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Chat: How’s Our Democracy Doing?

In this week’s politics chat, we check in on the health of our democracy. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): After Donald Trump won the election, a lot of people — journalists, academics, regular folks — raised concerns about the future of our democracy. Would Trump upend democratic norms and violate core principles? The Trump administration is only in its fifth day, so it’s way too soon to know. But we don’t want to lose sight of those bigger questions. So today we’re going to go through a checklist put together by Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt for Foreign Policy magazine in late November, offering “10 warning signs that democracy is at risk.” (Walt saw Trump as a risk on all 10.)

Again, it’s early in the Trump era — though we’ve already learned a lot about how he intends to govern from his transition, inauguration and first few days in office — but we’ll return to these questions periodically.

So, everyone on the same page? This is basically an oil check for U.S. democracy — you buy a used car and the service department takes a look before you take it home.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I just wanna say I took this guy’s class in college and I think I got an A-minus, so take that into account when you review my answers.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): A-minus? I expected more from you, Nate.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I got an A-minus once … it was an overrated experience.

clare.malone: Know what’s a failure of democracy? Annette Bening not being nominated for an Oscar this year.

micah: And to be clear, this isn’t FiveThirtyEight saying Trump will ruin American democracy — we just take a “better safe than sorry” attitude here.

natesilver: I think we’re just saying, “Is this normal?”

clare.malone: OK, let’s talk about stuff.

micah: First up, No. 1: Has Trump undertaken “systematic efforts to intimidate the media”?

natesilver: No. Period.

clare.malone: Yes!

What do you call having your press secretary at your first press conference telling a reporter to behave or else he’d revoke his press pass?

What do you call keeping reporters in pens and physically preventing them from talking to people at rallies?

natesilver: I was being sarcastic.

clare.malone: Text has no nuance. Sarcasm not detected.

micah: Oh, I actually don’t think this is clear cut.

natesilver: Really? He’s called out reporters by name, revoked and threatened to revoke access….

harry: Trump rewards good press coverage. Like he did at his first news conference. He also calls out reporters, such as Katy Tur, when they report on news he doesn’t like.

micah: All those examples are definitely bad. I’m not sure they rise to “systematic,” though.

natesilver: #slatepitches

clare.malone: What, you want him to have a handbook, Micah? “The Trump White House’s Guide to Sowing Distrust in the Press?”

natesilver: That’s not to say Trump can never, ever use carrots as well as sticks or threats. He gives a comparatively high amount of access to certain outlets.

micah: They seem more like Trump and his people have very low regard for the media and act accordingly. And they definitely try to undermine public trust in the press. But it’s harder to point to a recurring effort to intimidate reporters.

natesilver: But calling out reporters on stage at rallies? That’s the very definition of intimidation.

micah: Walt gives examples like using the FCC to harass media companies and opening up libel laws.

clare.malone: Micah, someone is now using the White House platform and the seal of the president to lend credibility to their attacks on the press. You should be alarmed by that.

micah: I’m 100 percent alarmed! 🚨🚨🚨 But more official actions, I guess, is what I’m looking for.

harry: Trump has threatened to open up the libel laws.

natesilver: Trump also has a long, long history of using libel claims as a private citizen.

micah: Threatening and doing are not the same thing.

OK, so on No. 1, we have three votes for yes and one vote for “kinda.”

clare.malone: Yeah, and that one vote is wrong. To me, I’m going with a lean yes on this one. You gotta start somewhere. And you don’t need to sue a reporter to get people to start distrusting their news — a huge danger to democracy.

micah: On to No. 2: Has Trump built “an official pro-Trump media network”?

clare.malone: Well, he didn’t build it, but he is renting out Breitbart.

harry: I’m going no here. Yes, I know Breitbart, but I’m no. Every president has one network or another that is more friendly to their administration.

natesilver: Here, I’ll say no. There are certainly a lot of Trump-ish publications in his orbit, and he’s giving them more access. But I’m taking that “official” part of the sentence literally. I don’t think anything so far brushes up against the definition of official.

micah: Yeah, I’m a “no” on this, but is the “official” part really that important?

clare.malone: Well, sure. If we had state media, that would indicate a whole new level of things. As it stands, PBS is as close as it gets … and they are mostly just a medium for Rick Steves.

harry: I thought Ken Burns owned it?

micah: Yeah, state ownership is definitely a sign of a whole different level of undemocratic. But if Breitbart is a Trump organ and not owned by the government, how much less worrying is that then if it were owned by the government?

natesilver: When I was in Italy, I had a travel guide who had a rivalry with Rick Steves.

clare.malone: Fodor’s?

harry: It’s all the difference in the world, in my opinion. How many liberal news organizations were very pro-Obama? I’m just not even close here.

micah: No. 3: Has Trump politicized “the civil service, military, National Guard or the domestic security agencies”?

clare.malone: No. They all kinda seem to despise him, in fact.

