Recurring Dynamics of History

Activity 6: The Future of American Democracy

Washington established a norm by stepping down after two terms as president. (Attribution)

Breaking Norms

The United States Constitution is the basic law of our land, but America’s founders couldn't possibly have anticipated every aspect of running a great democratic nation far into the future. To a large extent, the proper functioning of our democracy depends on following certain “norms” of democratic behavior that have developed over the years. A good example is the norm established by America’s first president, George Washington, when he chose not to seek a third term as president, a norm respected by every American president of all political parties for the next 143 years.

President Roosevelt broke the norm of serving no more than two terms as president. (Attribution)

Democrat Franklin Roosevelt violated this norm in 1940 when he ran for a third term as president.* With America facing the twin crises of the Great Depression and World War II, voters gave Roosevelt a third and a fourth term in office. Also, in violation of democratic norms, Roosevelt’s government sent Japanese-American citizens to prison camps during the war, and Roosevelt tried to increase the number of Supreme Court justices, but Republicans and Democrats joined to block this move in Congress.

After the crisis of war had passed, the U.S. didn't experience such blatant norm-breaking behavior until recent times, when America’s two competing political tribes became more willing to violate long-standing democratic norms. To many observers, the tribes now appear more concerned about staying in power than maintaining America’s democratic system of government.

Following are additional examples of norm-breaking behavior by America’s two main political parties.

* Shortly after World War II, Congress approved the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which limited presidents to two terms in office. It was ratified by the states in 1951.

Impeachment of the President

The power to impeach a president of the United States is one of the most formidable powers granted to Congress by the U.S. Constitution. If the House of Representatives votes to impeach a president, the trial is held in the Senate, which can vote to remove the president from office. During the first 210 years of the Constitution’s existence, Congress invoked the power to impeach a president just one time.

The impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in the Senate, 1868. (CC)

Congress was adhering to the norm that a president should be subjected to impeachment proceedings only when substantial support exists for the president’s removal. That first impeachment trial came in 1868 when President Andrew Johnson avoided removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. The case for removal clearly had considerable support among senators.

Bill Clinton, first U.S. president to be impeached in 130 years. (Shared ferret CC BY 2.0)

The next presidential impeachment came 130 years later, in 1998, when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, escaped Republican attempts to remove him from office by a margin of 17 votes in the Senate (67 required for removal). Then, in 2019 and again in 2021, Democrats impeached President Donald Trump, a Republican. The first trial failed to produce a conviction by 19 votes, and the second trial fell short by 10 votes. In all three of these instances, sufficient support for conviction was clearly lacking.

In 210 years, there was only one presidential impeachment. In just 23 years, there were three more, after America’s warring political parties became willing to abandon long-established democratic norms.

Appointment of Supreme Court Judges

In April of 2016, a Supreme Court justice died during the last year of Barak Obama’s presidency. He nominated a replacement to fill the vacancy—a power granted to the president by the U.S. Constitution—but Obama was a Democrat, and Republicans controlled the Senate. In violation of democratic norms, the Senate refused to consider the president’s nominee.

Republicans said the winner of the upcoming presidential election, more than seven months away, should pick the new justice. Republican candidate Donald Trump won the 2016 election, and the Senate confirmed his choice for the Supreme Court.

Amy Coney Barrett was the last of three Supreme Court justices appointed by Donald Trump. (The White House, CC PDM 1.0)

However, when another Supreme Court justice died just over a month before the 2020 presidential election, the Republican-controlled Senate reversed their previous position and swiftly confirmed the nominee of Republican President Trump—violating the norm they had established only four years earlier. With their willingness to change democratic norms to achieve immediate political goals, Republicans successfully denied Democrats two appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court and intensified the war between the tribes.

The Trump Presidency

President Trump called the news media the "enemy of the people". (Attribution)

Norm-breaking behavior continued under the presidency of Donald Trump, who claimed that the U.S. Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president.”1 One example: The Constitution guarantees freedom of the press to ensure that the news media will always remain an independent watchdog over the actions of government. However, Mr. Trump repeatedly called the news media "the enemy of the people,2"and he praised a Republican congressional candidate for physically attacking a newspaper reporter.3

President Trump's most significant violation of democratic norms came when he refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, which he said was undermined by widespread voter fraud. He claimed that he had actually won the election by a landslide. According to polling,4 Donald Trump’s claims of voter fraud were supported by a majority of Republicans, who included many Republican members of Congress.

These claims were refuted by Republican and Democrat election officials across the country who verified the election results, and the charges of widespread voter fraud were rejected by multiple courts in multiple states including the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court with three Trump-appointed justices. The official election results showed Democrat Joe Biden winning the 2020 presidential race by over seven million votes.

Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Following President Trump's claim of a stolen election, some Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., which resulted in five deaths and disrupted the constitutional process of certifying the presidential election. For the first time in American history, the peaceful transfer of presidential power had been broken.

Refusing to accept the results of a presidential election is more than a violation of democratic norms; it challenges the fundamental operating principle of a democracy: the peaceful transfer of power following elections. If it becomes common for politicians to refuse to accept legitimate election results, democracy can no longer function.

What Does the Future Hold for American Democracy?

Protesters march in support of democracy. (Ted Eytan/CC BY-SA 4.0)

With tribal passions running high in a divided country, not all Americans may still be committed to preserving America's democratic system of government. Some might be willing to trade democracy for authoritarian rule if the ruler supports their tribe's political beliefs.

Democracy in the United States may follow one of two basic paths: It may fall to authoritarian rule as many democracies of the past have done. Or it may rise to meet the challenges of difficult crises and a divided citizenry—as America has done in the past.

Works Cited

  1. Michael Brice-Sadler, “While bemoaning Mueller probe, Trump falsely says the Constitution gives him ‘the right to do whatever I want’” Washington Post, July 23, 2019.
  2. Brett Samuels, “Trump ramps up rhetoric on media, calls press 'the enemy of the people,'” The Hill, April 5, 2019.
  3. Christal Hayes, “Trump praises GOP congressman who assaulted reporter," USA Today, Oct 18, 2018.
  4. Alison Durkee, “More Than Half Of Republicans Believe Voter Fraud Claims And Most Still Support Trump, Poll Finds,” Forbes, April 5, 2021.

Check Your Understanding

  1. (Fill in the blank.) Because the framers of the U.S. Constitution were unable to anticipate every procedure that would be necessary for operating a large democratic nation into the future, the proper functioning of American democracy depends on adhering to established _____________ of democratic behavior developed over the years.
  2. Which political party violated the norm that American presidents should serve no more than two terms in office? (Choose all that apply: Republicans / Democrats)
  3. Which political party violated the norm that presidents should not be impeached unless substantial support exists for the president's removal from office? (Choose all that apply: Republicans / Democrats)
  4. Which political party violated the norm that the Senate shall take under consideration a president's nomination to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Supreme Court? (Choose all that apply: Republicans / Democrats)
  5. (Complete the sentence.) Republican president Donald Trump was the first president in American history who refused to
  6. How do you think American democracy would be affected if future candidates for political office commonly refused to accept verified election results? Explain.

Group Activity

Summary: The class is divided into three groups who will consider whether American democracy is likely to fall or survive in the near future:

The two scenario groups consist of approximately three to five members each. Group members may be volunteers, or assigned by the teacher, or names drawn from a hat. The remainder of class members serve as Judges of the arguments made by the two scenario groups.

Before the Discussion:

Scenario 1 and 2 Groups:


After the Discussion:

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