicans are attempting similarly sketchy measures to weaken the power of a democratically-elected governor simply because he is from the other party. These measures, coupled with North Carolina’s notoriously unfair districting and racially biased voter suppression, have resulted in political scientists no longer even classifying the state of North Carolina as a democracy. Instead, specialists in comparative politics now argue that the state more closely resembles illiberal democracies like Russia and Venezuela: countries which maintain the appearance of being democracies but so corrupt and weaken their democratic institutions as to not accurately represent the will of the electorate. Given that states, due to the federal nature of the American republic, form the bedrock of democracy in the United States, it is completely unacceptable and incredibly dangerous to witness this kind of democratic backsliding at the state level.
Democracies can only function if there exists a loyal opposition: politicians of differing viewpoints who challenge and fight the incumbent government while still respecting their mandate and believing in the legitimacy of the democratic system. Republicans violated this norm after Obama won, promising to impede and stymie everything he and the Democratic congressional majority sought to do. Now we are witnessing the adoption of this attitude by people of both parties both nationally and at the state level, and that should be deeply concerning to everyone. Obviously, Americans have a broad range of views from all across the political spectrum, but fundamentally we should all respect and cherish the democratic institutions of our country. If you want to see your party win, then help promote a positive vision for the future and explain to people why the other side’s policies are misguided. But please do not try to break the democratic system in which we live because that is guaranteed to only result in a less representative government, more partisan civil society, and worse country for all of us.