A letter of concern about the erosion of America’s democratic institutions

We are political scientists by training who live and work in the United States. We have many differences among us — ideological, ethnic, religious, gender — but we share an urgent concern over the damage President-Elect Donald Trump has begun to do to our political institutions and norms, both those rooted in the Constitution and in legislation, and those that have emerged out of common best practices. Our fear is that this damage will endanger the livelihoods and security of millions of Americans. There are four specific areas of concern, and we call on Mr. Trump to address these immediately.

First, Mr. Trump has continued to use exclusionary rhetoric to divide citizens. He has criticized protests against his victory, undermining a key element of the democratic process and an important vehicle for freedom of assembly and speech. He continues to use social media to single out critics, channeling supporters’ violent threats against them. He has not directly responded to the spike in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims, giving the impression that such attacks are of no concern to him. And he has appointed people to office and as advisers who have a well-documented history of promoting similar ideas against African-Americans, Jews, and Muslims, as well as against political opponents.

Second, Mr. Trump has completely disregarded the concept of “conflict of interest” and refused to separate personal interests from public policy. While he has said that his children will run his private enterprises, he made sure that his daughter, Ivanka Trump, sat in on a meeting with the Japanese prime minister, thereby erasing any line he said he would draw between the two. While working on his transition to the presidency he has conducted private business with political and business leaders from India, Great Britain, and Argentina. Whether or not Mr. Trump directly violates the Constitution’s Emoluments clause, presidents who continue to operate their personal financial interests while sitting in the Oval Office undermine their ability to distinguish between the good of the country and the good of their bank accounts. Public policy decisions become oriented toward personal finances, while policy favors are granted toward those who promise to enhance those finances.

Third, Mr. Trump has personalized public policy decision-making by selecting for senior positions of authority in his prospective government those whom he considers loyal to him over those with policymaking experience. Similarly, he has ignored information and advice from civil servants, casting them as part of the problem and relying instead on either his own personal whims or those of his loyalists. This has led to policy pronouncements and activity that break with decades of well-established policy and, in foreign affairs, diplomatic protocol (for example, a direct celebratory phone call with the Taiwanese president). While policy change can be healthy, it is dangerous when conducted without a careful review of the benefits and drawbacks of both existing policy and of the proposed new policy.

Finally, Mr. Trump has consistently sought to intimidate the American media. In the immediate aftermath of his victory Mr. Trump held a meeting with several journalists and media executives at Trump Tower and verbally abused them for their coverage during the election. He has continued to rail against the New York Times, CNN, and other media organizations via his Twitter account. These efforts delegitimize the role of a free press, which is a proven mechanism by which citizens obtain information that is not vetted by the state so that they can evaluate leaders on their own and hold them accountable for their policies.

We call on Mr. Trump to address these areas of concern immediately. A commitment to the freedoms embedded in the Constitution must be proclaimed by Mr. Trump and all his cabinet appointments. Dissent, criticism, and a free press must not be downplayed but encouraged for a healthy exchange of ideas. And tolerance must be publicly reinforced so that all Americans have a stake in the productive policies of the Trump Administration. A firewall must be carefully constructed between the presidency, which is a public institution, and Mr. Trump’s business activities. This includes putting non-family members in charge of his private enterprises. Mr. Trump should also begin a thorough review of all existing American policies he has said he wishes to change, in order to have a full sense of what works and what might not. This must entail consultation with policy experts in the civil service. Mr. Trump must treat the media more seriously and end his vilification of it, and accept its role in holding government accountable and keeping citizens well informed.

To repeat: we are concerned about these developments not out of partisan loyalty, but because they threaten the very foundation of the American governing system, which in turn will directly affect the lives of millions of American citizens. Our political institutions have changed over time, as the original political community expanded beyond male descendants of west European immigrants to include as full participants women, members of other ethnic communities, and religions other than Christianity. These changes have all followed a trajectory of inclusivity. Political norms of tolerance, acceptance, and accountability have followed in their wake. To reverse these changes would be to highlight intolerance, exclusion, and personal enrichment at the expense of good governance.

The signatories below represent only themselves, and not their institutions. To add your name, please send an email to: openletter16@gmail.com

Phil Arena
Pablo Beramendi
Ashley Biser
Daniel Braaten
Amy Eckert
Martin S. Edwards
Christopher Faricy

Robert Farley
Laura K. Field
Paul B. Fritz

Harry Gould
Matthew P. Hitt
Denise M. Horn
Julie Hwang
Jeffrey C. Isaac
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson
Susan Kang

Josh Kertzer
Helen M. Kinsella
Benjamin Knoll
Jennifer K. Lobasz
Janice Mattern

Barak Mendelsohn
Steven V. Miller

Gautam Mukunda
Tom Pepinsky
Michael Poznansky

Jeremy Pressman
Brent E. Sasley
Shauna Shames

Dan Slater
Jeffrey Sosland

Ora Szekely
Kris-Stella Trump
Robert E. Williams, Jr.
William Kindred Winecoff
Miranda Yaver