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The Tipping Point: Can American Institutions Be Saved?

January 29, 2019
by Glen Martin

Depending on how you spin it, the recent government shutdown was either an example of the Republicans cynically rolling the Democrats, or the Democrats electing to strategically fold their tents and fight for the Dreamers another day. Either way, nobody was playing chess; it was more like 52 pickup. So even though President Donald Trump contributed little to the process, other than reneging on an early compromise agreement, he somehow came out looking a trifle less inept than everyone else.

That puts things back at square one and business as usual: waiting for the President’s latest quotidian outrage. Americans are in broad agreement that Trump is a disrupter without political peer. We only diverge on whether that’s good or bad. In academia, of course, the general view is that it’s bad. This largely holds true even among the social and economic conservatives who inhabit the Ivory Tower. But just how much of an impact is Trump exerting on our underlying institutions? Are his actions merely a pause in government-as-usual, or do they bode to change the essential nature of the American polity?

That’s difficult to evaluate at this point, emphasizes Paul Pierson, the John Gross Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley, because Trumpism is unprecedented.

“People reach for analogies, but we’ve never been in a position that has strong parallels,” says Pierson, the coauthor of The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism (Princeton University Press).  “Ultimately, this isn’t so much about Trump, but about our highly polarized political situation. We had deep polarization pre-Civil War, of course, but that had one dominant cleavage, and it occurred during a time when government was not so central to our lives. The simple fact is that modern society requires [a large and complex government] to function reasonably well. We’ve been moving toward the current clash since 1990, and it could well be a zero sum conflict between two coalitions.”

“It’s not just a matter of disobeying the law. Unwritten conventions are a big part of what make government

The impacts could be both numerous and far-reaching, says Pierson, “but I’m especially worried about the corrosion of our system of checks and balances, given that people are exhibiting loyalty first and foremost to party and coalition rather than the institutions they represent. That’s the case with both parties, but it’s stronger and more radical on the Republican side, and it’s especially evident in Congress. At this point, we can’t be at all sure the Republican majority will act as a significant countervailing power [to the executive branch], even when it involves the most profound challenges to our political system, such as foreign interference in our elections.”

Daniel Farber, a Berkeley Law professor and the co-faulty director of the school’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment, says Trump is eroding the essential structure of government, and that the effects are likely to be long-lasting. To function, government relies on the expertise of professionals whose skills and knowledge are developed over years or decades, says Farber, and these veteran employees are now leaving the federal government in droves. Nor is it just a case of replacements lacking the same degree of competence; for the most part, there aren’t any replacements. Crucial agencies and departments are being hollowed out.

“From what I read, it’s particularly bad at the State Department and EPA,” Farber says. “They’re suffering institutional damage that may take a very long time to repair.”

Trump has been accused by his critics of simply ignoring or actively undermining legal statutes. That’s dangerous, says Farber, “but it’s not just a matter of disobeying the law. Unwritten conventions are a big part of what make government work.” Former President Barack Obama recently expressed a similar sentiment, obliquely condemning Trump for his ineptness in “…shaping attitudes, shaping culture, [and] increasing awareness…” during a recent conversation with David Letterman.

“You have to know how to conduct yourself and who to consult,” says Farber, “but Trump doesn’t know about these conventions, doesn’t care about them, or both.”

As an example, Farber cites Trump’s expressed frustration at being barred from interfering with U.S. Department of Justice investigations.

“Once you start knocking [such implicit conventions] around, it’s not clear how robust of a recovery you’ll see,” Farber says.

But aside from disregarding long-honored conventions and establishing a general tone of coarseness in Washington, Trump also is having a palpable influence on the direction of government, observes Berkeley Law professor Amanda Tyler.

Law and Order

“He already has made a significant mark on the federal judiciary and shows no signs of slowing down,” says Tyler. “Right now he has more than 140 judicial vacancies before him, and almost 50 nominations pending.”

Tyler says that Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court is also “enormously significant.”

“He is a very different judge than Merrick Garland [who Barack Obama nominated for the court following the death of Justice Scalia, and who was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate]. That difference could be the deciding factor in many close [upcoming] decisions, though at this point it’s difficult to say. Much could depend on any future appointments [to SCOTUS] Trump may be able to make.”

Trump’s nominees to the federal courts have been a mixed bag, observes Tyler. Some bring impeccable credentials to their positions, and some nominations have been withdrawn due to poor qualifications.  Philosophically, the nominees reflect the conservative—or in some cases, alt conservative— cast of the administration.

“Whether that’s good or bad depends on perspective,” Tyler says, “but these are lifetime appointments, and they’ll have ramifications for decades to come.”

Tyler, who is circumspect about issuing value judgments on both Trump’s agenda and his judicial nominees, adds that the President’s sporadic attacks on judges, sometimes by name, “are deeply unfortunate.”

“We’re 200 years into this experiment [of a constitutional republic], and its continued success depends in very great measure not just on compliance to the written words of constitutional text but also on a fundamental respect each branch of government demonstrates for the roles the other branches play. His attacks on judicial decisions and judges are troubling in regard to this basic truth of our governmental structure.”

