Opinion | Why Is Democracy Under Such Stress Now?11 min read
Are democracies providing the rope to hang themselves?
From Turkey to Hungary, from India to the United States, authoritarian leaders have gained power under the protective cloak of free elections.
“There is no doubt that democratic processes and judicial decisions can be used to limit the power of the people, restructuring governments and institutions to make them less representative, more undemocratic,” Rogers Smith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania told me, in response to my emailed inquiry.
The classic examples are partisan gerrymandering and barriers to voting, but in recent years Republicans have gone further than ever before in using their overrepresentation in state legislatures to shift power to those legislatures, away from officeholders in Democratic-led cities, from officials elected statewide and from voters.
Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, made a parallel argument by email:
One of the odd and scary things about American politics, more reminiscent of the 19th century than anything in the post-World War II period, is that when the Republicans lost the presidential election in 2020 and did much worse than expected in 2022 (even worse than in a normal midterm contest), they did not abandon the leaders and policies that produced these results. Instead, they have doubled down on even more extreme and broadly unpopular leaders and policies, from Trump to abortion and guns.
Goldstone believes that this development
is a sign that normal politics have been replaced by extreme polarization and factional identity politics, in which the extremes grow stronger and drain the center. As a minority seeking to exercise control of government, it is actually necessary that the Trumpist G.O.P. suppress democratic procedures that normally produce majority control.
If enough voters, Goldstone wrote,
are deeply anxious or frightened of some real or imagined threat (e.g. socialism, mass immigration, crime, threats to their religion, transgender takeover), they may well vote for someone who promises to stand up to those threats, even if that person has no regard for preserving democracy, no regard for the rights and freedoms of those seen as “enemies.” If such a leader is elected, gets his or her party to control all parts of government, and wants to turn all the elements of government into a weapon to attack their enemies, no laws or other organizations can stop them.
Goldstone warned “that should the Republicans manage to gain control of the House, Senate and presidency in 2024, building an electoral autocracy to impose their views without challenge will be their top priority.”
There are two distinct mechanisms involved in overturning democracy, Goldstone argued:
First, is controlling all elected and appointed elements of the government. If the same political party controls the House, Senate, judiciary and presidency, and disregards the principles of democracy and independence of officials, then sadly none of the institutions of democracy will prevent arbitrary and autocratic government.
The second element, according to Goldstone, is unique to this country: “The United States has so many safeguards for minority rights that it is conceivable that a minority party could obtain complete control of all levers of government.”
The U.S. Senate is chosen on the basis of territory, not numbers, so that Wyoming and California both have two senators. Gerrymanders mean that states where Democratic and Republican voters are about even, like Wisconsin and North Carolina, have very unequal representation in Congress. Finally, the electoral college method of aggregating state votes for President has meant that in 2000 and 2016 candidates with a minority of the people’s votes were elected.
“A determined effort to twist and benefit from these various opportunities and rules means that a party that represents a minority of the people can, in the U.S., control the House, Senate, and presidency,” Goldstone wrote, enabling “an oppressive government restricting freedom and ruling autocratically, and doing so to impose the goals and beliefs of a minority on an unwilling majority.”
Robert Lieberman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins and a co-author, with Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell, of “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy,” argued in an email that “Democratic procedure is not a threat to democracy per se, but it is fair to say that it has vulnerabilities.”
“Democratic procedures,” he continued, “are intended to provide a means to hold leaders accountable,” which include
Horizontal accountability — institutional checks and balances that enable public officials to hold each other accountable; and vertical accountability — ways for citizens to hold public officials accountable, such as elections or popular mobilization. In a well-functioning democracy, both kinds of accountability work together to limit the concentration of power in the hands of a single party or individual.
But. Lieberman pointed out, “Democratic procedures can also enable would-be authoritarians to undermine both kinds of accountability under the cloak of democratic legitimacy.”
Democratic regimes, he wrote, “are less likely than in the past to be overthrown in a sudden violent burst, as in an overt coup d’état. Instead, democracies are more frequently degraded by leaders who use apparently legal, democratic means to hollow out democratic accountability.”
