American Democracy in a Crisis: Not Due to One President or Person

In recent years the American people have been worried that the state of democracy in the United States is in danger of falling apart. The United States is not the only country worried about democracy, but the election of Donald Trump highlighted the issue. Though many people cite Trump as the beginning of America’s downfall, the cracks in the US’s democracy began to arise in the early 2000s. American democracy is in a crisis due to its slipping value on rule of law in the Judiciary and an inability to operate a functioning government in the Executive branch.


In terms of Rule of Law, the US struggles predominantly in the Judiciary. From packing the courts to flat out discrimination of certain minorities, the judicial system in America requires a clean up on all levels. In recent years, the party in power has become increasingly insistent on stacking the courts in their favor for when they are no longer in power. This is most difficult in the Supreme Court because the position is for life, but with the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg Trump had an opportunity and he took advantage. The Senate recently confirmed Amy Coney Barret for the Supreme Court just a week before the presidential election. This act was unprecedented and perceived as an attempt by the Republican party to solidify their hold in the judicial system in the event that Trump loses the election. Joe Biden stated that he “envisions a bipartisan group of constitutional scholars who would…make recommendations to reform the court system”. Biden made an earlier statement that his views on court packing “depends on how this turns out”, this referring to Barrett’s confirmation. The current ratio in the Supreme Court is 6:3 conservative and no matter who wins the election on November 3rd it will not benefit the American people to have an uneven court. Prior to Trump, the republican party made it extremely hard for the Obama administration to fill vacancies in the court, stalling “many federal judicial nominations in the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency”. The judicial system also struggles to combat under staffing, which in turn slows down the people’s right to due process. The jails in the US are packed to the brim with about “2.3 million” incarcerated, both state and federal, as of 2020 and many of them await trial for months on end. 2.3 million people is a lot to look after for any country, no matter how large, powerful, or democratic. America does not have enough volunteers or employees to oversee the system, in the court or in the physical prisons. In 2013, a group of legislators projected that it would take “about 700 positions…added to handle the projected work and …$100 million over two years” to fix the gaps in the judicial system. People sit for months on end awaiting trial due to understaffing and 74% of people held by jails have not been convicted of a crime yet. These two factors of understaffing and overcrowding go hand in hand with each other. The more people incarcerated or arrested the more lawyers, judges, court officers, etc. that are needed. In connection with Due Process issues, racial discrimation is a prominent issue in the United States and all men and women are not treated equally under the law. The majority of the inhabitants of the US prisons are either Black or Hispspanic. The Sentencing Project discovered that blacks are “incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites”. Even more appalling is that in Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin the ratio raises to 10 to 1. The recent protests connected to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s death show that the America people are aware of the discrimination in the judicial system and that it bleeds all the way down to the police. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that “black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police over the life course than are white men”. This discrimination haunts black people throughout the entirety of their life and does not allow them to feel as equal in comparison to whites. Though blacks are better off than 50 years ago and this is not a new flaw in the democracy of America, it is a pressing issue that should be addressed if the United States wants to improve.

