Trust deficit in US federal bodies cries for attention

Two narratives have come to describe this nadir of an already-tumultuous presidential transition in the United States.

By Daron Acemoglu

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Published: Thu 21 Jan 2021, 9:54 PM

The storming of the US Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters on January 6 may be remembered as a turning point in American history. The insurrection, incited by the president himself, has raised profound questions about the kind of political institutions future generations will inherit.

Two narratives have come to describe this nadir of an already-tumultuous presidential transition in the United States. The first frames the Capitol insurrection as a singular failure of US institutions, which implies that the solution is to clamp down on right-wing extremists, social-media echo chambers, and their mainstream enablers.

But while such measures are long overdue, this narrative fails to capture the extent to which the Capitol attack was a direct result of Trump’s presidency, or the economic hardship and social grievances that led to Trump’s rise. In addition to leaving the country alarmingly polarised, Trump’s single term also fundamentally damaged US institutions, and decimated political norms that a well-functioning democracy needs.

The second prevailing narrative is even wider of the mark. It celebrates those Republicans — like Georgia’s Voting Systems Implementation banager, Gabriel Sterling — who stood up against Trump’s falsehoods and attempts to overturn the election. This narrative frames the failure of the MAGA coup as inevitable, owing to the fundamental strength of US institutions. And yet, this mythical institutional resilience has been notably absent for most of the past four years. Even after they themselves were attacked, a majority of congressional Republicans were happy – or at least willing – to go along with a presidential agenda that threatened the future of the Republic.

Likewise, while many have praised the judiciary for maintaining its independence, the courts were only partly effective in stopping Trump’s unlawful decrees. The sheer scale of cronyism and corruption – with the Trump family routinely mixing government and private business – has yet to be fully investigated or appreciated. The Republican Party brushed off Trump’s attempt to withhold $400 million in military aid unless Ukraine launched an investigation into Joe Biden and his son.

Republicans were also silent when Trump fired Gordon D. Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union, and Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, following their testimony in the impeachment proceedings. Nor did they speak out against the dismissal of the intelligence community’s inspector-general, Michael K. Atkinson. Far from preventing the firing of inspectors-general for doing their jobs, US institutions were approaching a breaking point by the end of Trump’s term.

It is unlikely that many US institutions would have survived another four years of Trump, considering that they were not particularly strong to begin with. Before Trump, polarisation in Congress had already taken a toll on political effectiveness, and the executive branch had gradually been strengthened vis-à-vis the legislative and judicial branches of government.

To be sure, the framers of the US Constitution wanted a strong federal government. Because they did not fully trust the judgment of their fellow citizens, they institutionalised several non-democratic elements, not least a highly malapportioned voting system (especially for the Senate) and the Electoral College. But these features have become particularly problematic for the current age, because civil society and the ballot box were always going to be the only real defence against a politician like Trump.

It would thus be a colossal mistake to take comfort in US institutions’ survival of what Trump wrought on January 6. To leave better institutions to future generations, we must acknowledge their weaknesses and start rebuilding them. This will not be easy. No society has ever devised a foolproof way to overcome deepening political polarization. How does one convince tens of millions of Trump supporters that they have been manipulated and fed lies for years?

One starting point is to address the economic hardships that many (though certainly not all) Trump supporters have experienced. Much more can be done to increase the incomes of workers who do not have a college degree. In addition to higher minimum wages, the US needs a new growth strategy to increase the supply of good jobs for workers at all skill levels. Of course, even with this, concerns within many communities about changing social and cultural dynamics would remain.

Beyond individual policy measures, we need to re-evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of institutions. Some institutions would be difficult to reform even if there were broad agreement on what should be done. Others are easier to fix. Most important, we need better independent monitoring mechanisms. The next Trump-like figure should not be able to fire inspectors-general for doing their jobs, nor should a president’s family be able to profit from his or her office.

A greater degree of professionalism in the civil service is also important, and can be achieved in part by limiting the scope of political appointments and dismissals. In the case of expertise-based organisations with a clear mandate (such as the Environmental Protection Agency or Nasa), it does not make sense for each new administration to install a contingent of cronies at every level of the hierarchy.

More fundamentally, US federal institutions have a public-trust problem that will need to be addressed through greater transparency.

Yes, too much transparency in government deliberations and decision-making can lead politicians and civil servants to pander to voters. Yet the first priority for the federal government today must be to rebuild public trust after decades of growing estrangement. Shedding more light on relationships between corporate lobbies and politicians would be a good place to start.

Last but certainly not least, Electoral College reform must be on the agenda. Although a constitutional amendment seems unlikely in the current political environment, proposals such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact could open a path to bipartisan reform, making it harder for the next American populist to ride to power on the support of a disaffected minority of the electorate.

— Project Syndicate

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

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