Voter suppression or gerrymandering, Lieberman noted,
can limit vertical accountability by making it harder for the opposition to win elections, while maneuvers such as court packing can lower barriers for a party in power to expand its power. And these kind of tactics can reinforce one another, as when the Supreme Court upheld the practice of partisan gerrymandering (in Rucho v. Common Cause). Taken together, these kinds of moves can enable a party to gain and keep power without majority support and increasingly unconstrained by public disapproval.
How do authoritarian-leaning politicians gain the power to elude the institutional restraints designed to maintain democracy? Stephan Haggard, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California-San Diego, emailed me to say that “an important feature of populism is the belief in majoritarian conceptions of democracy: that majorities should not be constrained by horizontal checks, various rights, or even by the rule of law: Majorities should be able to do what they want.”
This majoritarian conception of democracy, Haggard continued,
is a leitmotif of virtually all democratic backsliding episodes. That the will of “the people” is being thwarted by an elite (read “deep state”) that must be purged. Of course, the definition of “the people” does not refer to everyone, but the favored supporters of the autocrat: whites in the U.S., Muslims in Turkey, Russian traditionalists and so on.
One common characteristic of democratic backsliding, according to Haggard, is its incrementalism which, in turn, mutes the ability of the public to perceive what is happening in front of its eyes:
A constant refrain from observers who have weathered these systems is how difficult it is to be clear as to what is transpiring. This comes in part because autocrats lie and distort the truth — that is fundamental — but also because behaviors once thought out of bounds are normalized. Think Trump’s open racism or calls for violence against opponents at his rallies; all of that got normalized.
Christina Ewig, a professor of public affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, views contemporary challenges to democracy from another vantage point.
In an email responding to my inquiry, Ewig wrote that she disagrees with the premise that democracy is providing the rope to hang itself. Instead, she argued, “Democracy and democratic procedure are not threats to democracy itself. Instead, anti-democratic actors that abuse the state are a threat to democracy.”
The United States, Ewig continued, “shows evidence of becoming what the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call a ‘competitive authoritarian regime’ — a regime that is civilian, with formal democratic institutions, but in which incumbents ‘abuse’ the state to stay in power.”
include former President Trump’s attempts to influence Georgia officials to change election outcomes in November 2020, and then to impede the peaceful transfer of power on Jan. 6. Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let President Obama nominate a Supreme Court Justice is another. At the state level, Wisconsin Republicans, through district gerrymandering, have a chokehold on a purple state.
All of these examples, Ewig argued,
appear to be abuses of democracy rather than uses of democracy. Democracy requires an acceptance that one’s party will not always be a winner. But the Republican Party in the United States has, on more than one occasion, refused to lose.
For now, Ewig wrote, the United States is not a competitive authoritarian regime. The results of the 2020 national elections and the institutional opposition to the insurrection in 2021 “helped to avoid that. But some U.S. states do look suspiciously competitive authoritarian.”
Why is democracy under such stress now? There are many answers to that question, including, crucially, the divisiveness inherent in the elevated levels of contemporary polarization that makes democratic consensus so difficult to achieve.
In an April 2021 paper, four scholars, Samuel Wang of Princeton, Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon, Bernard Grofman of the University of California-Irvine and Keena Lipsitz of Queens College, address the basic question of what led to the erosion among a substantial number of voters of support for democratic principles in a nation with a two century-plus commitment to this tradition:
In the United States, rules and institutions from 1790, when voters comprised white male landowners and slave owners in a nation of four million, were not designed to address today’s governance needs. Moreover, existing rules and institutions may amplify background conditions that drive polarization. The decline of civic life in America and the pluralism it once nurtured has hastened a collapse of dimensionality in the system.
Americans once enjoyed a rich associational life, Wang and his colleagues write, the demise of which contributes to the erosion of democracy: “Nonpolitical associations, such as labor unions, churches, and bowling leagues, were often crosscutting, bringing people from different backgrounds into contact with one another, building trust and teaching tolerance.” In recent years, however, “the groups that once structured a multidimensional issue space in the United States have collapsed.”