harry: The meeting Trump held with the CIA was perhaps a first step in that direction, when he spent a lot of time flattering himself, but I’m “no” here, too.

natesilver: I’m a “maybe” on this one. The speech at the CIA was … unusual.

micah: I’m a “maybe” on this for that reason.

clare.malone: Well, that CIA speech — there are some reports that he specifically invited 40 people in the audience and they might have been responsible for the cheering when he started talking about himself.

micah: Trump has drawn military and intelligence agencies into the political fray. That’s not the same thing as Nixon using the CIA to try to quash an FBI investigation for political reasons, but it certainly blurs the divide between politics and security.

clare.malone: I think it’s too early to tell. I’m a “wait and see” on this one.

natesilver: I’d like to reclassify my “maybe” as a “wait and see.”

micah: So recorded.

No. 4: Has Trump used “government surveillance against domestic political opponents”?

harry: No sign of this at all.

micah: Yeah, not that we know of.

clare.malone: Ditto.

natesilver: I’m also not aware of any credible reports on this yet. This is one of the most important items on the list, IMO.

micah: So, put this one in the good news category!


micah: On to No. 5: Has Trump used “state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents”?

clare.malone: Mmmm. Well, again, he’s only been president a couple days. But does nominating a big donor to Republican causes with no tangible experience in a governmental field — someone like Betsy DeVos — count?

harry: I have to say “no,” but I could definitely see this happening given his business ties.

natesilver: I’m thinking more about calling out companies, favorably and unfavorably, by name, using the power of the bully pulpit. Or at least his twitter account.

micah: He’s done that.

clare.malone: Carrier?

natesilver: He didn’t officially have state power until a few days ago. But I’d score this one as “on the road toward yes” or something like that. Carrier, Boeing, L.L. Bean — there have been many times when his tweets have moved stock prices.

micah: But those weren’t cases of his going after political opponents or rewarding backers, were they?

harry: The L.L. Bean case was the closest, for sure.

micah: Yeah, that one qualifies, I think.

harry: In most cases though, Trump has said kind things about companies that are keeping jobs in the U.S. That’s less about personal gain.

clare.malone: But still, none while he’s been in office. So, no state power has been wielded as of yet.

micah: So Clare’s a “no” Nate’s a non-answer. Harry?

harry: Harry is leaning “no.”

clare.malone: Guys, the full name of LL Bean’s founder was “Leon Leonwood Bean.”

micah: That fact, by itself, makes this chat valuable to society.

harry: My name is Harry Harrison Henry Enten.

clare.malone: Clare Clarissa Malone.

micah: Micah Samuel Szabo Cohen.

natesilver: Wait, you have two middle names? MSSC.

micah: Yup … Szabo is my mom’s maiden name.

The S.S. Cohen.

natesilver: My full name is Nathaniel Jefferson Beauregard Silver.

micah: Next, No. 6: Has Trump stacked the Supreme Court?

clare.malone: A la FDR?

micah: No. Here’s Walt’s definition of “stacking” in this case:

Does he pick people who are personally loyal and beholden to him or opt for jurors with independent standing and stellar qualifications? Does he pick people whose views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and campaign financing comport with his party’s, or does he go for people who have an established view on the expansiveness of executive power…

natesilver: I think what Republicans did with Merrick Garland was highly undemocratic. But, can’t put that on Trump.

Micah: This is kind of a weird one.

harry: Unknown at this time.

natesilver: Yeah, I don’t think we can score this one either way. He’s supposedly set to make his pick next week. It’d also seem, frankly, like this question ought to be expanded to include other judicial picks. Are you appointing a bunch of sycophants? Especially if they might have to rule on cases involving you personally?

clare.malone: Like, if he picked his sister, I think we would have cause to worry. But otherwise, I think it would be difficult to discern a judge’s personal loyalty to a president in our current confirmation process — those judges try to avoid answering a lot of specific questions. And you could go under the radar as a federal judge, to a certain extent.

micah: OK, so that’s a “no” for everyone.

natesilver: It’s not a “no” for me. It’s an “incomplete.” It’s not in the denominator.

Now, No. 7: Has Trump “enforced the law for only one side”?

As Walt wrote, “a key litmus test for the president-elect is whether he will direct U.S. officials to enforce similar standards of conduct on both his supporters and his opponents.”

harry: Trump has been around for, like, 10 seconds.

micah: More from Walt:

If anti-Trump protesters are beaten up by a band of Trump’s fans, will the latter face prosecution as readily as if the roles were reversed? Will local and federal justice agencies be as vigilant in patrolling right-wing hate speech and threats of violence as they are with similar actions that might emanate from the other side?

