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How to distinguish conservative policy actions from democracy-threatening actions

Experts can help citizens who seek to respond to executive actions that pose the most potential damage.

A scene frome women’s march, following Trump’s inauguration.
Women’s march on Washington, DC, January 21, 2017
Emily Crockett/Vox

The list of jarring actions taken by the Trump administration in its first week in office is surprisingly long and rich. And the public reaction has been impressive. Beginning with the more than 3 million people who participated worldwide in a march for women’s rights the day after the inauguration, mass protests and spontaneous demonstrations to oppose administrative actions are becoming commonplace in American cities.

As tensions in American politics and civic life swell, it’s increasingly important to distinguish between two types of government actions — those that affect public policy versus those that affect democratic norms and constitutional stability.

Some executive actions are conservative policies that one would expect from nearly any Republican president

Within the first week, President Trump issued a series of executive orders, not unusual in number for a new administration representing a different political party than his predecessor, which covered a variety of campaign-themed topics. Some of the policy-oriented executive actions in the past week include restricting the Affordable Care Act, blocking a planned mortgage-interest rate reduction for middle-class homeowners, and requiring federal agencies to prepare to build a border wall with Mexico — each of which hits a significant part of the narrative Trump regularly spoke about while running for president.

These actions have been decried by liberals as being regressive and are a clear attempt to roll back some of the progressive policy achievements of the Obama administration. We should expect liberals to oppose such policies, just as we would have expected conservatives to have been vocally opposed to early actions by a Hillary Clinton administration. While further actions of these types may directly and negatively affect segments of the population (i.e., those who will lose health insurance, see taxes raised, or restrict migration with our southern neighbor), they can generally be labeled as being consistent with the conservative ideology the Republican Party has supported for several decades.

But I wouldn’t necessarily expect non-liberals to be concerned about these changes.

Some executive actions have the potential to disrupt our constitutional stability

On the other hand, another category of Trump administration actions is more pernicious. The second category of actions should be of concern to all Americans. The president of the United States has begun taking a series of actions that have caused government scholars to raise red flags. Many political scientists have expressed grave concern over the health and stability of our government system, based on observations of Trump administration actions. Scholars have expressed particular concern about administration actions that are either inconsistent with our democratic republic or consistent with authoritarian forms of government.

For example, the president had openly questioned the veracity and integrity of the country’s vast professional intelligence community, and expressed greater willingness to believe claims made by foreign adversaries. This raises alarms for government scholars because if the president is unwilling to believe the intelligence he receives from his own agencies, and is more likely to believe conspiracy theories or claims made by foreign non-allied states, it calls into question his ability and willingness to make foreign and military policy choices that are in the best interests of the country.

Also on the list of red-flag actions is the president’s repeated claims that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election. The administration has provided no evidence for this claim, while elections and voter experts have shown it to be false. The claim is distressing because it provides a rationale to enact policies that would limit or suppress voter turnout in future elections. The right to vote is a fundamental democratic right. When voting rights are restricted, the elected government lacks public legitimacy and cannot be considered democratic.

Among the most recent red-flag actions, of the democracy-damaging variety rather than just the illiberal policy variety, are the executive actions on changes to immigration policy. These actions appear to be a violation of federal law, which prevents the government from restricting immigration based on religion or national origin.

Moreover, the White House sought to use the action to bar legal noncitizen residents (those with visas and green cards) from entering the country if their passport was from one of seven countries — although this may have been temporary. Since the US Constitution protects the civil rights of anyone in the US, not just its citizens, and the Constitution guarantees the equal protection of the laws and due process of the law, the executive action seems to be both illegal and unconstitutional.

Federal judges have begun issuing stays against the order. At the time of writing, there is some evidence that the Trump administration may not adhere to the judicial action, and if it doesn’t this would be an additional red flag.

Protest and political movements are a normal part of democratic norms and traditions. As abrupt changes to policy and means of governing fall upon the nation with a new administration, it is important for us to distinguish between those actions that are offensive to liberal progressives and those actions that are counter to American values, democratic norms, and the basic institutions of the republic. Should the latter be consistently violated, we will find ourselves in a constitutional crisis with unknown disruptive consequences.

Experts can tell the difference between a fire alarm with smoke and one without

Making these distinctions is difficult and sometimes ambiguous. This is why, as I have argued previously, it is imperative for scholars of government and politics to be vocal about their observations. Our expertise has perhaps never been more relevant or needed.

Social scientists have a tendency to be reticent to exercise their political voice for fear of appearing partisan — but making clear that some political actions can severely disrupt government, civil society, the national economy, and security is a nonpartisan observation.

Political scientists have important knowledge and skills. Scholars of American politics understand our existing Constitution and political institutions that have held together our democratic republic for nearly 250 years. Scholars of comparative politics understand authoritarianism and regime change and the factors that contribute to state collapse. International relations scholars understand the conditions for peace, international order, and basic human rights.

While political scientists are most accustomed to speaking only to one another, we must share our knowledge and insights about what is happening with the rest of the world. We’ve reached a point where not doing so amounts to professional malpractice. Scientists’ ability to educate and engage in academic research is fully dependent on living in a free society that values truth, science, education, and the pursuit of a stronger humanity. We cannot have those things without government protection. We cannot have those things without protection from government. If we seek to maintain our professional mission, it is imperative that we also use this knowledge to point out the ways in which our mission and our government are under threat.

A doctor, whose primary job is to treat her own patients in her practice, who walks down the street past an injured person and does not stop to offer medical assistance is ethically in the wrong. The doctor who has the skills to prevent a human death has a professional responsibility to come to the aid of the injured person. It is the same for political science. Saving our government is not our mission or our primary job, but it is our ethical professional responsibility to contribute our voice, knowledge, and insight.

The country and world needs assistance in understanding the unprecedented actions of the new American administration. We are professionally trained to provide the appropriate context and evidence about what is happening. Scholars, journalists, and other experts can help distinguish between partisan policy proposals and administrative changes that threaten the constitution and republic. Speak, write, question, post, lecture, comment. The republic is worth it.

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