The 2010s saw American Democracy tested in unprecedented ways.
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
The decade that began in 2010 witnessed the gravest threats to the integrity of American democracy since the Civil War. It was the age of extreme polarization and political gerrymandering. It saw an unprecedent intervention in an American presidential election by a hostile foreign power and the advent of a dangerously self-serving president. Now it has ended with only the third impeachment of a president by the full U.S. House of Representatives in history.
In 2010, Democratic President Barack Obama achieved his greatest policy triumph when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. It was the only major social legislation enacted without the support of a single member of the opposition party and Obama paid a political price for this victory.
Obamacare’s opponents, led by a new and vibrant conservative movement that styled itself the Tea Party, dominated public debate and drove approval of the law down to the 40 percent range. The Tea Party advocated limited government, fiscal responsibility, reduced taxes, and its version of traditional Christian values, including opposition to abortion and gay and lesbian rights. Survey data indicated that between 10 and 30 percent of Americans identified with the Tea Party.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and secured unified control of state government in nearly every swing state. They used that power to gerrymander state legislative and congressional districts during the redistricting process that followed the decennial census of 2010. In Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats won 51 percent of the statewide, two-party congressional vote in 2012, but Republicans captured 72 percent of the state’s 18 congressional seats. In Wisconsin’s 2012 elections for state assembly, Democrats won 51 percent of the vote, but Republicans won 60 of 99 seats.
Legal battles over these gerrymandered maps would play out through much of the decade. When federal lawsuits challenging gerrymandered maps reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019, a 5 to 4 majority ruled that the federal courts had no role to play in adjudicating partisan gerrymandering. Legal challenges would now focus on the state courts, where, Democrats won important victories in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Despite Obama defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012, Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections of 2014. By this time the Tea Party movement had largely merged into the Republican Party, moving the party to the right and raising political polarization to the highest levels in recent history. Today, the most liberal Republicans in Congress are still more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.
When preeminent conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly in February 2016, President Obama nominated circuit court judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, which would have shifted the ideological balance on the court from 5 to 4 conservative to 5 to 4 liberal. However, the Republican Senate led by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky refused even to give Garland a hearing. His nomination languished until President Donald Trump appointed circuit court judge Neil Gorsuch, which kept in place the Court’s conservative majority.
In 2016 (as I predicted, contrary to the pundits and pollsters) Donald Trump won the presidential election. The Russians, under Kremlin direction, mightily assisted Trump’s campaign by illegally hacking and releasing Democratic emails, placing ads on social media, and deploying trolls and bots to poison political discourse on Trump’s behalf.
Trump appointed right-wing judges to judicial positions and pushed through Congress a massive tax that largely favored corporations and the wealthiest Americans. With few achievements in Congress, however, Trump largely governed by autocratic fiat. He withdrew America from the nuclear weapons accord with Iran, the Paris agreement on climate change, and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty that President Ronald Reagan had negotiated with Russia. His revamped immigration policy separated the families of undocumented immigrants, imposed a travel ban on residents of certain foreign nations, seized money from the military to build his border wall, eviscerated clean air and water regulations, and throttled back efforts to control catastrophic climate change.
The president quickly came under suspicion for collusion with the Russians during his presidential campaign. In May 2017, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, admitting that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he did so. The firing led to the appointment of Robert Mueller as a special counsel to investigate charges of coordination with the Russians and obstruction of justice.
To the disappointment of Trump’s critics, Mueller produced an unreadable, 435-page report that was filled with equivocation and double negatives. Attorney General William Barr, a political appointee of President Trump, then poisoned the public dialogue by falsely spinning the report to exonerate Trump of any wrongdoing.
Still, Mueller had documented ten acts of obstruction by President Trump that, according to a bipartisan group of more than a thousand prosecutors, constituted a clear prima facie case of the criminal obstruction. But Mueller refused to take a stand, saying only, “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
Mueller did not charge Trump or his associates with criminal conspiracy with the Russians, but he noted that the campaign welcomed and exploited Russia’s illegal meddling. He found that a lack of witness candor and a flawed production of documents hampered his conspiracy investigation. President Trump refused an in-person interview with the special counsel and answered written questions primarily by saying “I don’t recall.”
Although Democrats had won control of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterms, the party’s cautious leadership declined to follow-up the Mueller Report with an impeachment investigation of the president. Then Trump gratuitously forced the House to act by shaking down the new president of Ukraine, a nation dependent on the U.S., to investigate his political rival Joe Biden and the discredited Russian propaganda ploy that Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hoax concocted by the Democrats and Ukraine.
Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee has held weeks of hearings on the Ukraine scandal. He submitted a report to the Judiciary Committee which recommended articles of impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The House’s charges will now be subject to a trial in the Senate under the Constitution. It remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled Senate will hold a real trial with relevant witnesses or short-circuit the process to exonerate the president.
Allan J. Lichtman is Distinguished Professor of History at American University and the author of many acclaimed books on U.S. political history, including White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, FDR and the Jews (with Richard Breitman), and The Case for Impeachment. He is regularly sought out by the media for his authoritative views on voting and elections.