These are interesting days for teaching political science courses, regardless of the subject focus. As party systems are shifting and changing in many European democracies (see, e.g., Sweden), as presidents and party leaders have been removed from office through various means, constitutional and otherwise (see, e.g., South Korea; Latin America), as disputes about election outcomes provoke (or permit) mass protest (see, e.g., Honduras; Kenya), what does this mean for democracy?
Assuming free and fair elections (an important assumption), democratic political systems are defined by the response to the electoral outcome. Christopher Anderson and his colleagues argue that democracy depends upon the consent of the losers to the outcome, and their belief that they will have another opportunity to seek office. In An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957, 11), Anthony Downs argues that democracy requires the recognition (and the acceptance) that the party that wins an election “controls the entire government until the next election, with no intermediate votes either by the people as a whole or by a parliament. The governing party thus has unlimited freedom of action, within the bounds of the constitution.”
The restraints on electoral winners in democracies are that they do not use the power of the office to damage or to eliminate their opponents. As Downs writes (1957, 11-12), “The most important of these bounds is that the government – i.e. the governing party – cannot hamper the operations of other political parties in society. It cannot restrict their freedom of speech, or their ability to campaign vigorously, or the freedom of any citizen to speak out against any party. Nor can it alter the timing of elections, which recur at fixed intervals…. The only restraint upon it is that of maintaining political freedom; therefore it must not vitiate its opponents by economic policies aimed specifically at injuring them. Also it must economically uphold the voting rights of its citizens.”
What then are we to make of the current, continuing, and forthcoming revelations about the Trump administration and the behavior of the president? President Trump’s assaults on the free press (see, e.g., here and here), and his public insistence that his Attorney General use the powers of the executive to advance his allies and to suppress opponents apparently violate the standards of democratic governance.
The reports of the president’s behaviors in office, some well known and public and others private but now revealed (see here and here, and here), are distressing, but an additional challenge to democracy is that an unelected elite in the executive branch is managing the president’s policy preferences by refusing or neglecting to implement them and/or by actively undermining them. Although some of us may be relieved that these policies and choices are not actuated, the control of the national government by an unelected elite violates the democratic conditions of election outcome.
The recent op ed in the New York Times by a high-ranking official in the Trump administration is shocking not only for its claims about President Trump’s behavior but for the blithe confidence of the writer that he (I’m pretty sure about the gender of the writer) and “many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration” [are] doing something heroic in “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations…. [They] want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.”
Ironically, the author believes that his “first duty is to this country, and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic.” It would be helpful (to say the least) that if the author does believe his first duty is to this country, he and his colleagues should immediately desist acting as a surrogate government in regard to policies that they oppose. (It is worth noting that this group within the White House is picking and choosing the policies that they are blocking and happily advancing other policies that many citizens oppose.)
If it is true that “Meetings with [the president] veer off topic and off the rails, he engages in repetitive rants, and his impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions that have to be walked back;” if it is true that the President’s “erratic behavior” is evidenced by a reality where “There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next,” there is a democratic constitutional solution to the President’s mental instability and irrationality that the author describes.
The constitutional tool, readily available to cabinet members to address the president’s behavior, is Amendment XXV, Section 4, which provides for temporary suspension of the president’s powers and the immediate assumption of those powers by the vice president. Such suspension would require a written declaration from Vice President Mike Pence and at least eight cabinet members (a majority of the “principal officers of the executive departments”) to Senator Orrin Hatch (President Pro Tempore of the Senate) and to Paul Ryan (Speaker of the House). The details of such transfer of presidential powers from a president to a vice president are provided in the amendment, including a resumption of such powers by the president. The democratic constitutional tool already exists.
The author of the op ed knows this, writing, “Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the president. But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until — one way or another — it’s over.”
Sitting things out and waiting for better days, while acting as a “two-track presidency” – a term found nowhere in the US Constitution or in any law, is frankly unconstitutional and undemocratic. The flouting of this author, and his colleagues in the White House, of democratic principles of governance is deeply concerning, and the author’s claims of the dangerous irrationality of the president should move him and his colleagues to organize the implementation of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. Which is better for democracy: meeting a “constitutional crisis” head on, with the full powers of a democratic government, or sitting and watching a “two-track presidency” orchestrated by unelected, unaccountable, and anonymous officials who think they know best? The former may be a challenge to democracy but the latter repudiates democracy altogether.
