Editor’s note: This story is one in a series, #PolicyForward, that spotlights how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation. Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, these stories will examine three of the most critical issues facing our world: strengthening democracy, fighting poverty and inequality, and combating climate change.

Professor William Howell

Professor William Howell sees serious threats to democracy in the United States. 

Howell, a leading scholar on American political institutions, recently sat down with the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy to discuss how the United States got here and ways to strengthen democracy here and abroad.  The scholarship of Howell, who is the Sydney Stein Professor in American politics, focuses on separation-of-powers issues and American political institutions, especially the presidency. He teaches a popular course at the University on the presidency.

In the weeks ahead, look for conversations, stories and other features with Harris Public Policy faculty, students and alumni who are working to make an impact on major policy challenges facing the next generation. This leads up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center.

Q: Talk a little bit about the health of our democracy today.

In short, it’s not good. Trust in government and political institutions is remarkably low, and the quality of public debate about pressing issues is extremely vacuous and polarized. The capacity of our political institutions to solve problems is not what we need it to be. 

We have a president and a Republican Party willing to launch—either by themselves or through their proxies—attacks on the legitimacy of the courts, the press and civil servants. It’s an intentional and well-orchestrated attempt to cultivate deep distrust in the federal government.

Q: What are the factors that contribute to growing government distrust?

There is not one single source of distrust. Some is born of fabrication, lying and demagoguery. Some is formed by our institutions’ seeming inability to function properly. And some, by the real concerns and disagreement about whose interests should be served by the government. The wealthy? The poor? The middle class?

These questions are also fueled by larger demographic changes that contribute to significant social unrest and anxiety. We have seen this particularly among white men who are used to having a large amount of privilege, which they see as being threatened. So there is no one origin point for distrust, but a convergence. When you combine distrust with hyper-polarization—among classes and races—you end up with a pretty toxic mix.  

Q: What are the implications of this distrust?

It’s troubling on a number of levels. In order for bureaucracy to function, institutions need funding and rely on Congress to allocate that funding. When these institutions have their existence called into question—by those same bodies designed to support them—they are severely compromised. 

Because funding is based on tax revenue, collecting taxes depends upon the public to honestly and freely report their earnings and send them into the government. If the public refuses to do this to any significant degree based on its distrust of the government—which their President and representatives have cultivated—these institutions are imperiled. Tax refunds cannot be processed, national security is threatened due to lack of resources and personnel, global competitiveness is impeded by reduced investment in key areas of need, from healthcare to energy to technology—to hit on just a few—and more. 

This lack of trust between the state and the public damages every aspect of government—from basic functionality to a long-term erosion of morale and efficacy. 

Q: You’ve written about and discussed the legitimization of bigotry. How does this legitimization influence today’s politics?

It clearly is having an influence. The willingness of this president to put up with—and deliberately stoke—blatant bigotry and racism doesn’t just legitimize these positions, but emboldens them. White nationalists see an ally in the White House. This is extremely consequential in terms of their posture and influence. They are normalized and accepted as—if not conventional—then as a justified and credible part of society. We have entered and era where bigotry and racism are unapologetically out in the open. 

This situation is exacerbated by rising inequality in America. As the divides between rich and poor become more and more acute—often crossing racial lines—there is an earnest need for serious work to be focused on pragmatic, lasting solutions. But as long as there is a populist in White House there is no chance for meaningful attention to this. He is more focused on exploiting these divides for his own gain, using the bully pulpit to marshal public support of his own private, largely anti-democratic agenda.   

Q:  How does the presidency of Donald Trump factor into the challenges to democracy?

Even if President Trump were not in the White House, these threats to democracy would still exist. There are an undeniable set of systemic forces that allowed President Trump to gain a foothold and lead one of our two major parties. 

The stage is ready for someone even more dangerous and threatening to come into the White House. However maddening it is that President Trump is so undisciplined and unorganized, we can also find consolation in those facts. Imagine someone just as demagogued and more disciplined taking over. Then what kind of threat will our democracy face then? The implications are frightening and dire.

Q: Is this just a U.S. challenge?

We are witnessing a rise in populism globally—and it’s not an accident that we are seeing it rise in so many places at the same time. In Europe there are massive flows of immigration touching off tremendous anxiety under leadership not prepared to manage populism. We are witnessing disruptions associated with automation and globalization that institutions around the globe have struggled to attend to. There are profound challenges that governments around the world are facing. For instance, how will they deal with structural changes to their economies? After a while the public will demand alternatives. The big question is whether these alternatives will be reasonable or perilous.

Q:  In many ways, you paint a pessimistic picture of the state of democracy. What can be done?

The times require something akin to a second progressive movement, where wide segments of the public will be looking for reform to allow for and encourage richer and more meaningful debate. I’m working on a new book with Terry Moe from Stanford exploring how this movement might take shape. It would attend to the problems of tone and language in our discourse, and also to evolving the design of our political and policy institutions to more effectively solve problems. The alternative is remaining vulnerable to public appeals that President Trump—and future President Trumps—will make.