Will overreach undo the modern-day Caesars?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 9, 2017
An Indian woman holds 2000 INR notes as she has her finger marked with indelible ink after exchanging 500 and 1000 INR banknotes at a bank in Chennai AFP / ARUN SANKAR

An Indian woman holds 2000 INR notes as she has her finger marked with indelible ink after exchanging 500 and 1000 INR banknotes at a bank in Chennai AFP / ARUN SANKAR

An American political scientist recently told a rueful joke to explain how he felt about Donald Trump’s effect on the United States’s institutions and its system of liberal democracy. The joke went as follows: a biologist on a beach holiday is stung by a stingray and even as he howls in pain he’s ecstatic to have discovered a new species of the fish.

So too American political scientists. As citizens, many of them are worried about the challenges posed to the constitutional system by Mr Trump’s provocations. But as professionals, political scientists are fascinated to be able to watch, in real time, an unprecedented stress test for American institutions and for the checks and balances that have sustained the nation for 241 years. The question they ask is whether a liberal democracy can survive an elected political leader who challenges it.

Will Mr Trump ultimately manage to discredit the judiciary — one of the three pillars of government — by delegitimising judges who decide cases against the president? Will he prevail upon political appointees to the federal government to follow through on the internationally banned practice of torture for which he has affirmed regard? Will he roll back, as he has threatened, America’s careful separation between church and state? Will the US become a nation of men, rather than, as its second president John Adams hoped, a nation of laws?

These are legitimate questions. There are several examples from across the world map of elected politicians undermining institutions, gutting due process and hollowing out democracies. Mostly, these leaders style themselves as the voice of the people, silencing criticism in a way that leaves the state dependent on one man. (They have mostly been men, though Argentina’s former president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner also displayed imperious, markedly anti-­media impulses.)

These include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has consciously portrayed himself as the most macho of strongmen and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now barrelling his way towards a vastly more powerful executive presidency. Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who helped his country transition from the frozen politics of the Soviet era to liberal democracy, has taken it backwards into an autocratic centralised system that severely limits judicial oversight of legislation and fines private media outlets for “biased” coverage.

It was no coincidence that in July 2014, Mr Orban named Russia and Turkey as his role models to build an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary. It is also hardly coincidental that he, along with presidents Putin and Erdogan, has expressed support for Mr Trump, a compliment that America’s commander-in-chief promptly, and generously, returned.

Mark Malloch-Brown, a former United Nations deputy secretary general, recently described these politicians as “very strong leaders, not always that respectful of the rules of the game … a generation of Caesars” who are replacing bourgeois democracy with their own order.

Mr Malloch-Brown also cited one other “Caesar” — India’s Narendra Modi, who has exacerbated existing communal divisions to advance a polarising majoritarian politics. Interestingly, the Indian prime minister launched his most controversial and arbitrary policy — scrapping 86 per cent of the country’s banknotes — on November 8, the day of the US presidential election.

His critics said Mr Modi’s diktat was high-handed, hasty, ill-planned and cruel, causing enormous misery to millions of poor Indians without credit cards, bank accounts and technical or real literacy to negotiate a cashless society. Indian economic growth is forecast to slow but Mr Modi has, like the other “Caesars”, neither apologised nor explained much beyond questioning the integrity of his critics. According to recent reports in the Indian press, his government is said to have assembled a dedicated team of intelligence officers to identify “antinational” journalists.

In a funny way though, in India — an infant democracy compared with venerable America — there are some signs that the system that brought “Caesar” to power may eventually rein him in. Elections are under way in five Indian states and their results will be declared on March 11. Two of the states that have already voted — Punjab in the north and Goa in the west — had near-record turnouts, which some interpret as a profound desire for change, if not to send a message to those in charge. In both states, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party or its allies are in power and the upstart anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party may benefit if enough voters disapprove of the prime minister’s actions.

This brings us back to the original question anxiously, if avidly, being asked by political scientists. Can the American system prevent presidential overreach and will it survive a leader who repeatedly sets out to undermine its norms and rules? Like the Indian state elections, if they serve as a reality check for the BJP, will the 2018 midterms prove to be a sobering reminder to Mr Trump that power is not a permanent state of being?

It depends. MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, who co-wrote Why Nations Fail, is worried.

The 2012 book examined conundrums such as why the Korean Peninsula has one rich well-run country and another that is poor and repressed. The problem with elected leaders who undermine democracy, Acemoglu recently said, is that unlike tinpot dictators, they “have a much higher degree of legitimacy among some segments of the population”.

The perils of democracy were never so present.