What is “democratic recovery” and how does it work?

The phrase was coined by Prof. Corey Brettschneider of Brown University (photo, left; see his C.V. here), who studies past presidents who “posed great threats to democracy” and wrote a book on that subject (get it here).

His idea is that pushback by citizens can, and did, rein in rogue presidents who pushed beyond legality (he says there were five of them before Trump), although it’s a slow process that takes time.

As examples, the ink was barely dry on the Constitution before John Adams tried to prosecute critics, Woodrow Wilson “nationalized Jim Crow,” and Nixon had an “enemies list.”

The underlying theme is that presidents have enormous power, and bad actors — including authoritarians and criminals — can get into office and misuse it. But some things have changed. What they didn’t have until now was immunity, or until recently modern media, which Trump uses effectively.

Brettschneider says Ford’s pardon of Nixon was a mistake, because of the possibility that the “Nixon danger” (i.e. abuse of power) “would re-emerge.” He also criticizes Bill Clinton for “joining forces with Republicans” to let the Nixon-era independent prosecutor law expire, and subsequent Congresses for “a bipartisan sense that presidential power is not a danger.”

The private citizens he considers heroes of democracy were people who went to the public and “placed these ideas of a democratic constitution in our wider consciousness.” The remedy against authoritarianism, he argues, is “a citizen movement pushing back against an authoritarian idea of the presidency.” This check on presidential power, he says, is not inevitable but “a matter of will” that depends on “whether citizens can galvanize behind an idea of constitutional recovery.”

Under this line of thinking, the problem isn’t a defect in the Constitution, but who’s going to enforce it when the Supreme Court won’t (which also was a problem during the Buchanan presidency).

Biden was a last-minute addition to the Democratic field in 2020, and voters elected him in large part to eject Trump from office, without any clear idea of what to expect from a Biden presidency. In the wake of Trump’s assault on the 2020 election results, liberals hoped Biden and thin Democratic congressional majorities would move vigorously to shore up democracy, but Brettschneider says Biden hasn’t prioritized “constitutional recovery.” And then, of course, the Democrats lost the House in 2022, putting legislative remedies out of reach.

Despite that failure, he says, “Citizens shouldn’t give Trump, or this Supreme Court, the final word on the meaning of the Constitution. We’ve got to reclaim it. That’s what all these citizens did throughout history.”

Read the entire Politico article here.

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