“How fragile is democracy in the United States?” host David Speers asked Anthony Albanese when Insiders was beamed to viewers from Washington during his recent state visit. The prime minister dodged the question, but president Joe Biden had already supplied the answer: speaking in Arizona in late September he described Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement as an existential threat to the country’s political system.
“There’s something dangerous happening in America now,” said Biden. “There’s an extremist movement that does not share the basic beliefs in our democracy. I don’t think anyone today doubts democracy is at stake in 2024.”
If we’ve learned anything in the last seven years, it’s that democracy can’t be taken for granted. A 2021 report, Democracy Under Siege, listed the United States among twenty-five countries that have experienced a massive deterioration in freedoms fuelled by political corruption, conflicts of interest and lack of government transparency. The report describes the final weeks of the Trump presidency — as the incumbent strove to illegally overturn his election loss — as an illustration of the parlous state of American democracy.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt has identified twin threats facing the nation’s democratic status. The first (acute) threat is the growing movement inside the Republican Party to refuse to accept defeat in an election. In 2022, more than 300 Republican candidates for state and national offices either denied or questioned the outcome of the presidential election. This, says the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University, is unprecedented in American history and seemingly unique in the history of mature democracies around the world.
The second (chronic) threat is that the power to set government policy is increasingly disconnected from public opinion. Just a few examples highlight the trend. The US Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, seems poised to shape American politics for many years with decisions on issues like abortion and gun rights that don’t reflect the views of anywhere near a majority of the population. Polls routinely show most Americans are alarmed or concerned about climate change, but its causes and impacts are denied by Republican lawmakers. A supermajority of Americans support voting rights with equal access for all eligible adults, but many states are working to limit voting access and some Republicans, led by Trump, have admitted that expanding voting hurts their party’s election prospects.
Other, equally disturbing, threats exist: the rise of political violence and intimidation; the erosion of rights for LGBTQI+ people, asylum seekers and other minority groups; book bans and political intrusions into educational institutions and curricula; increasing division along racial, religious, socioeconomic and political lines. It’s easy to see the long reach of Trump and Trumpism in every one of these threats.
Most recently, Congress was brought to a halt for three weeks because House Republicans caved in to MAGA extremists. They threw out House speaker Kevin McCarthy but then couldn’t agree on who should replace him. Trump’s social media criticisms of successive nominees and his loyalty tests carried more sway with House Republicans than a new speaker’s ability to oversee the House’s work.
Representative Mike Johnson from Louisiana was finally elected speaker after three others had been nominated but then withdrawn. Known as MAGA Mike and active in efforts to overturn the 2020 election, he is a self-described evangelical Christian who is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQI+ rights, anti-union and anti-immigration. He has embraced the far right’s culture wars and backed the House Republicans’ inquiry aimed at impeaching Biden.
Elected to Congress just seven years ago and having never held a committee chair, Johnson is the least-experienced speaker in more than a century. Senate Republicans openly admitted they didn’t know who he was. But experience and expertise are scorned and devalued by Trump and his cohort. As the Nation’s John Nichols wrote, Mike Johnson’s main qualification for the job was that he’s neither a Democrat nor a democrat.
In fact, Johnson has insisted the United States isn’t a democracy — a system he defines as “two wolves and a lamb deciding what is for dinner” — but rather a constitutional republic based by its founders on a “biblical admonition.” He shares this view with a number of his lawmaker colleagues who are eager to stress the republic’s restraints on democracy. “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are,” posted Utah Senator Mike Lee in 2020. “We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Johnson’s role in attempting to overturn the 2020 elections and his position as speaker, which places him second in line to the presidency behind the vice-president, has raised concerns about how he might seek to influence the outcome of the next presidential election (assuming he is still in that position in January 2025) should Trump (almost certain to be the Republican candidate) lose again. No wonder Trump is happy to claim credit for his election to the speakership.
Much has been written about the extent of Trump’s influence over the Republican Party. (Perhaps takeover is a better description.) That he played such a pivotal role in determining who was finally elected as speaker and was endorsing candidates for upcoming primaries even while campaigning on his own behalf and attending to his legal troubles explains why he is courted, feared and rarely out of the news.
Merging his campaigning with his courthouse appearances seems to be working. Legal woes that would distract or destroy most candidates are now marketed as a feature of his 2024 presidential run. So too is his ostentatious disrespect for legal processes and precedents. He has been castigated by several judges and fined twice for verbal attacks on courthouse staff. Judge Arthur Engoron even threatened to lock him up. “Why should there not be severe sanctions for this blatant, dangerous disobeyal [sic] of a clear court order?” he asked.
Trump’s brand of authoritarianism, demagoguery and populism has deep roots in American history, but his spin on the tradition is amplified by his wily command of the media and fears among a segment of voters (primarily white, religious and without a college education) who see themselves and their values left behind in a racially and ethnically diverse economy and nation. Trump plays off what they see as an existential threat to their way of life.
In the aftermath of the 2022 elections, when the Republicans’ lacklustre performance could be read as a repudiation of Trump, the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb argued — correctly — that Trump is not solely responsible for the current levels of intolerance, racism, nativism, belligerence and anti-democratic behaviour in the Republican Party, and there is no reason to believe his absence would cause these to evaporate.
Presidential candidates like Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy might be lagging forty or more points behind Trump in the polls, but they are promulgating the same ideology and are keen to be seen as equally fierce cultural warriors. Those Republican candidates who aren’t toeing the Trump line — namely Nikki Haley and Chris Christie — are lagging even further behind.
Republican states, meanwhile, have mounted a frightening series of anti-democratic efforts. They are manipulating election administration by controlling secretaries of state and other executive offices. They are giving partisan state legislatures greater control over elections. They are reducing ballot drop box access for early voting. Several states, among them North Carolina and Louisiana, have resisted court decisions based on the Voting Rights Act that aim to make congressional district maps more accurately reflect the makeup of their population.
There is no such loss of the right to own guns. Nationally, thirty-five mass gun killings — incidents in which four or more people died, not including the perpetrator/s — have been recorded so far this year. More and more people are using guns to harass and intimidate others, including lawmakers, elected officials, school board members, voters and election workers. Although a significant majority of Americans support universal background checks, an assault-weapons ban and other priorities of gun-control advocates, stronger state and federal controls are elusive.
Links can be made between gun violence, democracy and trust. Research shows how eroded democratic institutions and declining trust in social structures lead to more lethal violence and increases in gun ownership. The Pew Research Center has shown that many Americans think the public’s trust in the federal government and in their fellow citizens has declined and that the interplay between the lack of trust in the public and the interpersonal spheres has made it harder to solve some of the country’s problems.
The latest Pew polling figures put trust in the federal government at almost its lowest in nearly seven decades of polling. Just 1 per cent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” and only 15 per cent trust the government “most of the time.” Writing in Politico, Max Stier and Tom Freedman argue that this statistic is more concerning than the rise of anti-democratic movements or efforts to steal an election: it reflects very poorly on the nation’s primary democratic institution, Congress, and its ability to deal with social, economic and foreign policy challenges.
Reviving American democracy means reversing the decline in political rights and civil liberties, improving public discourse, and reforming political institutions and practices to persuade Americans that politicians are representing them fairly and governments are working to solve pressing problems. Key among the essential reforms is a remaking of the Republican Party — or at least a rejection of its Trump-cult elements. That brand of right-wing populism may not be the only threat to democracy in the United States, but it is the biggest. •