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Opinion | Trump Poses a Test Democracy Is Failing

In an earlier article, in the September 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, “The Fragile Republic: American Democracy Has Never Faced So Many Threats All at Once,” Lieberman and Mettler argue that

for the first time in its history, the United States faces all four threats at the same time. It is this unprecedented confluence — more than the rise to power of any particular leader — that lies behind the contemporary crisis of American democracy. The threats have grown deeply entrenched, and they will likely persist and wreak havoc for some time to come.

Trump, the authors argue,

has ruthlessly exploited these widening divisions to deflect attention from his administration’s poor response to the pandemic and to attack those he perceives as his personal or political enemies. Chaotic elections that have occurred during the pandemic, in Wisconsin and Georgia, for example, have underscored the heightened risk to U.S. democracy that the threats pose today. The situation is dire.

How much of a danger do Trump and his allies continue to represent? I asked Pepinsky how likely anti-democratic politicians are to use democratic elections to achieve their ends. He replied by email:

It is very possible — not sure how likely, but entirely possible. The G.O.P.’s rhetoric is clear about what it believes a G.O.P.-led government should be able to implement, and the party has proven repeatedly unwilling to sanction its most visible political figure for plainly illegal and undemocratic behavior. And the G.O.P. machine at the state level is mobilizing to stack electoral bureaucracies with conspiracy-curious lickspittles who would love nothing more than to refuse to certify elections won by Democrats. The threat is real.

Lieberman, in turn, stressed in an email the key role of white discontent as a factor in the crisis American democracy faces:

The perception among many white Americans that their status at the top of the political hierarchy is eroding is certainly a critical factor fueling the crisis of American democracy today. This is a recurring pattern in American history: when proponents of expanded and more diverse democracy gain power, those who have a stake in old hierarchies and patterns of exclusion are often willing to defy democratic norms and practices in order to stay in power.

But, Lieberman continued,

it’s not necessarily inevitable that those defenders of old hierarchies will find refuge in the mainstream of a major political party, which gives their aims credibility and political force. When that has happened, as with the Democrats in the 1880s and 1890s, the result has been disastrous democratic backsliding. But in the 1960s, by contrast, a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans was able to overcome those antidemocratic forces, at least for a short time.

The efforts by Republicans to take over control of elections through state laws giving local legislatures the power to overturn election results — as well as by running candidates for secretary of state who espouse the view that the 2020 election was stolen — are troubling, to say the least.

Donald Moynihan, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University — and the author of “Delegitimization, Deconstruction and Control: Undermining the Administrative State” in the current issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science — wrote by email that he is “more worried about declines in democracy driven by formal changes in the law than by events like January 6th.”

Moynihan pointed out that at 3:32 a.m. on Jan. 7 — hours after protesters incited by Trump swarmed the U.S. Capitol — a majority of House Republicans

voted not to accept the results of the last election. This represents an astonishing signal by a group of elected officials of their willingness to play procedural hardball to upend democratic outcomes. State legislatures are passing laws that constrain individual rights via democratic means, and also shifting powers in a way that can ensure Republican victories. It’s very possible to envision how newly elected state and local election officials who believe Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election would make decisions where they refuse to certify free and fair elections.

It is now possible, Moynihan continued,

to envisage some state legislatures using fraudulent fraud claims as an excuse to select a slate of electors consistent with their partisan interests rather than with the actual outcome of their election. This is not the most likely outcome, but it is significantly more likely than it was just a couple of years ago. The confluence of events — a close election in swing states, allegations of fraud, state legislatures stepping in to choose the winner and a Republican majority in Congress endorsing this — is an entirely plausible democratic process to nullify democracy.

Partisan polarization has pushed Americans not only into mutually exclusive political parties but also into two warring civic cultures.

In a March 2022 paper, “‘Good Citizens’ in Democratic Hard Times,” Sara Wallace Goodman of the University of California, Irvine, examined the growing disagreement among voters over what the obligations of a good citizen are.

Goodman compared voter attitudes on what constitutes “good citizen” norms in 2004 and in 2019. A strikingly high level of agreement between Republicans and Democrats in 2004 had nearly disappeared by 2019, according to her research:

Where 15 years prior, the only difference between partisans was in helping others (and the difference was slight), we see in this second (2019) snapshot several items of disagreement. In the United States, Democrats are more likely to value associational life and respecting opinions of others as values of good citizenship. Moreover, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in “helping others” has widened significantly. For Republicans, respondents are significantly more likely to value obeying the law. This portrays a clear erosion of overlapping norms, on almost every item.

In his March 2022 article “Moderation, Realignment, or Transformation? Evaluating Three Approaches to America’s Crisis of Democracy,” Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America and the author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop,” argues that neither moderation nor realignment is adequate to address current problems in American democracy:

Only reforms that fundamentally shake up the political coalitions and electoral incentives can break the escalating two-party doom loop of hyperpartisanship that is destroying the foundations of American democracy.

Drutman makes the case that moderation is futile because

in today’s politics, with national identity, racial reckoning, and democracy itself front and center in partisan conflict, it is hard to understand moderation as a middle point when no clear compromise exists on what are increasingly zero-sum issues. This is where the moderation principle falls especially short. If one party or both parties have no interest in moderation or cross-partisan compromise, would-be “moderates” cannot straddle an unbridgeable chasm.

What about a realignment in which the Democratic Party regains its majority status more firmly?

Drutman writes in his essay:

Any future scenario in which Democrats achieve a decisive and sustainable national majority is a future in which the Republican Party is almost certain to be led by the illiberal radicals who have been gaining power within the party for years as small-l liberal Republicans have fled the party. In short, “realignment” in the form of an extended period of Democratic majority rule does not offer a clear solution. It runs up against significant structural obstacles. And the more likely it seems, the more it stands a very good chance of pushing the Republican Party into even more radical insurrectionism.

In fact, Drutman’s basic argument is that “there is no feasible solution to the current crisis within the two-party system itself, given the escalating polarization and the extremist trajectory of the Republican Party.”

According to Drutman, “this kind of polarization, which involves not just (or not even) policy agreement but instead deep distrust of fellow citizens, is a very typical precursor of democratic decline.” Conversely, “in more proportional systems, out-party hatreds are rarer and tend to only be directed toward extreme parties.”

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