Too early to tell. I’m a “no.”

natesilver: The Women’s March protests were peaceful, and I didn’t hear many reports of police intimidation or anything like that, so I don’t think we can fault Trump on this score yet. Again, it’s only been a few days.

clare.malone: Yeah, agree, and certain groups are also more likely to be treated differently in the U.S. — structural racism. And given that many of Trump’s supporters are white, that matters. In the example given above, at least.

micah: Yeah, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department will go a long way towards answering this question.

No. 8: Has Trump “really rigged the system”?

micah: So for this question, Walt is mostly talking about rigging elections, but I’d add in rigging other government functions. I’d put efforts to manipulate government data in this category. Trump press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments about the unemployment rate at his press conference on Monday, for example, were worrying.

clare.malone: I love it when we talk about rigging the election. Jury is still out on Russian cooperation, right?


harry: I actually was OK with Spicer there, in so far as there really are different measurements of what the true unemployment rate is. Then again, there’s an official one most folks agree upon.

micah: I think you’re being too credulous, Harry. Spicer has shown that he shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

natesilver: What’s a little tricky here is the line between making politically charged appointments to federal agencies, which is obviously very common historically, and suppressing or manipulating data, which would be a major line to cross.

micah: But to date, as far as we know, Trump hasn’t rigged an election or manipulated any data.

harry: No, he hasn’t.

micah: With a big asterisk depending on how all the Russia stuff shakes out.

natesilver: He told the National Park Service to stop sending out unflattering Tweets.

clare.malone: Wait, why aren’t we talking about Russia more here? That’s bigger than data right now. Data close behind, but still.

natesilver: I think we’re going to have to develop our own list of criteria!

clare.malone: I’m down with that.

micah: A list of criteria for the state of democracy? Or for this question in particular?

natesilver: But anyway, this one is in the category for me of “not yet, but definitely some risk in the future.”

micah: OK, so we’re all a “no” on this.

natesilver: I think we could use more of a consensus list of signs of authoritarianism, yeah, and things that are a little easier to define.

micah: We’ll make our own! Readers, please send in suggested questions to @538politics on Twitter. Also, on rigging the electoral system, how do we count gerrymandering? Voter ID laws, etc.? Those pre-date Trump, obviously.

No. 9: Has Trump engaged in fearmongering?

harry: Yes.

clare.malone: Yes

micah: Yes.

clare.malone: Nate’s picking up the food, but I think he’ll say yes, too….

micah: Examples?

clare.malone: “American carnage.”

I alone can fix it.”

natesilver: Sorry, was detained there for a second! At FiveThirtyEight, the boss indeed picks up food for his employees!

micah: And pays!

natesilver: But I’m a “yes” on this one.

micah: And last but not least: No. 10: Has Trump “demonized the opposition”?

natesilver: Of course he has, but is that a sign of authoritarianism or a sign of “politics ain’t beanbag”?

clare.malone: Yeah. Hate the game, people, hate the game.

harry: I’m with Nate. What type of criteria is that?

micah: The degree matters here more than in most questions.

clare.malone: Well, Trump did offer up that his political opponent should be jailed.

micah: Right. That’s a few steps beyond beanbag.

Here’s Walt:

… will he continue to question his opponents’ patriotism, accuse them of supporting America’s opponents and blame policy setbacks on dark conspiracies among Democrats, liberals, Muslims, the Islamic State, “New York financial elites,” or the other dog whistles so beloved by right-wing media outlets like Breitbart? Will he follow the suggestions of some of his supporters and demand that Americans from certain parts of the world (read: Muslims) be required to “register” with the federal government?

natesilver: Although, he’s relented on jailing Clinton since winning the White House. I think we need more tangible criteria on this one.

micah: Questioning motives and/or painting political opponents as in cahoots with U.S. enemies. Those are my criteria.

clare.malone: The idea of a registry for minority groups that generally oppose him is really bad — implicit in the Muslim registry is that U.S. citizens might be in cahoots with foreign terrorists by simple dint of religiosity.

harry: If anything, his opponents have said he is too close to Russia.

micah: Although, Republicans did this to Obama for eight years.

OK, so give me your answers.

clare.malone: Yes.

harry: The answer is “yes,” but I don’t like the criteria.

natesilver: I’m with Enten.

micah: I’m a “yes,” but Trump isn’t breaking any precedent here.

natesilver: So what are my overall takeaways? There are lots of things Trump did on the campaign trail or during the transition that could be precursors to anti-democratic actions. But with only a few days on the job, we don’t know a lot about how he’s actually wielding governmental power yet.

Also, there are a lot of borderline cases, and Trump is somewhat skilled at doing things that brush right up against the line.

harry: I say let’s revisit this in a few months.

micah: That was always the plan, Harry. But the point here is to lay down markers ahead of time.

harry: I’m going to eat this sushi.

natesilver: In the meantime, we should think in a little bit more detail about what’s normal politics and what’s crossing the Rubicon into the antidemocratic. I think some of these criteria worked and others didn’t so well. Readers, help us put together our own checklist!

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.