Is American democracy in terminal decline?
By David Smith WASHINGTON
If Donald Trump’s inaugural address can be summed up in two words – “American carnage” – Joe Biden’s might be remembered for three: “Democracy has prevailed.” The new president, speaking from the spot where two weeks earlier a pro-Trump mob had stormed the US Capitol, promised that the worst was over in a bruised yet resilient Washington. But four-and-a-half months later, the alarm bells are sounding again. With Republicans still in thrall to Trump and odds-on to win control of the House of Representatives next year, there are growing fears that his presidency was less a historical blip than a harbinger of systemic decline. “There was a momentary sigh of relief but the level of anxiety is actually strangely higher now than in 2016 in the sense that it’s not just about one person but there are broader structural issues,” said Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of How Democracies Die. “The weird emails that I get are more ominous now than they were in 2016: there seems to be a much deeper level of misinformation and conspiracy theories.” Just hours after the terror of 6 January, 147 Republicans in Congress voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election despite no evidence of irregularities. Trump was impeached for inciting the violence but Senate Republicans ensured his acquittal. A farcical “audit” of votes is under way in Arizona with more states threatening to follow suit. Perhaps more insidiously, Trump supporters who tried to overturn the 2020 election are manoeuvring to serve as election officials in swing states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada. The offensive is coupled with a dramatic and sweeping assault on voting rights. Republican-controlled state legislatures have rammed through bills that make it harder to vote in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana. Their all-out effort in Texas was temporarily derailed when Democrats walked out of the chamber, denying them a quorum. Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard University, said: “The most worrying threat is at the state level, the effort to change voting rules, which I think is prompted by the failed effort to alter the election outcome of 2020. “The lesson Republicans have learned from that is they don’t really suffer any electoral consequences from their base pursuing this kind of thing. In fact, they’re rewarded for it.” Where is this authoritarian ecosystem heading? In How Democracies Die, Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky argue that democracies often come under threat at the ballot box. “People use elections to get into power and then, once in power, assault democratic institutions,” Ziblatt said. “That’s Viktor Orbán [in Hungary], that’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan [in Turkey], that’s Hugo Chávez [in Venezuela] and what’s distinctive about that is that it often begins incrementally. So people continue to go about their lives, continue to vote, parliament continues to meet and so you think, ‘Is there really a threat?’ But the power concentrates so it becomes harder and harder to unseat an incumbent.” He added: “We shouldn’t overlook that fact that we had a change in government in January. What that suggests is our electoral institutions do work better than they do in Hungary.” Trump is arguably both cause and effect of the lurch right, which takes place in the wider context of white Christians losing majority status as demographics change. Kurt Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide who became a Democrat, said: “It’s very clear that the next time there is a violent effort to overthrow our government, Republicans in Congress will be knowing accomplices in that effort.” The threat poses a dilemma for Biden, who was elected on a promise of building bridges and seeking bipartisanship. He continues to do so while issuing increasingly stark calls to arms. Speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma last week, he repeated his “democracy prevailed” mantra but then warned of a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy” and announced that the vice-president, Kamala Harris, would lead an effort to strengthen voting rights. Activists and civil society are trying to create a sense of urgency. More than a hundred scholars last week released a joint statement, posted by the New America thinktank, expressing “deep concern” at “radical changes to core electoral procedures”. “Our entire democracy is now at risk,” the scholars wrote. Ibram X Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, said: “At the end of the day, there is an all out war on American voters, particularly younger voters, particularly younger voters of colour, and it’s happening from Texas to Florida and it’s really causing the American people to decide whether we want our democracy or not.”