Democracy Isn’t Dead … Yet

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Political scientist Elizabeth Saunders reminds us that even if the U.S.-North Korea meeting goes badly, the outcome probably won't be war. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump's fiasco at the G-7 meeting doesn't seem likely to send the U.S. economy — let alone the world economy — tumbling into a new depression. 

One reaction to that will be that, well, Trump may seem to be doing a terrible job at presidenting, but it's all an illusion; things are actually going really well. I've seen others hasten to point out that George W. Bush (or other presidents they dislike) had far more tangible policy failures than Trump. 

I think that's mostly getting things very wrong.

The proper perspective on these sorts of things is, as Saunders explains in that helpful Twitter thread, that the status quo is difficult to dislodge. But that doesn't mean damage isn't important. The U.S. alliance with Canada, for example, is about as strong as any friendship can be, which means that everyone on both sides of the border proceeds with a bedrock assumption that it will continue indefinitely. Up until January 2017, that was the context for any dispute between the nations, whether it was over trade, foreign policy or anything else. 

A few Trump tantrums aren't going to change that. Nor will his constant carping and inappropriate language end the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or any of the other bedrock U.S. alliances. And yet ... the more it happens, the more the context begins to change. Foreign leaders who once simply assumed there was a strong alliance will begin to question it, make contingency plans in case Trump isn't just an aberration, and in general start treating the relationship as less bedrock than it used to be. 

And for the most part, that won't have immediate, tangible effects, and it certainly won't have cataclysmic effects right away. But even small, indirect costs can be quite real. Even worse, just as the old friendships were hard to upend, the new status quo of uncertainty and suspicion can be just as hard to repair. 

A president who doesn't treat the rule of law with respect isn't going to end U.S. democracy overnight, and the system will probably survive, but again, changing the context from an absolute assumption of a healthy democracy to many people worrying about it is real harm, and it can cause further harm. Even if it doesn't crumble right away.

1. Feel like you’re seeing a lot of TV ads? The Wesleyan Media Project has the data on that and everything else about advertising so far in the 2018 cycle. 

3. Kim Yi Dionne on a new book on women's participation in the Egyptian uprising

4. Philip A. Wallach and James Wallner on what is actually wrong with Congress.

5. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on why Scott Pruitt may not be in the cabinet much longer

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