In September 2020, Barton Gellman, staff writer at The Atlantic magazine, published an ominous piece titled “The Election That Could Break America.” In the article, Gellman, with the help of legal scholars and political scientists, broke down the ways in which incumbent President Donald Trump, aided by Republican loyalists, could potentially utilize the United States Constitution’s ambiguities to subvert the results of the 2020 election and sow chaos. Although the worst of Gellman’s predictions did not come to fruition, the election and its aftermath were a time of extreme instability which eventually culminated in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection. As such, Gellman’s article provides a prescient look at the more mechanical aspects of a major issue which much of American society hasn’t seemed to fully internalize: the weakness of democracy. Ultimately, in order to protect democracy and its institutions going forward, Americans must first be willing to both recognize and confront the concerning, real possibility of democratic backsliding at home.
The takeaway from both Gellman’s article and the 2020 election itself should not be that America survived its one potential run-in with authoritarianism, but rather that democracy itself desperately needs to be strengthened and protected. The Republican Party, now fully backing Trump and his “big lie” about the 2020 election, has developed an antidemocratic vengeance that American society, including the Democratic Party, is wholly unprepared to contend with in the coming years. However, it doesn’t seem like Democrats in power have actually internalized the significance of either the situation itself or their unduly tepid response in a meaningful way.
Since reclaiming the Presidency and the Senate, Democrats have focused on passing popular bills, such as the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, and worked to highlight the values of bipartisan legislation. While these approaches are, in and of themselves, both good strategies for potentially winning over Republican voters, they miss a key point: Defeating an undemocratic movement purely via popular policies, as the Democrats have attempted to do thus far, is not a sustainable strategy. It doesn’t actually counter or limit the Republicans’ undemocratic approach, and therefore fails to secure the future of America’s democratic institutions (although the House has passed H.R. 1, it is exceedingly unlikely to ever receive the necessary support to pass in the Senate).
However, the more fundamental problem is that truly protecting democracy and its institutions requires Americans to fully comprehend their ephemeral nature. Americans must recognize that the United States, like every other democracy on earth, is susceptible to backsliding, a process by which formerly-democratic institutions slowly become increasingly less liberal. Unfortunately, America’s democratic origin story (one which also glosses over many less inclusive parts of the country’s political history) can numb both politicians and citizens to the fact that democratic governance is not an unyielding constant, but rather something which must be consciously upheld and protected.
Because of America’s long democratic history, it is easy to visualize democracy as a binary, with a simple divide between democratic countries like the United States (those with elections) and undemocratic ones (those without elections). However, the truth is that democracy is a complicated and nuanced system that exists along a continuum, and often has no clear or explicit boundaries. As backsliding across the world has recently shown, the erosion of democratic institutions is often akin to the fable of the boiling frog, who is slowly killed as the water in the pot gets continually hotter. Just as there is no temperature at which the frog can definitively say the water has suddenly become too hot, there is usually no single, objective point where a system becomes too illiberal to be considered a real democracy. For instance, although America has free and fair elections, it also has several hugely unrepresentative political institutions and a rash of voter restrictions. These limitations obviously don’t make America a totalitarian dictatorship à la North Korea, but they do certainly make it less democratic than it could be.
With that in mind, Americans must confront the fact that the country’s metaphorical pot of water is heating. For decades, American democracy has — according to Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, the authors of “How Democracies Die” — survived through mutual toleration and political forbearance. However, those two barriers have disintegrated. According to an analysis of Pew Research Center data, only 35% of Republican voters said they were very confident that their votes were counted accurately in the 2020 election, marking the first time in Pew’s surveying history that less than half a party’s voters were confident in the election’s outcome. Furthermore, the elimination of the two aforementioned safeguards has exposed a constitution that is woefully unprepared to handle all-out political power struggles, as demonstrated by the last election.
In understanding democracy’s inherent instability, Americans must shift to thinking of it as an agenda that must be actively promoted, not just a set of already-existing institutions to passively acknowledge. In a Pew Research Center report from January of this year, Americans listed “strengthening the economy” and “dealing with the coronavirus outbreak” as their top two policy priorities for 2021. Although it may seem strange or unnecessary to include “protecting democratic institutions” on this list, that is precisely the type of policy issue which democratically-minded Americans should be focusing on. As Jan. 6 demonstrated, democratic stability is far from assured, even here. Although it may seem intimidating to consider, Americans can only truly defend democracy once they’ve come to terms with its fragility.
Zack Blumberg is a Senior Opinion Editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.