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Democratic Backsliding: American Democracy in Crisis

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Guest Contribution Article

By James Tudor-White

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As President Biden reiterates the world is in a battle between democracies and autocracies, and with America hosting a democracy summit in May, now becomes an opportune moment to assess the state of democracy in the US and reflect on the many challenges it is facing. Current polls are showing a democracy deficit, indicating the people want more democracy, a desire not just representative of the US and Europe, but a global cry for more democracy. A major global survey, The Democracy Perception Index, reported that over 90% of respondents said that the core values of democracy; these being freedom of speech, fair elections and equal rights are important to them as citizens, however 41% of respondents in the same survey said their country was not democratic enough. This is not surprising when one considers that 5 US Presidents lost the popular vote but still won the presidency, one begins to question whether the voice of the people is really being heard. Furthermore, as polarisation in America increases, the gap between the beliefs of the right and the left is increasing, with both becoming ‘more radical’ and intransigent in their views. The effects of polarisation within politics is being seen increasingly frequently, as witnessed with the US Immigration Crisis, the mask mandates or the 6th of January and the disputed election; American politics if it is not facing an impending crisis, it is already in crisis.

America has faced numerous crises in its just over 250-year history, the civil war which most acutely demonstrated the differences in politics nearly tore the country apart. The mid-20th century was a time of change within America, it was a time in which there were significant crises to the democratic traditions, assassinations, race riots, international wars and a President leaving office in disgrace. Each of these marked a new epoch in American democracy, and each time, the American public and its institutions rose above these challenges and prevailed. However, in recent years this is becoming less of the case, there is growing concern amongst those who suggest that these democratic traditions are becoming nothing more than a past tradition, especially as strong man politics becomes increasingly prevalent in countries. One should consider that because the popular vote is not used, electoral results don’t necessarily represent the majority of the people. This in turn triggers complacency and apathy in a public who will determine their vote to be futile, when they are part of the majority that ‘lost’. Now as the United States is trying to provide the world with leadership on democratic ideals, they are also having to contend with fighting off anti-democratic forces at home.

When one thinks of establishing democracy, the process is often long, laborious, complicated, and fragile. Much like a baby it needs to be kindled, protected, and nurtured until able to stand on its own two feet. Time and time again, we see the beginning of democracy movements often fall and crumble back into a dictatorship or autocratic regime. That’s because transitioning from democracy to autocracy is far easier, sometimes it can happen in a mere few hours, such as in a coup, maybe a few weeks in the case of a revolution, or it is a cancerous slow-moving process in which the democratic institutions of the state are fundamentally undermined to the point where their autonomy is in existential crisis. The problem with antidemocratic movements, is that when democracies start dying it becomes increasingly harder to resuscitate them. Much like an illness the sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of recovery. However, just because one begins to identify and begin treatment early it still doesn’t necessarily mean it will succeed, as antidemocratic forces infiltrate throughout the various institutions of the state and civic society, the media, judiciary, legislative, etc.

Sometimes though, democracy falters when one least anticipates, perhaps a response to another crisis such as Covid-19, opened pandora’s box, unleashing new anti-democratic forces and sentiments, or divided public opinion to such an extent that trust in the government was undermined. Unintended consequences lurk, a persistent enemy to democracy.

The United States prides itself on its democracy and freedom, but in recent years both these values have been under attack. Perhaps overconfidence amongst US politicians and citizens is to blame, perhaps naivety to the fragility of democracy, or perhaps a combination of both. Either way for too long Americans, both citizens and politicians, saw themselves as the lecturer or teacher that other countries should listen to, and instead failed to listen to the lessons and stories that other states could tell of how democracy crumbles. This overconfidence was met with a perfect storm of factors that united in damaging the perceptions of Americans towards their own government. One can trace the beginning of the decline to the run-up of the 2016 election. Claims by Donald Trump of fake news became synonymous with the former president, who questioned and branded the media fake if the stories were not flattering or pleasing to the President. His election, then marked a second turning point, the former-President, lost the popular vote, Hilary Clinton won almost 2.9 million more votes than President Trump. Furthermore, 2016 was the first election in which it was confirmed to the public that an autocratic and adversarial state had engaged in efforts to undermine the democratic process, what made this situation worse, was that the President, whose role is to protect and represent the interest of US citizens, was unconcerned, unfazed, and according to some, happy that meddling had occurred and helped him win. The politicisation of Covid-19 and public health became a striking example of how disunited American politics had become, with the wearing or not of a protective mask an indicator of one’s political affiliation. This coupled with the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, and the US population was divided.

Conclusively, the moment which fills analysts like me with concern, was the January 6th insurrection. Conversely, this was one of the chances or points of inflection in which US democracy could have been saved; in which the institutions re-found their power to act in the manner of which they are supposed to as a check and balance, and ultimately if needs must, constrain. One should consider other countries, which experienced such a shock to the democratic system, and were able to reverse democratic decline. South Korea is a pertinent example, often being flagged as possessing deep political polarisation, underdeveloped party and political systems, and classified as a flawed democracy. Yet, South Korea has been able to avoid the democratic backsliding that other countries such as the US have faced. These flaws in South Korean politics, are not new, in fact they are the legacy of authoritarianism which was present in South Korea for years. However, in late 2016, over 17 million (cumulatively) South Koreans gathered in a period of 3 months near the Presidential Blue House. Protesting against the corruption and anti-democratic nature of President Park Geun-Hye. Ultimately President Park was impeached and removed from office, before being arrested and sentenced. Inside South Korean politics a purge occurred, as politicians found also to be engaged in Park’s nefarious activities were side-lined and removed from power, with the new administration making sure that any remnants of the corrupt former government were removed and held accountable. Whilst not identical, a similar watershed moment occurred within the US, the 6th of January insurrection. This was the moment in which Americans could have seen that attempts to overturn their democratic freedoms were being forcibly overturned, by a group who rejected the rule of law and democratic due process. This is where I am reminded of what Brian Klaas said, “our election system isn’t perfect, but, with all due respect, our politicians don’t incite violent mobs to take over the government when they haven’t won the election”. The irony of such a statement, which one could argue had it been said 10, maybe even 5 years ago would have been laughable, now has an eerie sense of reality.

