Inside Story

The fragility of American democracy

Sooner or later, both major parties will have to deal with Trumpism’s legacy, made worse by the problems inherent in America’s political system

Lesley Russell Colorado 22 March 2024 1355 words

“Last shot”: a Republican Party supporter waiting for Donald Trump to speak in Vandalia, Ohio, last Saturday. Jeff Dean/AP Photo

In so many ways over the past few years we have been made aware of the apparent fragility of American democracy — most grievously by the Capitol riots on 6 January 2021; most worryingly by the failure of Congress to enact legislation even when it’s needed to keep government functioning; most frustratingly by the partisan divisions that seem to infect every aspect of American life.

Many Americans, and many of those watching around the world, see American democracy cracking, freedoms being eroded and the political system breaking. Much of the blame is sheeted home to Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again followers, and the case against them can clearly and forcibly be made.

But the United States has faced such crises before: in the 1790s, with the intense standoff between Federalists and Republicans; before, during and after the Civil War; in the Jim Crow period of the 1890s, which also saw five consecutive presidents elected with a minority of the popular vote; and after the Watergate revelations. The problems inherent in the American political system are thus compounded by problems and leaders unique to each era.

Trump’s presidency clearly damaged American democracy. Just how damaged and how long-lasting the effect is up for debate (a detailed 2023 report from Brookings discusses the issues well). During his term the United States was labelled a “backsliding democracy” by International IDEA, a European democracy think tank, and for some years the Economist’s Democracy Index has ranked the United States among “flawed democracies” including Greece, Poland and Brazil.

In a recent interview for the Democracy Project at Johns Hopkins University, political scientist Robert Lieberman stressed that democracy exists on a continuum. The United States started out as a constrained democracy, with citizenship limited to white men and only property-owners entitled to vote. For Lieberman, the key question is not “whether we are a democracy, but in which direction are we headed. Are we moving forward or are we moving backward?”

The current situation is arguably more serious than previous democratic crises because there are so many concomitant threats. There’s the pervasive partisan divide; conflicts over racism, immigration and nativism; growing socio-economic inequalities; the erosion of voting rights, particularly those of minorities; lawmakers’ attempts to undermine reproductive health, the rights of LGBTQI+ people, school curricula and library books; and the endless promulgation of lies and distortions that quickly come to be treated as facts.

Some of these threats have been decades in the making. Americans have long been sceptical of the power of the federal government: trust in Washington, which began to decline during the Vietnam war and continued to decline amid the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, is at an historic low. Fewer than one-in-five Americans said they trusted the federal government to do what is right “just about always” (1 per cent) or “most of the time” (15 per cent) in 2023 Pew Research Center polls.

Individual institutions have suffered as well. The US Supreme Court’s reputation has been damaged by recent rulings contrary to popular opinion, and trust in federal agencies like the Justice Department, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Reserve has eroded. It’s shocking to also see declining trust in the military, police and the medical system.

These troubles pile on top of problems intrinsic to American democracy: the unusual mechanism, an electoral college, for electing the president; equal representation for the states in the Senate regardless of vastly different populations; lifetime appointments for US Supreme Court justices; and the lack of a national system for overseeing elections.

Because of their distrust of the popular vote, the Founding Fathers created the electoral college and other structural protections against what they saw as the uninformed masses. Patently, this system no longer works. Twice this century the person elected president by the electoral college had lost the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016), and it could happen again in 2024.

Because small, less-populous and mostly White states like Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota have the same number of senators as populous and diverse states like Texas, New York and California, Republican majorities in the Senate this century have never represented a majority of the population. The impact on confirmations of judicial nominees and senior executive branch appointees has been profound.

Finally, there is the deepening polarisation of the American political system. This began post-Watergate, was boosted by Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party, and is today exemplified by the House Freedom Caucus, the MAGA movement and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. This deepening polarisation has been marked by an intensifying shift rightwards among each new cohort of Republican legislators, echoing the widening differences between red and blue states and the growing urban–rural political divide.

Bring an ambitious, narcissistic, embittered and malevolent Trump back into this setting and the weaknesses of both the political system and the guard rails of democracy will become very apparent. Trump has schemed to overturn legitimate election results (and is likely to do so again), encouraged violence and discrimination, attacked the media and government institutions, undermined the staff and bureaucrats who worked for him, courted dictators and appeared beholden to foreign interests, lied and denied, and profited from his public office. Most egregiously, he encouraged the 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol.

Three years on, amazingly, a majority of Republicans believe Biden was not legitimately elected. Despite Trump’s multiple indictments and legal jeopardy, they are willing to vote for him yet again. Republicans in the Congress increasingly follow his wishes on key pieces of legislation, and even those lawmakers he has belittled and besmirched end up endorsing him.

If Trump is re-elected he will be much less constrained and much more able to get his way than in his previous term. His rhetoric on the 2024 campaign trail — dark, violent, authoritarian and vengeful — has generated alarm. We have been warned about a Trump kleptocracy.

Some observers think the worst cannot and will not happen (see, for example, this article by Elaine Karmack). But a Brookings Institution report, Understanding Democratic Decline in the United States, warns that “the electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive”:

People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.

The most obvious preventive measure lies at the ballot box — though that can only get rid of Trump, not Trumpism. And American voters themselves display some worrying tendencies. The Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 75 per cent of Americans believe that “the future of American democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election” and the Democracy Fund found that more than 80 per cent of Americans see democracy as a “fairly good” or “very good” political system; but the latter study highlighted that only about 27 per cent of Americans consistently and uniformly support democratic norms across multiple survey waves. Perhaps not surprisingly, this response differs by political allegiance: 45 per cent of Democrats consistently support democratic norms but only 18 per cent of Independents and 13 per cent of Republicans.

Many voters acknowledge Trump’s true character but rationalise their actions as support for conservative judges, anti-abortion legislation, overturning unfair trade agreements, retaining tax benefits or protecting the Second Amendment. Yes, there are Republicans who consider Trump a “grotesque threat to democracy” and won’t vote for him again, but there are also former Obama voters who see Trump as “our last shot at restoring America.”

Even with Trump gone from the political stage (and that endpoint may result in further efforts to upset democratic processes), considerable effort will be required to restore individual rights and freedoms and deliver the blessings of democracy to all Americans. Ending Trumpism will require a massive effort by the Republican Party to reconfigure its base and operations and find leaders who will promote a different kind of conservatism. For their part, Biden and the Democrats must work to understand the anger and despair that has driven Trump’s MAGA supporters to adopt his bleak and autocratic views. •