The erosion of democracy is also the central topic of a Feb. 13 podcast with Martin Wolf, a Financial Times columnist and the author of “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.” Wolf makes the case that “Economic changes and the performance of the economy interacting produced quite a large number of people who feared that they were becoming losers. They feared that they risked falling into the condition of people who really were at the bottom.”
At the same time, Wolf continued, “the immense growth of the financial sector and the dominance of the financial sector in management generated some simply staggering fortunes at the top.” Instead of helping to drive democratization, the market system “recreated an oligarchy. I think there’s no doubt about that.”
Those who suffered, Wolf noted, “felt the parties of the center-left had largely abandoned them and were no longer really interested in their fate.”
Two senior fellows at Brookings, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, explore threats to American democracy in a January 2022 analysis “Is Democracy Failing and Putting Our Economy at Risk?” Citing data from six surveys, including those by Pew, P.R.R.I., Voter Study Group, and CNN, the authors write that:
Support in the United States for political violence is significant. In February 2021, 39 percent of Republicans, 31 percent of Independents and 17 percent of Democrats agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions. In November, 30 percent of Republicans, 17 percent of Independents and 11 percent of Democrats agreed that they might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.
In the wake of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, Galston and Kamarck observe,
Even though constitutional processes prevailed, and Mr. Trump is no longer president, he and his followers continue to weaken American democracy by convincing many Americans to distrust the results of the election. About three-quarters of rank-and-file Republicans believe that there was massive fraud in 2020 and Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president.
In fact, Galston and Kamarck continue, “the 2020 election revealed structural weaknesses in the institutions designed to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process,” noting that “if Mr. Pence had yielded to then-President Trump’s pressure to act, the election would have been thrown into chaos and the Constitution placed in jeopardy.”
Since then, Galston and Kamarck note, the attack on democracy
has taken a new and dangerous turn. Rather than focusing on the federal government, Trump’s supporters have focused on the obscure world of election machinery. Republican majorities in state legislatures are passing laws making it harder to vote and weakening the ability of election officials to do their jobs.
American democracy, the two authors conclude,
is thus under assault from the ground up. The most recent systematic attack on state and local election machinery is much more dangerous than the chaotic statements of a disorganized former president. A movement that relied on Mr. Trump’s organizational skills would pose no threat to constitutional institutions. A movement inspired by him with a clear objective and a detailed plan to achieve it would be another matter altogether.
“The chances that this threat will materialize over the next few years.” Galston and Kamarck add, “are high and rising.”
If democracy fails in America, Galston and Kamarck contend,
It will not be because a majority of Americans is demanding a nondemocratic form of government. It will be because an organized, purposeful minority seizes strategic positions within the system and subverts the substance of democracy while retaining its shell — while the majority isn’t well organized, or doesn’t care enough, to resist. The possibility that this will occur is far from remote.
The anxiety about democratic erosion — even collapse — is widespread among those who think about politics for a living:
In his January 2022 article, “Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, joins those who tackle what has become an overriding topic of concern in American universities:
For a decade, the democratic recession was sufficiently subtle incremental, and mixed so that it was reasonable to debate whether it was happening at all. But as the years have passed, the authoritarian trend has become harder to miss. For each of the last fifteen years, many more countries have declined in freedom than have gained. By my count, the percentage of states with populations over one million that are democracies peaked in 2006 at 57 percent and has steadily declined since, dropping below a majority (48 percent) in 2019 for the first time since 1993.
In this country, Diamond continued, “Rising proportions of Americans in both camps express attitudes and perceptions that are blinking red for democratic peril. Common political ground has largely vanished.”
Diamond adds: “Even in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, most Americans have still not come to grips with how far the country has strayed from the minimum elements of normative and behavioral consensus that sustain democracy.”
At the close of his essay, Diamond goes on to say:
It is human nature to seek personal autonomy, dignity, and self-determination, and with economic development those values have become ascendant. But there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy.
The next test will be in November 2024.
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