The Fourth Estate

Other foundational institutions could be altered by Trump, say analysts. Berkeley Law professor Bertrall Ross says he’s particularly concerned about the media, which Trump has characterized as an “enemy of the people.”

“Journalists have been the watchdog of government throughout history,” Ross says. “Citizens receive essential information about their government through the media, and it’s the primary means for holding their representatives accountable. So when the nation’s leader attacks the media, makes a point about sowing doubt, it diminishes this crucial watchdog role. Also, the media itself is becoming polarized, and that can be seen as delegitimizing.  Ultimately, leaders can be held less accountable.”

Greying Green Protections

Another primary concern of Trump watchers is the environment. In his one year since taking office, Trump has withdrawn from international climate change accords, slashed acreages for national monuments, declared most U.S. coastal waters open to oil drilling, killed clean power plant rules, hobbled the U.S. EPA, and generally underplayed the necessity of environmental regulation.

“At the national level there’s a lot of horrible damage being done,” says Haas School of Business and political science professor emeritus David Vogel. “Conceivably, much of that could be turned around with a new administration, but you’d still have significant impacts for the next three years [remaining of Trump’s current term]. Also, some of the damage could be irrevocable. Action we take or don’t take now on climate change, for example, may have permanent consequences.”

Kate O’Neill, a professor at Cal’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, agrees with Vogel that Trump’s moves on the environment are regressive, but notes they may not be quite as consequential as they seem, at least in the global arena. In terms of real impacts, she says, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement is not as significant as George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

“That said, Trump claimed he might rejoin the Paris agreement if he ‘gets a better deal,’ but that’s not how these things work,” says O’Neill. “It’s highly unlikely other countries will want to participate in new negotiations. Further, the U.S. is actually still involved in the agreement. It takes two to three years to withdraw after announcing the intention to do so, and who knows what will happen by then?”

“It’s as though we hate the world but we still want to meddle.”

Indeed, Trump has not evinced overt hostility to other international environmental accords, including those phasing out ozone-depleting hydrofluorocarbons, protecting endangered species and reducing mercury pollution.

“The larger problem, of course, is that he tends to lash out at anything that hints at environmental protection or regulation, even if it makes complete economic sense and has a lot of corporate support,” O’Neill says. “What concerns me generally is that we’re stepping back from our historic leadership role on environmental protection, and as we step back, China is stepping in. They want to be seen as a superpower, not just in economic terms, but increasingly in environmental protection as well. And if the U.S. is diminished in this field, it contributes to an overall diminishment of influence.”

America In the World

Further, says O’Neill, Trump’s quixotic behavior puts his administration in the paradoxical position of withdrawing from the international community even as it confronts it.

“We’re perceived as retreating to an isolationism similar to what we saw before World War II,” she says, “but at the same time, our bellicosity is increasing. It’s as though we hate the world but we still want to meddle. We’re pulling back on humanitarian work while we’re courting strong men like Putin and threatening North Korea.”

James Dempsey, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, also thinks quite a bit about the President and China, not so much for what Trump has done, but for what he hasn’t done. He characterizes the President’s “overall lack of interest” in science and technology as worrisome, and is particularly concerned about lagging U.S. efforts in developing and refining artificial intelligence.

“Putin observed that whoever controls AI will be the winner,” says Dempsey, “and at this point the Chinese are on the path to do that. We’ve devoted some private money [to funding AI research], but we have no national commitment. China has made such a commitment, and it worries me. Whoever gets there first will have significant control of the global economy, and probably the military edge as well.”

Inequality for All

But if there is one overriding long-term impact to Trump’s presidency, says Pierson, it could well be the expansion and entrenchment of inequality. America’s economic system has become so fundamentally inequitable, Pierson maintains, that political power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few  and the very rich, with Trump’s policies only accelerating the trend.

Voter I.D. laws and gerrymandering are consolidating factors in this economic and political inequality, says Pierson, “so even in states that may be more or less equally divided in terms of party affiliation, Republicans are able to maintain the institutional advantage.”

Moreover, says Pierson, the American political system gives the less populated, and Trumpian, states disproportionate power and influence. That could skew future elections for a long time to come.

“Fielding candidates who only appeal to people in and around large cities is unlikely to prove a sound elective policy for the Democrats,” says Pierson. “Maybe they can win presidential elections, especially with the popular vote, but that’s not a formula for success in the Senate, and even the House these days. Candidates have to be able to speak to rural areas and the Rust Belt, where people feel left out.”

Which isn’t to say the structure of the republic will be irrevocably altered by Trump, of course: If nothing else, his election proved that anything can happen. And one of those possibilities is a forceful rejection of Trumpism and a commitment to resuscitating established political norms.

“Polls are showing that voters are increasingly skeptical that Trump is a man of the people,” Pierson says. “Increasingly, he’s seen as a conservative, not a moderate or populist. He made huge promises during the campaign to left-behind communities, promises that were not consistent with traditional Republican values, and he hasn’t followed through with them. He still has a tremendous capacity to feed the anger of others—but that’s different from fulfilling his promises that he was going to help people. His strategy may not work a second time around.”

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