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What we learned about American democracy in 2017

Were we even asking the right questions a year ago?

Japan Reacts To U.S. Presidential Election Yuya Shino/Getty Images

This time last year, I was trying to figure out a year-in-review piece that would make sense of all we had seen, without knowing much about what to expect from the Trump presidency. In retrospect, this seems like nothing so much as a failure of imagination: The rapid transition from a Trump administration that could exist only in a realm of jokes to an administration that actually existed was one of the most disorienting things I’ve experienced in politics.

But now we’ve lived in this reality for almost a year. In that long, liminal space between the election result and Trump’s inauguration on January 20, several questions kept coming back — to me and to others, I think. Would American institutions hold? After a decade of controlling Congress, the presidency, or (briefly) both, what kind of opposition party would the Democrats be? And finally, what counterfactuals and alternative versions of events would continue to haunt us through 2017? How different would Trump be from another Republican who might have won the nomination under other circumstances?

I’m not sure we can answer all these questions, or even that we want to. Instead, let’s look back on what they mean and whether the assumptions that led to them have held up over this unexpected year.

Can our institutions save us from authoritarian politics?

Let’s start with institutions. If the Trump-panicked corner of the internet made one of those year-end word clouds, I imagine this would be in the big typeface. Observers of authoritarianism kept a close eye on the traditional institutions: courts, Congress, the autonomy of sub-federal units like cities and states, and, of course, the amorphous institution we call the media.

Different analyses have diverged in their assessments; Congress perhaps has inspired the most debate as Republican legislators have mostly lined up behind Trump — with a few notable exceptions. The lessons of the courts remain unclear. Partisan conflict over judicial appointments is hardly new, and there appears to be some congressional pushback against patently unqualified nominees. Courts pushed back against Trump’s travel bans, citing his past statements about Muslims — but after issuing three different versions of the ban, it remains in effect.

It’s understandable that we might want to look at how well institutions have kept their independence, especially as the administration has taken steps to discredit them. But institutions also perform other roles. Namely, they uphold and reflect power structures — the courts are part of the same justice system that has often dismayed activists on the left. Congress and the institutions and policies that Trump’s opponents hope will impede his agenda are the same things that embody inequality and often empower wealthy citizens over others.

Importantly, it’s the constitutional system — how we’ve long understood things like representation, federalism, and free speech — that paved Trump’s path to office. These institutions have sometimes been able to hold back the administration, but an important point goes to Trump’s team: They’ve made institutional preservation a priority for their opponents. You can see this in practical politics, as activists take up the cause of saving the Affordable Care Act and other social safety net policies.

And countless articles have referred to Trump’s assault on the country’s Constitution and political norms. These accounts are usually true on a surface level, but in another sense it’s important to remember that this is the same system that allowed Trump’s candidacy to flourish. Opposition movements probably can’t just be about institutional preservation, and eventually they’ll have to face that contradiction.

The Democrats: resistance or opposition party?

Last year’s surprise election result also found congressional Democrats in an unexpected position. Over the past year, top Democrats seem to have staked out different positions about whether they might — at least in theory — be open to working with a new administration, or to oppose its very legitimacy.

Over the course of this year, lots of questions were raised about the administration’s legitimacy. A few of these were related to process, like the Russia investigation. But most were related to substance — the president’s behavior on Twitter, his conduct in foreign affairs, his staffing issues and lack of expertise among his Cabinet. These are much more challenging legitimacy critiques to raise, because they imply a set of standards that, unlike election rules, have generally never been codified or written down.

The evolution of this debate has tested the limits of party asymmetry. Recent research has highlighted how Republicans have shifted further to the right than Democrats have to the left. This difference is qualitative as well as spatial; Democratic voters evidently have more appetite for compromise, according to the research linked above. Chronicles of the Republican Party emphasize a move away from moderation.

Politics in 2017 had the potential to change all of that. As Trump’s approval among Democrats mirrors Wisconsin’s winter temperatures this week, Democratic lawmakers have few incentives to seek common ground with the president. But the dilemma goes deeper than this.

The story of this year is one of the impossibility of à la carte legitimacy. For the most part, Trump’s presidency hasn’t offered Democrats opportunities to agree on some things but disagree on others. Attacks on the media and “both sides” remarks about neo-Nazis do not constitute mere differences of opinion. Similarly, moments like the Comey firing, alongside attacks on the courts and the FBI, might inspires us to ask at what point contemplating the constant possibility of a constitutional crisis actually becomes a constitutional crisis.

What is an opposition party to do? Shut out the administration and its political allies, and you risk conceding the whole idea of legitimate opposition. Play by normal rules, and you risk being the party that brought its democratic theory notes to a military-grade weapons fight.

The “what if” game

This has also been a year in which counterfactuals — that’s social science for “what ifs” — cast a long shadow. We’ve relitigated the Democratic primary so much that such arguments have become a trope on their own. Profiles of Trump voters have become a reviled genre, but it seems like someone is reading them. I’m not sure there’s an election result in history that seemed both so much the product of a few actions and factors and so much the result of what now seem like immutable forces.

The search for an explanation lends itself to what social scientists sometimes call “counterfactual thinking” — what would have been different if a single factor had gone another way? What if the Comey letter hadn’t been released on October 28, 2016? What if Hillary Clinton had campaigned more in the Midwest? What if the Republican field had been consolidated early on?

Many of these questions fit the “minimal rewrite” test that scholars like for counterfactual analysis. It’s a much neater effort if you just change a few factors. But this takes us back to the issue of how institutions and political forces — not just immediate campaign decisions — brought us here.

There’s no doubt that a Trump presidency has been a lot different from what we would have seen from a Hillary Clinton presidency, or a Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, or John Kasich one. But many of the same factors would be in place: deep divides over race and immigration, partisan polarization, and challenges to the idea of legitimate opposition. We can’t separate the outcomes from the political environment that produced them.

Counterfactual thinking about the presidents we didn’t elect in 2016 also makes me think, along with the classic social science on the topic, of an advice column, Dear Sugar, written by Cheryl Strayed about life decisions. Strayed, who has since created a podcast of her advice column and recently featured Hillary Clinton, wrote:

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.

In a year when the “darkest timeline” metaphor was often used to describe events, the ghost ship metaphor is also tempting. But in politics, process and outcome are perhaps not so neatly separated. Trump’s first year in office is likely to have a profound effect on party politics, on how Americans talk about and understand each other, and — despite a thin legislative record — on policy. It already has.

The dilemma that’s informed the past few years in politics, even prior to Trump’s 2015 presidential announcement, is still the critical one. There’s deep partisan polarization that drives many political decisions, and that divide is increasingly characterized by dislike and distrust. At the same time, ideas like accountability, legitimate opposition, and human equality are too important to be confined to points on an ideological spectrum.

The political outcomes we might not have chosen are still ours; many of us benefit from and participate in the systems that allowed them to come to pass. Like Strayed says, we’ll never know what was on the ghost ship. What we’ve learned this year is that things are not so simple here on the shore.