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  • Sam Duan

Trump, Cuomo, Afghanistan: Mass Politics and the Erosion of Democratic Institutions in the US

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

We think of the word “democracy” as something resilient and long-lasting. Theoretically, it seems the case: it offers “safety valves,” through which the leadership that had lost popular support could be removed peacefully so that violent revolutions are prevented. But democracy is not bulletproof, either. Plato and Aristotle had warned of the threats of demagoguery in ancient Greece. Moreover, the history of the 20th and the 21st century is not lacking in empirical evidence that democracy can fail. However resilient democracy is, in cases of extreme tension, it can break. Its indicators are obvious: the loss of faith in the form of government, weakening of established political institutions and processes, and increased direct but incoherent responses to political issues. All of these factors share similarities to developments in the U.S. in the past few years.

The election of former President Donald J. Trump in 2016 began to push the boundaries of the great democratic experiment as Alexander. Between name-calling and conspiracy, alongside fanning up the flames of nationalist fervor, Trump was able to mobilize enough of the electorate to propel him into the presidency. The centerpiece of his rhetoric, however difficult it is to divine his political philosophy, is populism: talks of “the people” against “the elite,” of “the patriots” against “the Democrats.” Mass sentiment -- in this case expressed in a right-leaning way -- is directed against perceived political opponents and unleashed in the ferocity of simple-minded idealism. Obliviousness to the complex, interweaving legal and democratic institutions -- symptomatic of such phenomena -- can be seen throughout the Trump presidency but is perhaps best expressed by himself, who simply accused Democrats of treason during his first impeachment.

This same populism perhaps reached a infamous peak on January 6, 2021, when groups of Trump supporters breached Capitol Hill, “defending America” by hindering the operations of her most crucial branch of government through direct action outside of existing institutions.

Such behavior, qualitatively, is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. The experiences of Democrat Andrew Cuomo, the former Governor of New York, tells a story that is similar in its abstract form, albeit much less dramatic in detail compared to the previous case. Cuomo’s story can be divided mainly into two parts: his rise to nation stardom in 2020 and his fall from grace earlier this year.

Cuomo’s rise to prominence related heavily to his COVID-19 response. Under the context of an inadequate response from the federal government, Cuomo’s reactions, although sluggish at first, later became a sensation, with “detailed, candid, and often weirdly funny” television briefings. The contrast against the chaos on the federal level even won him an Emmys award for his performance.

But equally rapid and unexpected as his rise was his fall. Earlier this year, several allegations of sexual harassment surfaced surrounding the Governor. An investigation was started by New York State Attorney General Letitia James not long after in February, which resulted in finding Cuomo in violation of various state and federal laws. On the August 10, a week after the result of the investigation was published, Cuomo resigned.

The case seems to be simply and indisputably a victory for justice -- a powerful man was brought down for taking advantage of women and inappropriate actions. This interpretation is largely accurate to the course of events. However, what is concerning resides in the details that had happened before the revelation of the results of the investigation. Soon after the allegation was made, on the March 7, but long before the investigation concluded, a group of Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), called for Cuomo’s resignation. On the March 11, an impeachment investigation was approved by the New York State Assembly. Such actions seemed premature: with the benefit of afterthought and the knowledge from the published investigation, they are just; but to call for resignation and prepare for impeachment before the inquiry had concluded -- i.e., without information that had since emerged -- circumvents established legal institutions, thus weakening it.

The legislators may have taken this course of action to maintain an ideological consistency and prestige (therefore, sense of justice) for the Democratic Party by acting coherently with the sentiments established by the #MeToo movement among the Democratic crowd. But skipping the existing established legal institutions to that end, even for the sake of speedy justice could lay the ground for further neglect of such legal institutions -- which are vital for the health of a democracy -- on the left side of the political spectrum.

The two cases thus far demonstrate that mass sentiment, when strong enough, tends to attempt to influence politics in a way that disregards existing political institutions.

The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was brought to public consciousness dramatically earlier this year when the Biden administration announced that it would complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan by August 31st of this year. What followed was perhaps a political equivalent of a Nor’easter: a gust of harsh, bipartisan criticism followed a downpour of stories and images of chaos, misery, and inhumanity from Afghanistan. Yet, interestingly enough, those criticisms seem to steer clear of analysis of intricate dynamics of US interests in the region and instead emphasize solely on the immediate, observable aspects of the affair; the elements that, devoid of analysis, yield little knowledge, but can easily impress.

And it is in this way, the line between constructive and destructive criticism was blurred by the need to appease mass sentiments, and confounds concrete, effective action instead of supporting it. Hence, the discussion over how to improve became whether should have done and who to blame; cases were made, especially pronounced on the Republican side, to reverse the withdrawal or impeach President Biden, in what seemed to be an attempt to amass popular support in a theatrical move. The actual affairs related to the departure were simply left to the executive branch and the military, the legitimacy of which this populist force aimed to undermine.

However, the greatest irony is that the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a Trump-era decision with broad Republican support. Yet, it was drowned out in the monotonous cries of criticism of President Biden. In this sense, the popular consciousness, as diverse and all-encompassing as a bipolar system can be, could not even justly answer the question of who to blame it had raised.

The United States, for the past few years, has been going down a path that may lead to its demise. The greatest threat of populism -- left-wing or right-wing -- is that it weakens democratic legal safeguards against extreme social and political forces but is disguised as democracy. The erosion of those safeguards creates fertile grounds for the chaotic and incoherent mass sentiments to fester and spread. In that chaotic and disorganized state, totalitarian movements emerge and usurp. What is more concerning is that neither party thus far has demonstrated a clear and distinct willingness to sacrifice their competitiveness to contain the development of this tendency and had appeased it for more widespread support. The decisions made by American politicians in the next five to ten years under this context would be vital to understanding how democracy might fail against all odds, as well as how democracy might prevail against all odds. But that is the most central paradox of political science. To best learn of a phenomenon would be to observe it, but its occurrence is precisely what this knowledge aims to prevent. Optimism is difficult in this day and age. Still, it is at the same time essential to keep in mind that human kindness, with its timelessness and perpetuity, shines even in the most challenging situations. From that starting point, we can hope for its triumph.

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