The transition from a government of rotating elected officials subject to the will of voters to autocratic government is a slippery slope. Once government officials begin to allow narrow interests prevail over policies that benefit the general public, the slide downwards into oligarchy, demagoguery, and the death of democracy can be rapid.
President Putin’s decision to disband the Russian government and begin a transition to new political system earlier this month appears to be one such step in the direction of the end of democratic governance. While holding regular elections in the post-Soviet era, Russia may seem to be an electoral democracy.
Yet the presence of elections, even elections certified as valid by international bodies, is never enough to guarantee democracy. Indeed, the presence of elections often hide different problems with democracy.
When electoral democracies allow oligarchs to monopolize political systems, they run the risk that the oligarchs will decide they don’t want to give up power. In Russia’s case this year, Putin seems to be pursuing a permanent political post for himself. Permanent office for political leaders mean the death of democracy.
Those who believe in Western European governance models and capitalist economies may assume that this problem is limited to the recent history of Eastern European experience with centralized socialism under the sway of the Soviet Union. For them, the trouble begins and ends with one country, Russia, or even more narrowly with a single individual, Vladimir Putin.
But many political theorists find that all centralized governments east and west are hampered by a larger, more generalized problem. This problem is sometimes known as the state of exception, to use the language of Carl Schmitt. Schmitt argued that any government system where leaders can declare exceptions to the rule of law risked ceding its sovereignty to individuals. In Schmitt’s view this weakness made the modern liberal state vulnerable to capture by individuals who pursued their own individual interests. Schmitt’s turn towards nationalist socialism in Germany in response to this flaw in democracies led him to support Nazi German policies. Others have responded to Schmitt's analysis of weaknesses in centralized democracies by turning away from political practices with centralized authority structures.
As Giorgio Agamben argued, this weakness of democracy is pervasive, and not limited to conservative states or European states or autocracies. The state of exception weakness suggests that all liberal democracies are vulnerable. These weaknesses are important in the United States as well, since many senior officials in U.S. administrative positions studied Schmitt carefully. They have also impacted the United States through the view of one of Schmitt’s followers, Friedrich Hayek, an important architect of present-day highly centralized economic policies known as neoliberalism.
Some have found this weakness at work in the rapid assertion of executive authority under the Bush Administration in the United States after 9/11, and in the Trump administration more recently. While some have argued that the U.S. government is now an oligarchy and longer a democracy, it does seem clear at this point that Trump clearly does not believe he is limited by the rule of law.
One important weapon wielded to ensure subjection of the head of state to the rule of law in a constitutional democracy is the impeachment process. By placing this weapon in the hands of the legislative branch, those democracies which practice impeachment give the people's elected representatives a counter weight to the individual sovereign, the executive branch. In general concept, impeachment means the people can rule, rather than the monarch or dictator.
Keeping the balance of power tilted in the direction of the people takes hard work in all democracies. As Hakim Jeffries, Representative from Brooklyn, pointed out when he made the analogy with Putin in Russia explicit in his opening remarks to the U.S. impeachment process, this problem is found not only in the United States but also in Russia and Turkey and other nation-states that claim to be democracies.
Yet impeachment is not without its perils. Sovereigns can use legal arguments to provide a cover for those elected officials who support oligarchy and autocracy. As one Representative, Tom Railsback of Illinois, argued during preparations for the 1974 impeachment of President Nixon argued, “If the Congress doesn’t get the material we think we need and then votes to exonerate, we’ll be regarded as a paper tiger.” The risk of the current circumstances in the United States is that President Trump’s allies in the U.S. Senate will acquit him of wrongdoing, strengthening his chances of remaining in office for four more years. Demanding that a sovereign submit to the rule of law and then failing to enforce the demand would be devastating to any democracy.
History reminds us that four more years on a slippery slope may be a long ride downhill, from the foothills of democracy into the valley of autocracy. President Trump’s ally in Russia, President Putin, may be in the middle of demonstrating how to take a large nation-state on a long ride into the darkness of leaders without elections, government without rule of law, and a social order that does not respond to the will of the people.
If impeachment does not remove President Trump, there are many other weapons useful in reclaiming democracy from oligarchs, autocrats, sovereigns, and dictators. How-to handbooks at carrying out mass movements successful at removing oligarchs and autocrats from power in the past year have been presented this year in Lebanon and Algeria, to name just two struggles. Other how-to guides might be seen in street battles that have fought major national governments to a draw in China and France.
Democracy is never handed to the people. They must fight to claim their governments as their own, to claim rule by the demos, rule by all, not rule by the few, rule by experts.
However the ongoing battle turns out over democracy and the rule of law in the United States, centralized democracies will retain their weakness for exceptions to the rule of law. So those who might want to defend democracy will continue to have reason to fight for rule by all, meetings to go to, and work to do.