Though whilst the checks and balances, and the political due process of US politics continued, and Joe Biden declared President by the Senate, the repercussions for such an attack on democracy fell short. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies worked effectively in identifying those responsible and pressing charges, but unlike the case of South Korea in which politicians and parliamentarians wanted to distance themselves from former President Park for fear of being sullied by association. US politicians once again became divided. Denunciations were met on a partisan basis, and in a time in which there should have been cross party bipartisan support to promote democracy, we saw it lacking. Those who criticised the process, such as Mitt Romney, found themselves not welcomed as those standing for American values of democracy, but shunned from the centre stage of the Republican Party. The former Presidential Candidate was now an outcast of his party. Meanwhile the January 6th Apologists and those who defended the actions of the insurrections found themselves rising through the political ranks; nothing short of a deliberate act to reward those who go against the democratic values they claim to serve and protect. Furthermore, failure to act and condemn, and ultimately provide the platform for 6th of January Apologists within the Congress has meant that Republican voters remain divided on whether the election was fair or not. This is accurately, but, disturbingly revealed by the poll conducted by Ipsos and Reuters, which found that 53% of Republican’s believe that Donald Trump is the “true president” and believe that the election was stolen. The failure to condemn, or the short-natured condemnation by a few select members of the party means that the GOP remains entrenched with Trump’s Authoritarian. So, whilst the political divide, partisanship, and hostile rhetoric has increased, trust in the system and institution is being further undermined, in turn increasing the desire for those who feel unrepresented because the election was supposedly stolen to seek a strong-man authoritarian political leader.

Whilst assessing the US democracy and its political process is one thing, we also need to consider the role of the US’ judiciary system. The United States Supreme Court is facing more calls to adapt and respond, as it is becoming regarded as a threat to US democracy. The nomination and election of Amy Coney Barrett was nothing short of political power play, which not only undermined the intended the non-partisanship nature of the court, but highly politicised the court and the process of nominating new appointments. The Republicans had blocked any prospect of former President Obama nominating a Supreme Court appointment during the election period, arguing that it should fall onto the next elected President. However, this rule seemed not to apply when the Republican’s sought to and successfully install Barret onto the Supreme Court. It would appear the rules don’t apply when you have the power; and here lies one of the great challengers to US democracy - hypocrisy. The rules, in which all are meant to be viewed as equal don’t apply, power corrupts, and it seems that Orwell was right in his famous piece Animal Farm, when he wrote “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”. It seems the rules of the game only apply when the team who is friendliest with the referee are winning. This powerplay undermines the goal of US politics, which is to serve the American people. Too often now, we are seeing parties trying to undermine each other because of a sense of resentment towards the other. In these times I am reminded of the words of John McCain during his Presidential campaign about former President Obama “He is a decent person…I just have disagreements with on fundamental issues”, it was this, sense of not vilifying the opposition, but appreciating differences in opinions which helped advance American democracy. Now the vilifying of the opposition especially by Donald Trump towards “crooked Hilary” or “sleepy Joe Biden” has meant that American voters are losing confidence in their own politicians and institutions.

Finally, when the Supreme Court, a check and balance institution, is now filled with a conservative supermajority it makes it harder for the institution to remain impartial and balanced. We saw this when the Supreme Court overruled Roe vs Wade and made access to abortion a state level issue not a federal issue. In doing so, states which overruled and hindered access to abortion arguably were not even carrying out such a task in the name of citizens. One poll suggested 61% of Americans were against overturning Roe vs Wade, and only 36% were in favour, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. When one thinks about this you know have a completely undemocratic institution with significant political power to implement and reform US laws based on an ideological agenda which does not represent the interests of US citizens, let alone a majority of citizens. A gallup poll showed that only 25% of Americans have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the Supreme Court. The ability of the Supreme Court to do this, when both the Presidency and Congress were controlled by the Democrat Party illustrates the power the court holds to influence US politics and overrule the majority of people.

I have highlighted just a few examples of how American democracy is faltering. Falling public trust in institutions is one of the first causes of a democracy deficit, and this is what we are now witnessing in the US. Whilst American democracy has historically prevailed, now it is facing greater and more numerous challenges to it, and all in a much shorter time span. The polarisation of US politics with the left and right drifting further apart, has meant politics have become increasingly driven along party and ideological lines, instead of what is in the national interest. Furthermore, influential lobbying groups and a Supreme Court judiciary which is lacking independence is further damaging confidence amongst Americans. But, ultimately when the most brazen attack on US democracy occurred, when an attempt to overturn electoral results and the certification of the next President occurred, the response within the Republican Party was minimal. Unlike in other countries which defended democracy and made sweeping measures to remove those who attempted to subvert and undermine the democratic processes, we saw the Republican Party do the opposite. Those who expressed their dissent towards the insurrectionists were ostracised from the party, and the apologists became rising stars.

It is believed that when a democracy starts to die it is hard for it to recover and you are left with a zombified-authoritarian democracy. As long as the authoritarian sentiment still resides in the GOP, and American politics remains polarised in such a hostile way, then America is on the path where its democracy is slowly but surely undermined and zombified.


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