In its 2016 “Democracy Index” report, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States from a “full” to a “flawed democracy”. The report cited “an erosion of trust in political institutions” as the primary reason for the downgrade.1 In January 2018 Freedom House made a more dire assessment: “democratic institutions in the US have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity and political influence.”2
Declining levels of political participation and public confidence in government in the US are not new, but the populist forces that propelled the election of Donald Trump in 2016 signaled a new level of public disillusionment with democratic politics as usual. There has been a sharp increase in democratic discontent over the last fifteen years. An October 2017 Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 71% of Americans believe that political polarization and democratic dysfunction have reached “a dangerous low point”. Three years earlier, in 2014, a Gallup Poll showed that 65% of Americans were “dissatisfied with their system of government and how it works,” a dramatic reversal from 68% satisfaction twelve years earlier in 2002.
How resilient is liberal democracy, and how broad is its base of support? On a global level there is evidence of both erosion and resilience. A November 2017 report of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization that assesses the state of democracy worldwide, put it this way: “The current situation is more positive than suggested by an increasingly gloomy view that democracy has been in decline for the last ten years or more. This period appears to be one of trendless fluctuations in which gains and downturns in individual countries
tend to balance each other out at the global level.”3 From this vantage point, democracy in the US may be resilient when compared to some other democracies where neo-authoritarian leaders -- such as Orban in Hungary, Kaczyński in Poland, and Erdoğan in Turkey -- have recently undermined the independence and functioning of pluralist institutions.
But the health of American democracy has been called into question. Experts are divided on whether the illness reflects an ongoing struggle in the US by the proponents of liberal democracy to fend off anti-democratic tendencies ,4 or a long-term trend toward democratic deconsolidation.5 This paper considers a sampling of evidence about attacks on key institutions and elements of democracy in the US during the first year of the Trump administration, and potential sources of democratic resilience in the media, the judiciary, law enforcement, democratic norms and principles, the electoral process, civil society, state and local government, the federal civil service, and the Congress. The stakes are high. A central question, posed by a provocative new book, How Democracies Die, by Harvard scholars Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Zieblatt, is whether these institutions will withstand anti-democratic pressure, or “become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not?”6
Following is a summary of the Trump administration’s challenges to democratic institutions during its first year and an assessment of institutional resilience compiled in this report.