I vividly remember the day Donald Trump was confirmed to be the 45th president of the United States. I was sitting in my high school English class, unable to pay attention to my teacher’s comments on prose versus verse, stressed out imagining what American democracy would now look like. Would it stand strong against the Trump administration? Or would it crumble down like other democracies around the world we’d studied in school had?
Looking back, I think I was very naive to believe that American democracy was perfect from the beginning. Not only because the pandemic illustrated the weaknesses of the United States’ health care, economy and education system, but also because Trump had involuntarily exposed the cracks in the system. Perhaps this has been the silver lining of the past four years: The United States no longer has an excuse to overlook the failures of our political system because our faults have now been vividly exhibited for all.
With this in mind, I wanted to learn more about what the Trump administration has meant for American democracy and what kinds of reforms are needed for a post-Trump presidency.
I first watched the livestream of a Berkeley Conversations event titled “American Democracy: Needed Reforms” from Sept. 30, 2020, during which UC President Emerita Janet Napolitano moderated a panel with three experts: former U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta, UC Irvine School of Law Dean L. Song Richardson and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin.
“Trump has exposed the presidency’s vulnerability to excesses of authority and weaknesses in accountability,” Napolitano remarked. The panelists agreed that the United States is highly divided and that the polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties is reflected among Americans as well.
So how did we get here? What instigated this divisiveness? To answer these questions, I contacted Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor and a UC Berkeley public policy professor. An expert on inequality and good governance, he has written several books about reforming American democracy. Responding four days after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Reich’s tone was urgent.
“American democracy was in trouble before Trump,” Reich said in an email. “Not only were Black people, Latinos, Native Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities too often excluded, but big money from large corporations and Wall Street was inundating the democratic process, making it difficult for anyone else to be heard.”
Therefore, the goal should not be to return to a post-Trump idea of “normal,” but to collectively work toward a new normal that reflects American values.
“ ‘Normal’ was what brought us Trump — systemic racism, xenophobia, and homophobia; widening inequality of income,” Reich said in the email. “The values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech are the central values shared by most Americans, but we have a long way to go before we live up to them.”
This sheds light on what the new White House administration under Biden must look like: The administration must make its commitment to democracy clear and exemplify the characteristics a healthy democracy relies on in its own actions, according to Reich.
Reich said these qualities include “a public-spiritedness, concern for the common good, openness to different views,” and “concern about those who have greater needs or are otherwise subjugated,” in the email.
I finally asked Reich if he believed that, after four years of the limits of our institutions of government, our courts and our legislative branches constantly being tested under Trump, American democracy had gotten stronger.
“I’d like to think so, although the Trump years also fueled cynicism about government — which itself is an impediment to genuine reform,” Reich responded by email.
Yet, I believe there are signs of hope. On his first day in office, Biden repealed several Trump-era policies and signed 17 executive orders, including rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.
While Reich said the administration’s top priority should be containing the COVID-19 pandemic, he added that, once the nation’s health crisis is addressed, more room for government action will become possible.
“(It’s) very important that Biden aim high, be big and bold, and ensure that the public sees and understands what he’s trying to do and why,” Reich said in an email.
Perhaps, if the Biden administration follows this approach, the United States can finally begin to address its flaws and work toward the value of democracy shared by its citizens.
Contact Defne Karabatur at [email protected].