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Can checks and balances contain the Trump Administration?

Fletcher Professors Go Head-To-Head Over Effectiveness of ‘Checks and Balances’ in Today’s Political Clime

It was standing-room only as students and faculty gathered to participate in a “Fletcher Reads the Newspaper” debate hosted by the Institute for Business in the Global Context (IBGC). These events aim to take an interdisciplinary approach to assessing the news of the day and invite students to approach the problem as they would a case study.

The evening’s debate pitted two faculty members on either side of the following resolution: “The US and international system of checks and balances will contain the extremes of the Trump Administration.”

Arguing in favor of the proposition was Antonia Chayes, Professor of Practice of International Politics and Law; her worthy opponent was Sulmaan Khan, Assistant Professor of International History and Chinese Foreign Relations. Eileen Babbitt, Professor of Practice of International Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance, moderated the event.

Chakravorti opened by referencing a quote from an editorial in the notoriously left-leaning L.A. Times saying, “Nothing prepared us for the magnitude of this train wreck.” He weighed that quote against another from the more conservative Wall Street Journal: “The real story of the Trump Presidency so far is that the normal checks and balances of the American system are working almost to a fault.” The debaters were then asked to present their positions.

“There are three reasons why we can be assured that the systems of checks and balances will hold,” Chayes pronounced. “The first is that we have the legislative and judiciary branches, that pay attention to the separation of powers between federal and state level; they are beholden to the people and the press, and – in the case of the legislature –regularly face elections which means they are held accountable.”

Chayes’ second point urged participants not to underestimate the power of Congress to “torpedo an unpopular initiative,” referencing the Merrick Garland nomination and subsequent debacle, the Neil Gorsuch nomination and the storied Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court case, which overturned a morally corrupt precedent that existed in the system.

Quoting former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Chayes provided her third point, saying the states are “a lab for democracy.” She pointed to the climate change initiatives in California as one example of how states can act as leaders and flout national political trends.

Khan painted a particularly dire picture of the state of our system of checks and balances. Calling the Trump administration a “symptom of the weakening of our civic glue,” he cited a “cultural shift in America where Trump supporters have claimed to be ‘sick of the system.’” He went on to provide three of his own lines of argument that this current administration’s extremes will not be corralled by our traditional checks and balances.

“The system has shown itself to be fallible, see: slavery, which was left to states rights. Witness: McCarthyism and campaign finance reform,” he began. “Bit by bit, things that were abnormal became normal.”

Khan talked about corruption and conflicts of interest, calling out claims that Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp,’ but noting that it appears, “swampier than ever.” He warned participants: “This is a long-term project, and life [will be difficult], but this is the first time we have had so much to lose. It’s going to take work.”

With her expertise in negotiation, Professor Babbitt added “we must listen and communicate with those whose beliefs are radically different from ours, not with the intention of proving them wrong afterwards, but actually hearing them and trying to understand their point of view.”

The evening wrapped up with participants thinking through each side of the proposition – and perhaps most poignantly, offering potential solutions.

“I think first, we need to address the situation at home,” asserted Beatriz Zarur Valderrama (F17). “I know, for instance, that there are Trump supporters among us who do not feel comfortable speaking out. We need to be able to create a space for open, frank discussion and listening with our peers. I think, in this, we are currently failing.”

Liz Luden, a second year MALD student, chimed in: “What do we stand to lose if we can’t reach a point where civil discussions can be had and solutions found?”

It was a concrete question that provided food for thought and sparked continued conversations even after the event had concluded.