The United States is facing a historic crisis that fundamentally threatens our democratic system of government, according to Stanford political scientist Terry Moe.

A new book co-authored by political scientist Terry Moe argues for governmental reforms to save our democracy from populist threats. (Image credit: iStock)

“The nation has entered a treacherous new era in its history, one that threatens the system of self-government that for more than two hundred years has defined who we are as a country and as a people,” write Moe, the William Bennett Munro Professor in Political Science in the School of Humanities and Sciences, and William Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the University of Chicago, in a new book, Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy (University of Chicago Press).

In the book the pair argues that while critics see Donald Trump as the most visible threat to our system of self-government, his presidency is really a symptom of long brewing forces. These forces include globalization, automation and immigration, which have created economic disruptions and cultural anxieties for millions of Americans.

“Our government has done a very ineffective job of dealing with these problems and the result has been a rising surge of populist anger,” Moe said in an interview.

Saving our democracy, the scholars write, will require major changes that go beyond November’s election. The real challenge, they contend, is to enact programs and institutional reforms that can provide us with a genuinely effective government – one that is capable of dealing with the problems of modernity and defusing the populist threat. Until that challenge is met, they say, reformers cannot rest.

“The fact is, no matter which party holds the presidency, these are not normal times,” the authors write. “And a sense of normalcy, should it take hold with the election of a new president, stands to be little more than an exercise in denial, offering temporary relief from the recent populist turmoil but leaving the causes of that turmoil unaddressed and the potential for continued democratic backsliding firmly in place.”

Decades of discontent

The new book contends that the current crisis did not happen overnight but is the result, in part, of the globalization that began in the late 1970s and 1980s, taking jobs out of many U.S. communities and leaving millions of workers disaffected and angry.

Terry Moe (Image credit: Betsy A. Palay)

Another blow to U.S. workers was a rise in automation, making many jobs obsolete. The ineffectual response of the government to the plight of these workers, Moe said, eventually led many to embrace President Donald Trump’s populist message in 2016.

“We can’t stop globalization or automation,” he said, “but we need to compensate those most affected by providing them with subsidies, education, job training and more, through programs that are truly effective.” The workers most affected were less-educated working-class whites, often in rural communities, and particularly men.

These Americans also felt an acute cultural anxiety, the authors contend, including an impending loss of privilege and culture as the U.S. became more diverse, urban, cosmopolitan and secular.

Now, COVID-19 is exacerbating existing economic insecurities. “But it also provides an opportunity for government to step in and provide action,” said Moe.

Balancing presidential power

The U.S. president has historically been a champion of effective government, which is why the authors focus their solutions to the current crisis on changes to the presidency.

“Presidents are primarily motivated by their legacies, so they want to design policies that work to solve social problems,” Moe said. “We need to take advantage of the great promise of the presidency to promote effective government by giving presidents more power in respect to Congress.” The scholars consider President Trump, and what they see as his disdain for many aspects of U.S. government, as a historical outlier.

The scholars argue that another reason to focus on the presidency is that Congress is a more parochial institution, comprising 535 people who might be more concerned about what’s best for their districts and states rather than what’s best for the nation as a whole.

In the book, the scholars offer one significant reform designed to enhance presidential authority: allowing a president to submit legislation to Congress that would be fast-tracked and would have to be voted up or down without changes. Both houses of Congress would still need to pass the legislation and the courts could still weigh in on legal issues. Under this proposal, Congress also could still draft its own legislation, which the president could choose to veto or sign.

The goal of this process would allow the one political actor who might best have the nation’s overall interests at heart – the president – to present a complete piece of legislation with potentially far-reaching solutions.

Of course, the downside of this approach, according to the authors, is that we have good reason to fear presidential power. “We don’t want to give the president the power to destroy our democracy,” Moe said. “So we also have a number of reforms in the book designed to constrain presidential power.”

In order to maintain a balance and curb the presidential power that the authors believe hinders effective government, they propose:

  • Making the Department of Justice and intelligence agencies independent of presidential control. One way to accomplish this would be to have them run by bipartisan multi-member boards, in the same way that the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission are.
  • Dramatically restricting presidential appointments and relying more on career civil servants.
  • Eliminating the president’s pardon power, which would require a constitutional amendment.
  • Increasing anti-corruption rules and regulations to better avoid conflicts of interest on the part of the president.

Lessons from prior eras

According to the authors, there are lessons for modern times that can be learned from both the Progressive Era of U.S. politics under President Theodore Roosevelt and the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt.

“The Progressives gave us a modern government,” Moe said. “They replaced the spoils system with civil service.” Then, when the Great Depression hit, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were designed to deal with the deep economic problems of the country by putting people back to work.

“That’s the kind of thing this country needs now,” Moe said. “We need something big and transformative. If we want to save our democracy, we must focus on building a truly effective government that is capable of dealing with the basic problems of the modern world. If that can’t be done, populist anger will continue to surge.”

Media Contacts

Joy Leighton, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: