Thwarting Trump From Within Isn’t Anti-Democratic

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Yes, some executive branch personnel and even White House staff are undermining Donald Trump’s policy preferences. But that isn’t tantamount to a coup, as coup scholar Naunihal Singh explains at the Monkey Cage. In fact, these are, as Singh says, “standard bureaucratic bargaining moves.” The difference is that they succeed more often with Trump than with more capable presidents, which leaves him with even less influence over public policy. But that’s not a coup; it’s just the normal fluctuation of presidential power

Nor is it undemocratic. It’s true that Trump was elected, not his staff. As Ross Douthat summed up the argument several have made: by “working to thwart a duly-elected president, the anti-Trumpers inside the administration aren’t saving democracy but subverting it.”

That line of thinking shows a misunderstanding of democracy, elections and public opinion. Trump was elected to be president, and he serves in that role. He was not elected to implement specific policy commitments; he was not elected to be an all-powerful dictator. So when a president’s influence wanes or when he doesn’t get his way on policy questions, it doesn’t mean that democracy has been undermined. It’s just how the U.S. democracy works. 

To begin with, it’s at least relevant that Trump didn’t win a plurality in 2016, let alone a majority. He did win a strong plurality in the Republican primaries, but even there he fell short of winning half the votes. So saying that whatever Trump wants is the will of the voters requires ignoring that the president won thanks to a flukish distribution of votes and rules that happened to help his candidacy. He was legitimately nominated and elected under the rules, even though he didn’t have majorities, but that makes it hard to argue that he deserves to get his way because the voters want it.

What’s more crucial is that it’s simply wrong to interpret votes cast for a candidate as expressions of policy preferences. Take, for example, the alleged attempts by administration staff to undermine Trump on trade, including an incident when National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn grabbed an order canceling a trade deal from Trump’s desk before the president could sign it. We can’t really consider that a case of undermining the will of the voters, because we have no way of knowing what voters wanted.  

Suppose that a conservative Republican voter in 2016 really does have strong preferences on every issue and bases her vote on her policy choices. She would almost certainly vote for Trump -- based on her positions on abortion, guns, Obamacare -- even if she strongly opposed him on trade. 

But that’s also unrealistic, judging from everything we know about voters and voting. Most voters have either weak preferences on most policy questions or no position at all. Even on highly contentious issues, such as abortion or gun control, only a small minority of voters have strong feelings (which is one of the reasons why small changes in question wording can get very different responses in public opinion polls).

The idea that voters choose candidates based on the voter’s policy preferences is part of what Chris Achen and Larry Bartels call the “folk theory of democracy.” As they demonstrate, that conception of democracy is a mistake, based on myths about elections. It mostly works the other way around -- voters first choose a party or a candidate to support and then adopt policy preferences consistent with that vote. If this is true, most Trump voters were saying nothing more than that they wanted him to be president. Since he became president, democracy was served.

What about the argument that even if Trump voters merely wanted him to be president, it’s still important for the White House staff to carry out his policies because voters voted for him, not for them? That has two problems. One is that many Trump voters supported him because he was a Republican – and so they were voting for an entire Republican administration, rather than for Trump in particular to prevail in policy disputes. The other is that Trump was the one who hired Cohn and the other administration “resisters.” So it’s just as possible that Trump voters wanted his hires to make policy as it is that they only wanted Trump himself to make those choices. After all, Trump did campaign on his (supposed) ability to hire good people and manage the presidency well; it’s certainly possible that plenty of “The Apprentice” fans voted for him because they thought he would set a good process in motion, regardless of what he personally thought about policy. 

So how can a system in which voters don’t get their way on policy still be democratic? If voters don’t have to get their way on policy to make the system democratic, where is the democracy in the system? Can elected officials and their staff just do whatever they want, regardless of what the voters think?

Not exactly. After all, there’s democracy in the initial election of presidents, members of Congress, governors and so on. Those elected officials make promises to their constituents, and then try to keep their promises. They then report back to their constituents on their ability to fulfill those initial promises. That’s representation. They do so even if voters don’t always (or even often) follow politics and public affairs closely enough to even know what those promises are. Parties, too, facilitate representation because active interest groups -- groups of voters who care deeply about a policy question -- push parties and their candidates to respond to their concerns. 

Trump, as always, is unusual. He appears to care a lot about saying things at rallies that produce good responses, but far less about everything else.

That’s not a problem of democracy, given that his supporters seem to believe all is going well.

Random staff members and executive branch officials rolling the president to implement whatever they happen to think is best may still be a terrible way to make public policy, even if it is still probably better than having the Reality Star in Chief act on his random impulses and cable news information diet. But it’s not undemocratic. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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