FROMLINE: Erica Frantz

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Newswise – EAST LANSING, Mich. – The 2024 presidential election is expected to be a rematch of the 2020 presidential election between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. This comes as Trump continues his first winning streak. He defeated his only remaining Republican challenger, Nikki Haley, in both South Carolina and Michigan, the final primaries before Super Tuesday. As questions arise about how Trump would govern in a second term, some have called attention to what a Trump administration could mean for American democracy.

Erica Frantz is an associate professor of political science at Michigan State University Institute of Political Science in the College of Social Sciences. She is an expert on authoritarian politics, democratization and the dynamics of political change. Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor of the Center for a New American Security and Joseph Wright of Pennsylvania State University are publishing a book this year: “The Origins of Elected Strongmen,” which examines how parties that promote a leader’s personal agenda threaten democracy.

Frantz answers questions about why personalist parties pose a problem for democracy, looking at examples from history and one emerging today: Trump’s Republican Party.

What are personalist political parties and how do they pose a threat?

Personalistic political parties serve primarily to promote and promote the leader’s personal political agenda rather than to promote policy and personnel decisions. This results in party elites lacking the incentive and ability to resist a leader’s rise to power.

In contrast, typical political parties select new leaders periodically, giving the party’s elites a chance to win the nomination in the future if the party is popular. Their leaders typically have to move up the party ranks to secure the post, and have worked with other party elites to do so. These so-called Personal partiesAs my colleagues and I have studied, they threaten democracy because they lack the incentives and ability to resist their leader’s efforts to consolidate power. There is strong evidence supporting this path using original data on the personalism of ruling parties in all democracies of the world from 1991 to 2020.

The message is clear: greater personalism in the party supporting incumbent leaders endangers democracy.

How is Trump’s Republican Party similar to a personalist party?

Even if it wasn’t always the case, today’s Republican Party now fits very well into the personalist line. Trump secured the party’s presidential nomination in 2016 because he had little relationship or experience with the party. In fact, he changed party affiliation several times and had never held elected office before becoming president.

After Trump’s victory, the influence of the Republican establishment waned as he became the party. During his first presidency between 2016 and 2020, many of his supporters (including those in his inner circle) were more loyal to Trump than to the Republican Party. Many of these supporters even expressed criticism of the party, which they saw as weak and corrupt.

Personalism in the party has only increased since Trump was voted out of office in 2020. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2021, for example, a larger-than-life gold Trump statue dominated the merchandise hall. As Robert Kagan listed in September 2021“The movement’s passion was for Trump, not the party.”

Trump’s excessive control of the Republican Party has turned other elites in the party into sycophants who fear losing their influence if they fall into Trump’s good graces. This dynamic is harmful to democracy because if Trump wins office again, he is unlikely to face pushback from the party in response to a power grab he is likely seeking.

Why are personalist parties harmful to democracy?

A number of common themes emerge from our research that help explain this issue. Here are just a few examples:

· In personalistic parties, elites are more loyal to the leader than to the party. In party personalization, politically experienced elites are replaced by less experienced individuals who are loyal to the leader. They see their political future closely linked to the leader, not the party. Therefore, they are likely to support the leader’s agenda, regardless of how threatening it may be to democracy. The experiences in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party, or AKP for short, as it is called in Turkish, make this clear. The party’s senior ranks initially included a number of established politicians, but over time Erdogan replaced these individuals with loyalists. This paved the way for him to consolidate control, including transferring powers from parliament to the presidency in 2018 to expand his influence.

· Elites in personalist parties often support a leader’s anti-democratic actions rather than resisting them. When the party leadership supports the leader’s undemocratic leanings rather than condemning them, it sends a signal to followers that nothing is wrong and they fall in line to support the leader. In Brazil, for example, then-President Jair Bolsonaro suggested to his supporters that the 2022 elections could be fraudulent, implying that election officials could manipulate the results in his opponent’s favor. Members of the political elite (including those in Brazil’s Congress) supported these baseless claims, signaling to Bolsonaro’s supporters that he viewed his behavior as consistent with a healthy democracy. This paved the way for them to resort to violence when Bolsonaro lost the race, which was widely seen as free and fair.

· Polarize leaders of personalist parties. Policy decisions reflect their preferences rather than a negotiation process between multiple actors and institutions. Those groups that do not agree with the leader are sidelined in the decision-making process. As divisions grow, supporters of such leaders defiantly defend them, even in the face of actions damaging to democracy. Take Venezuela, historically one of Latin America’s most stable democracies. Former President Hugo Chávez’s rise to power divided Venezuelan society, dividing it over what the rules of the game should be and who should have access to power. Chávez’s actions polarized society and ultimately drove the country toward dictatorship.

What could happen to democracy in the US under a second Trump term?

Power-hungry leaders like Trump are common. What matters is less the ambitions of such leaders and more the incentive and ability of those in their support group to tame them. As an indicator of this, our research shows that when personalist government parties have legislative majorities or reduce judicial constraints, there is hardly anything standing in the way of seizing power. For example, if Republicans won a narrow majority in the Senate, they could eliminate the filibuster, which would limit Democrats’ ability to stop legislation they oppose.

They are long-standing and prosperous democracies remarkably resilient to the challenges they face. However, personalism in the support parties of elected leaders undermines these protective guardrails. Because of the personalistic nature of the Republican Party, it is unlikely that Trump will face opposition from the party on any issue if he takes office again.

All signs suggest that if re-elected, Trump is likely to seek a power grab by, for example, purging career bureaucrats, expanding the Supreme Court or using the Insurrection Act to deploy the military against protesters. Party members could even support him in this seizure of power. As the Republican Party takes a personalistic turn under Trump’s influence, democracy in the US will likely suffer from a second Trump term.

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