Moving to a different branch of government, the executive branch possesses many problems that also limit American democracy, though these cracks are more recent. Due to stronger partisanship, the executive branch and legislative are getting less and less done because they are unwilling to work with the opposite party. When the House of Representatives was investigating Trump for his dealings in Ukraine, he refused to turn over internal documents. His administration stated they would “not comply with the request from House Democrats because they were conducting an invalid investigation”, undermining the authority of the House in the public and private eye. His refusal to cooperate may be chalked up to the fact that the House was trying to impeach him, but he has resisted Congress in other situations. Trump threatened to “shut down the federal government over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and targeted opponents in Congress”. Trump is hostile towards Congress in an effort to strengthen his own power while weakening the other branches so the checks and balances in place begin to crack. This tact by Trump is not new. The attack on 9/11 allowed subsequent presidents an opportunity to override Congress and “detaining enemy combatants at the Guantánamo Bay detention center without trial for more than 18 years”. President’s have been attempting to expand their power for decades, but the presence of the media has put a spotlight on Trump’s attempts coupled with the accusations of corruption. Though there are many safeguards in place to stop corruption at any level in the United States government, the Trump administration has begun to weasel their way around them. One example is the aforementioned impeachment on the basis that Trump pressured “Ukraine to dig up damaging information” on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Two other presidents have been impeached, Clinton and Johnson, but neither were convicted. Trump was not convicted either as the Republican have a majority in the Senate. Another example of Trump’s corruption was his refusal to pass his businesses to an outside party, instead he passed it down to his sons. While there is a federal law that prohibits “ ‘officers’ of the United States from participating in any governmental action in which they have a financial interest” the Justice Department in the case of Rockefeller becoming Vice President stated that the law does not apply to the president or vice president. This assisted Trump because even though the majority of presidents pass their businesses to a third party to remain impartial, it is not a law so he did nothing actually illegal, just taboo. It is considered taboo because it is a conflict of interest for Trump as he could potentially vote one way or the other to help his business endeavors. Trump has held events at “Trump-branded properties in the United States during his first three years in office, generating publicity and income”. Finally, Trump has “sacked five inspector generals” or corruption watchdogs during his term in an attempt to . Inspector generals are put in place to prevent corruption and Trump should not be able to circumvent these checks on his power. Trump and his administration have circumvented numerous corruption safety nets for personal gain, but again he is not the first. George W. Bush is a prime example of a president pushing his power and avoiding roadblocks. Trump has made some ill informed and shady decisions, but “nothing Trump has done, not a single thing, would rank in the top five of what George W. Bush did in the first term of his presidency in terms of sheer, utter, unequivocal harm to the United States, to its legal and governing norms, to the stability of the international system and to the economic security of Americans”. The gaps that allow corruption have been present in the federal government for year and though it is expected that the president won’t take advantage, Trump and countless others did.

Although the United States has many areas that they could improve on, Freedom House still awards them an 84/100 in terms of freedom. In terms of Personal Freedom, America excels and has some of the most direct and clear outlines that protect their citizens. One example is the media, it “retains a high degree of pluralism” in all forms and the internet is unrestricted and easily accessible. Freedom of the Press specifically states in the US Constitution that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press” and there are few restriction to this. Despite these protections, Trump has made it his mission to lead a crusade against the media as a whole by insinuating everything reported that is related to him is fake news. His effort to discredit the media encourages the public to question the information being released especially concerning questioning acts by the president. Also many news outlets have begun to lean a certain way and print stories to portray parties in certain light. Trump frequently points this out and this further discredits the media. The US is also very protective of religious beliefs and the practice of them. The Constitution again states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” and there is no specific religion in power that explicitly influences the government. Church and state are separated, but many defenses for certain public policy issues are religion, for example abortion, stem cell research, and birth control. The US also faces internal dicrimination in regards to religion from fellow citizens. One example is the Pittsburgh shooting that occured on October 27, 2017. A man who had a history of making anti-semitic remarks killed 11 people and injured 6 others in the Tree of Life synagogue. The Anti-Defamation League says it is the “deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history”. Trump does not discourage acts like these and would not condemn white supremacy at the presidential debate on September 30, 2020. Finally, the United States protects the American people in terms of expressing their political beliefs and they do not have to fear facing retaliation from the party in power if they support the opposing party. Partisanship becomes stronger and stronger at every election and tension is present between the parties in its citizens, but people are not arrested for their political beliefs. But again, Trump antagonizes this and encourages his supporters to fight with the radical left as he frequently refers to them. At a speech that was meant to commemorate the military on the Fourth of July he exclaimed “We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children or trample on our freedoms” in response to people tearing down statues that honored racist Confederate generals. Trump provokes those with radical views to act on them and he is tearing down the legitimacy of the constitutions protection on personal freedoms by doing this. Though the judicial and executive branches crisis’ were not caused by Trump, the slipping value on personal freedoms was instigated by the current president of America.
The United States still has time to fight the breakdown of democracy and the values the American people hold dear, but if Trump is elected on November 3rd the repair will be that much harder. Biden winning is not enough to fix what has been broken and democracy will not be restored in America overnight, but a president more dedicated to the values of the majority is a step in the right direction. The Judicial and Executive branches require the most attention and will cost money and time to repair. The question is do the elected officials and the citizens of America care enough to stop the crisis.

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