The big news this morning is, of course, the indictment of former President Donald Trump. Follow developments as they happen via Times live coverage here.
This marks the first time a former U.S. president will face criminal charges. But it’s worth noting that the U.S. is a bit of an outlier in that regard: In democracies around the world, it’s actually quite common for former leaders to be prosecuted, particularly on charges of corruption and financial crimes relating to their time in office.
In South Korea, for instance, three former presidents have been jailed on corruption charges. In Brazil, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was convicted of bribery-related crimes after his first term, then successfully ran again for president after the cases were thrown out on appeal. In France, the former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac were both convicted on corruption charges.
In Italy, the ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has been entangled in such a startling array of charges over the years that the allegations against him have their own Wikipedia page. And in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing trial for corruption — a case that many of his critics believe is part of the motivation for his proposed judicial overhaul.
That’s a good reminder that these kinds of criminal cases can in some ways be a positive sign about a country’s institutions (as well as, more obviously, a negative one about the integrity of its leaders). I’ve written before about how independent prosecutors can serve as “islands of honesty” that disrupt the equilibrium of institutional corruption, making it easier to break cycles of graft, bribery and blackmail. If courts are independent enough to bring charges against powerful ex-leaders, that’s often a signal they are strong enough to serve as robust checks on governmental misconduct.
But of course politics often plays a role as well. This week I’ve been reading about democracy and polarization, and particularly why the modern version of the former seems so prone to generating extreme forms of the latter.
In “Polarization and the Durability of Madisonian Checks and Balances: A Developmental Analysis,” the political scientists Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler argue that American politics has become nationalized over time. In the past, state parties drew most of their support from local constituents, which meant that politicians often had incentives to use investigations as a way to undermine other wings of their own parties.
Southern Democrats, for instance, led aggressive congressional investigations of Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to curb the influence of northern organized labor within the party. In 1938 Roosevelt tried to purge senators whom he saw as disloyal to his presidency and his New Deal agenda, but failed to unseat a single one. National party politics could not overcome local power bases.
But now, the researchers point out, the incentives are entirely different. Any Republican lawmaker who led or supported an investigation of a Republican president would face serious repercussions, including primary challenges in the next election.
Taking that analysis a step further, it’s not difficult to see how heightened national partisanship would also alter incentives for criminal prosecutions of ex-presidents and other leaders. State and local prosecutors are often elected officials who are members of political parties, and as partisan polarization widens, the political costs of pursuing charges against figures from the opposing party will fall — and political benefits might rise.
And more subtly, as polarization makes congressional oversight weaker and parties less able to eject candidates for criminal acts or other misconduct, that will tend to shift more responsibility onto prosecutors and courts to serve as a check on official wrongdoing.
I’ve also just started reading “Why Politics Fails” by Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University. He takes a similar approach to Pierson and Schickler, examining why democracies have tended to develop problems of inequality and polarization as they mature. (The book, which has more of a global lens than that of Pierson and Schickler, is out now in the U.K., and will be published in the U.S. next month.)
And thinking about democracy as a process of political development, rather than simply categorizing countries as democratic or nondemocratic, has also brought me back to one of my favorite pieces of research on the unexpected consequences of democracy for democratic institutions. Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, studies how increasing equality through democratization can actually undermine democratic institutions.
She found that dominant groups, such as white southerners after the American Civil War or the Brahmin ruling caste after Indian democratization, “hollow out” the state by sabotaging its ability to perform basic functions like tax collection, in order to prevent it from redistributing wealth and resources to formerly marginalized people.
When I interviewed her in 2020 for this newsletter, she discussed how her work could shed light on some of the Trump administration’s decisions, including its response to problems at the U.S. Postal Service.
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
E. Vahlsing, a reader in Albany, Calif., recommends “A Time To Be Born” by Dawn Powell:
Reading your piece regarding the rise of fascism in England and Germany, as told by Nancy Mitford in her novel, reminded me of another novel I read recently, this time set in America: Dawn Powell’s “A Time To Be Born,” also set in the ’30s right before World War II, in New York City. When there’s a war on the horizon, art, fashion and the rest of the arts just stop; the world becomes very gray with war being the clarion call. And yet the characters in Powell’s book live life fueled by personal passions and wants.
Suzanne von Engelhardt, a reader in Plymouth, England, recommends “Easy Beauty,” a memoir by Chloé Cooper Jones:
What readers will take away is a nuanced and tender insight into the experience of a disabled person, both in her struggle to live with the pain in her body and the more excruciating pain of how she is objectified and disparaged by her fellow human beings. Compassion and empathy are harder to come by than I thought. Also, male philosophers turn out to be a moany bunch, but Cooper Jones is no less honest when it comes to revealing her own bad behavior. You’ll get a good philosophy lesson reading it too.
What are you reading?
Thank you to everyone who wrote in with recommendations about what to read. Please keep the submissions coming!
I want to hear about things you have read (or watched or listened to) that you think I, or other Interpreter readers, would enjoy.