Perhaps some of our students can raise these issues in discussion with our new Provost, Ben Vinson, today at 12:15pm, on the binary walkway. Provost Vinson will be sharing Mitchell’s ice cream (free!) and talking with students until the ice cream runs out. I encourage all our students to stop by, introduce themselves to the Provost, and enjoy the ice cream and conversation.
With all best wishes,
Flora Stone Mather Professor
Chair, Department of Political Science
Friday Lunch: “Step Therapy” to Reduce Spending on Prescription Drugs: Legal and Ethical Implications
September 7, 12:30-1:30p.m., Kelvin Smith Library LL06A-C
Join Professor Sharona Hoffman, J.D., LLM, to learn about the latest “disruptive innovation” in U.S. health care.
ConstitutionALE: Reaching Consensus on the Census
September 10, 5:30-6:30p.m., Great Lakes Brewing Company
As the 24th US Census in 2020 is approaching, controversy is mounting. What does the Constitution say about the census? What questions are fair to ask? And what are the implications – individually and collectively as a democracy- for failing to participate? Nonmember tickets are $20.
Ohio Gun Laws: What are our options?
September 12, 7:00-8:30p.m., Tinkham Veale University Center Ballroom
Join moderator Peter Krouse, public interest and advocacy reporter at cleveland.com, for a panel discussion about the history, present and future of attempts to reduce gun violence in Northeast Ohio. Event is free and open to the public.
History is Relevant: The Israeli New History and its Legacy
September 13, 4:30-6:00p.m., Wolstein Auditorium
Ilan Pappé, Professor of History and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, will discuss Israeli New History as an interpretation of 1948.
Why should I Vote? What’s at stake in the November election?
September 13, 7:00pm-8:30p.m., Heights Public Library Main, 2345 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
This panel will discuss some of the issues that will be decided in the November 6 election. It will also attempt to make the argument for why voting matters and how voting might impact Northeast Ohio. Admission is free.
Friday Lunch: Aliens and Alienation: Social Implications if We Are Alone in the Universe
September 14, 12:30-1:30p.m., KSL Dampeer Room
Join us for a discussion of cosmic scope – about literature, culture, and the stakes in human society.
Propel Ohio Collegiate Leadership Summit
October 12, Cleveland State University
Propel Ohio is a one-day statewide conference that promotes civic engagement and inspires undergraduate student leaders from across Ohio, which will feature guest speakers and workshops focusing on issues that affect childhood poverty including food security, inequities in education, and homelessness. Students will be selected by President Snyder’s office to represent CWRU at Propel Ohio 2018. The online application deadline is September 14.
National Voter Registration Day
September 25, 11:00a.m. – 3:00p.m., Tinkham Veale University Center 165
The CWRU community is invited stop by the Center for Civic Engagement & Learning for a National Voter Registration Day celebration!
Internship and Fellowship Opportunities
The Obama Foundation Fellows are a diverse set of leaders who bring a community-centered approach to science, criminal justice, healthcare, education, the arts, and more. Together they model the powerful truth that each of us has a role to play in civic life.
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio
NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio is looking for Fall & Spring interns! There are several spots open still for our Cleveland Community Engagement & Organizing Internship (fall) and will additionally be taking more student for Spring come January. The internships are 11-12 weeks long, paid, and flexible. Interested applicants can send a resume and cover letter directly to Hannah Servedio at Hannah@prochoiceohio.org.
Previously posted opportunities can be found on the department webpage. Please make sure to check regularly as to not miss approaching deadlines!
CWRU Social Justice Institute
The Social Justice Institute has established a scholarship fund to help Case Western Reserve University students attend conferences to enhance their educational, professional and personal development in social justice. As limited funds are available, students interested in attending a social justice conference during the 2018-19 academic year are encouraged to complete an online application as soon as possible.
A Little Extra…
FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial and for Contemporary Art
Exhibition ends September 30, Museum of Contemporary Art
With a roster of national, international and area-based artists at all points in their career, FRONT will examine the ever-changing and politically urgent conditions of an American city. General student admission is $5.
Lake Erie: On the Edge
Exhibit begins September 7 and ends December 12, Cleveland Museum of Natural History
In this stunning photographic exhibit by Cleveland photographer, Linda Butler, visitors can take a trip along 900 miles of Lake Erie coastline, learning not only of our most valued natural resource and the amazing biodiversity to be found here, but also how climate change and human influence are threatening the condition of our once great lake. Student admission with ID is $14, flat rate $8 admission Wednesdays after 5pm.
Please note that the Department of Political Science alerts our students to a range of opportunities, including internships, fellowships, and jobs. We do not endorse or sponsor these, and leave it to the judgment of our students what is most useful and appropriate to them.