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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

We Freaking Warned You

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

We warned you this would happen.

Let me back up.

Political science research doesn't typically get a ton of attention or respect. Yes, college graduates often value the education they get in their political science classes, but policymakers, parties, and others in the political world tend to be fairly dismissive of the recommendations political scientists make. Politicians keep pushing for term limits even when we tell them we've studied it and it's a bad idea. Same with campaign finance limits. Same with redistricting, and racial injustice, and gender inequality, and balanced budget amendments, and a lot of other topics.

When Congress was looking to make cuts in National Science Foundation funding a few years back, the political science budget was first on the chopping block. Then-Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) described it as a "meritless program" and dismissed federally-funded studies of climate change politics, gender differences in political ambition, the quality of representation, and the basic functioning of government. Politics was apparently working just fine, and there was no need for government to support research into it, especially when it could spend money studying cancer or heart disease or other things with more direct and immediate impact on people's lives. This didn't mean no research could be done, of course, but it was emblematic of a broader sense that what political scientists were working on was parochial and obscure, and that their warnings could be safely ignored.

Well, political scientists warned you about Donald Trump. Since 2015, we've been warning about the dangers he posed. Not because of the policies he advocated, but because of the threats he posed to American democracy.

We warned you that he had no commitment to democratic values or norms. We warned you about the dangers of a leader that abused federal law enforcement to investigate his enemies and to pardon his allies. We warned you that he was undermining the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps the most sacred and stabilizing tradition in American politics. We warned you that Trump's lies about election results would erode faith in elections. We warned you that his embrace of authoritarianism would degrade American democracy for decades to come. We warned you that putting someone like Trump in the White House is how democracies die.

We warned you that his baseless and cruel attacks on reporters threatened the freedom of the press. We warned you that he was seeking to undermine the independence of the judiciary. We warned you that his racist nationalistic attacks challenged American traditions of citizenship.

We warned you that he was dangerous and that his presence made policymaking and governing harder. We warned you that his use of Twitter was death to policymaking and productive politics. We warned you that he was functionally a toddler.

We warned you that he was undermining science and harming America's response to the greatest public health crisis it has faced in a century.

We warned you that the two major parties were becoming increasingly divergent in their commitment to democracy, that Republicans were increasingly comfortable with minority government while appealing to whites who wanted to burn institutions down, and that Trump was hastening this trend.

This week, we have seen the fulfillment of our concerns about Trump's indifference to democracy.

Susan Stokes, building on her research in Latin America, offered a prescient warning shortly before Election Day in 2016:

We have seen other countries where democratic institutions have come under assault. Venezuela had a stable two-party system for decades but was thrown off-kilter by a leader who weakened the courts and placed controls on the press. Russia had an emerging, competitive multi-party system and at least the promise of a balanced system of government. This emergence of democracy was stopped cold by an authoritarian leader and his inner circle, who has made steady incursions on the opposition, the press, and leaders in civil society.... [Trump] has cultivated a large following of citizens who are convinced that our elections are rigged, that the mainstream press can never be trusted, and that federal agencies... produce intentionally misleading information. A culture of such deep distrust does not augur well for American democracy.

I am certainly not claiming that we have gotten everything right about Donald Trump; far from it. Many of us underestimated his chances in the 2016 Republican nomination contests and in the general election. We have been divided on just how much influence he has had over the Republican Party and over policymaking in general. We have struggled with whether it is more important to maintain a norm of public nonpartisanship or to call out his transgressions.

But we have overwhelmingly taken him both literally and seriously. We have publicly warned that his actions would lead to a crisis in democracy, bringing a rise in illiberalism and political violence. The events that happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th were shocking but they were not at all surprising. We've been warning you about them for five years.

Here's another warning: This isn't over. Maybe there will be more violence between now and Joe Biden's inauguration, maybe not. But the forces that created Wednesday's violence are still very much active and pose a significant threat to American democracy. The next time this crops up, let's not say this can't happen here. It already has, and it's still happening.


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