A Time of Transition
American history consists of long periods of relative stability punctuated by troubled times of rapid transition. Slavery was the serpent sleeping under the table in the country’s early years, eventually springing to life in the American Civil War. Unbridled capitalism ran rampant for decades, until the Great Depression brought it to its knees, ushering in the New Deal. After decades of rising inequality in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, America is now facing another great transition.
Just recently, an article was posted by political scientist Lee Drutman on the web site FiveThirtyEight entitled “Why the Two-Party System is Wrecking American Democracy.” Pretty strong words, and of course hyperbole is no stranger to our media system. Still, on the same day, Thomas Edsall authored an editorial in the NY Times entitled “Trumpism Without Borders.” Both of these articles paint a rather grim picture of political trends, and not just in America. Edsall quotes a number of sociologists, economists, and political scientists, who share a view of democracy slipping away. Are things really that bad?
Every year, the non-profit organization Freedom House publishes a report on the state of democracy worldwide, called Freedom in the World. During the late 20th century, democracy gained considerable ground. In 1975, Freedom House rated 41% of the countries of the world as “not free.” By 2000 that number had dropped to only 25%. But since then it has not dropped further. In fact it has risen slowly since 2013 and now stands at 28%.
The Freedom in the World 2016 report was entitled “Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure.” The 2017 report was called “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy.” The 2018 report was entitled “Democracy in Crisis.” 2019? “Democracy in Retreat.” 2020? “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.” 2021? “Democracy Under Siege.” Not encouraging.
The Economist Intelligence Unit also issues an annual report on the state of democracy worldwide, and produces a Democracy Index. Since 2005 this index has dropped rather steadily. A number of countries, including America, have lost their status as “full democracies,” and are now considered “flawed democracies.” America now ranks 25th in the world on the Democracy Index. Every region of the world except Asia/Australasia has seen its Democracy Index drop.
These trends are alarming, but a 3% rise in the number of “not free” countries over 20 years, compared to a 15% drop over the previous 25, is not the end of democracy. The real question is why democracy is in retreat after such dramatic gains in the 20th century. Edsall points to a pervasive sense of loss within a certain segment of the population, which has been exploited by populists eager to point to other segments of the population as gaining from this loss. While big tech companies have become increasingly globalized, resource extraction and manufacturing have become increasingly automated. In Europe and America, white grievance has become a major political force. This is particularly strong in America, and has produced a Republican party that is quite sympathetic to white minority rule. America’s electoral system is quite conducive to this, and Republicans are now attempting to go full force with Democratic voter suppression.
How close did America come to losing its democracy last year? Well, there were challenges to the outcome of elections all over the place. But the courts rejected them and election officials, most of them Republican, refused to bend to political pressure. The U.S. Senate refused to overturn the results of the election, and when an insurrection was attempted, the police and the National Guard supported the Constitution. Large social media companies finally stepped in to cut off the bullhorns of those spreading lies about the election. All of this would seem to point to the resilience of American democracy. But the problem is that large numbers of grassroots Republicans still refuse to accept the results of the election, and Republican legislators are working to subvert election officials the next time around.
Are we heading toward another civil war? Edsall quotes George Mason University professor Jack Goldstone: “If Biden fails, God help us, we are headed back to the world of the 1930s, with steep political polarization, ethnic hatreds and cleansings, powerful anti-immigration sentiments and spreading fascism.” I don’t think we’re going to slide into civil war, but I do think things will get worse before they get better. Republican voter suppression laws are going to be challenged in the courts. They will almost certainly stimulate a grass roots backlash which will result in greater voter participation. When the situation gets bad enough, some Republicans will very likely switch parties. And every year, the number of white, rural, conservative Americans declines. The state of Georgia is already turning blue. When Texas turns blue, it will be the end of the road for the national Republican party.
There is a world of difference between a shrewd politician and a conspiracy theorist. Those who seek to discredit election results have consistently been marginalized and ridiculed. The absurd Arizona “audit” is a case in point. America will not fall back into a Jim Crow-style minority rule scenario. What will happen is that partisan polarization will continue and the Republican party will try to challenge election results that don’t go its way. If it actually succeeds in overturning a national election there will be a fierce backlash from the media and establishment politicians. There will be likely be a peeling away of moderate Republicans from the party. We have already seen this on a very modest scale. The Republican party as an antidemocratic force will lose power one way or the other – either because it accepts the results of elections that will have increasingly blue results, or because it becomes a marginalized party of fringe conspiracy theorists and white nationalists.