Blog post

American democracy in the face of real threats

I intended to write an optimistic article on the fate of democracy in the United States. But a realistic optimist must begin by acknowledging how precarious democratic governance has been and how serious the threats to it are now. So, for now, the threats will have to do the trick, but don’t despair: these are risks, unfinished deals, and I will deepen the reasons for optimism soon. Until 1965, a large group of those who lived in the United States were deprived of full citizenship and, in many cases, effectively excluded from public life. This exclusionary system included republican elections and institutions, but it was not what we really want to call “democracy.” It was not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the United States began to live up to its own democratic aspirations – aspirations, of course, which have never been fulfilled. universally shared, but which I think have always been very real. Even at its best, post-1965 democracy in the United States still had many real flaws, with the right to vote and other forms of political participation often more accessible to some than others, and characteristics such as than the poorly distributed Senate which are difficult to defend in a republic. But many democracies are flawed in one way or another. What happened recently, however, has opened up both old and new risks to this system, enough to worry many researchers – as detailed, more recently, in the latest Bright Line Watch poll of political scientists. Old risks include efforts to make voting more difficult for people; the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn protections in the voting rights law; the possibility of increasing the accuracy of gerrymandering, also now sanctioned by the court; increasing social and economic inequalities, which can make political equality more difficult to achieve; and more. The new risks? Republican politicians and other prominent party figures have, for 25 years or more, rejected the sane democratic standards needed to run a republic, with the situation becoming more dire with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and, ultimately, the Trump’s attempt to reverse his defeat in 2020. The result is pretty straightforward. In a two-party system, both parties will eventually occupy the position. If one of these parties has turned against democratic norms, it will end up in power and, well, adopt its preferences. It is extremely unlikely that grassroots voters will prevent such a party from taking power; people just don’t vote based on that kind of abstraction. And thanks to partisan polarization, most voters will automatically support their team in any case. Democracy depends on the willingness to lose elections. If that will starts to falter – as it seems to Trump and his allies – we are in trouble. The context of optimism therefore requires confronting the risks to the Republican government, which should not be minimized. Elected officials should strengthen laws and institutions to make it harder for anti-democratic forces to succeed. But even these efforts may prove insufficient. Fortunately, we are not there yet. Stay tuned and I’ll give you some reasons why no one should give up on American democracy just yet. For your weekend read, here are some of the best articles from political scientists this week (in addition to the ones linked above): 1. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on the Democratic Messages Debate. 2. SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor at the Monkey Cage on Tools for Congress Leaders. 3. Dan Drezner on a foreign policy disaster. 4. Matt Grossmann chats with Laurel Harbridge-Yong and Eric Merkley about President Joe Biden, the media and gasoline prices. 5. And Stacie Goddard, Jack Snyder and Keren Yarhi-Milo on the late international relations scholar Robert L. Jervis.