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A prolonged global democratic recession has, in recent years, morphed into something even more troubling: the “third reverse wave” of democratic breakdowns that the political scientist Samuel Huntington warned could follow the remarkable burst of “third wave” democratic progress in the 1980s and the 1990s. Every year for the past 15 years, according to Freedom House, significantly more countries have seen declines in political rights and civil liberties than have seen gains. But since 2015, that already ominous trend has turned sharply worse: 2015–19 was the first five-year period since the beginning of the third wave in 1974 when more countries abandoned democracy—twelve—than transitioned to it—seven.
And the trend continues. Illiberal populist leaders are degrading democracy in countries including Brazil, India, Mexico, and Poland, and creeping authoritarianism has already moved Hungary, the Philippines, Turkey, and Venezuela out of the category of democracies altogether. In Georgia, the dominance of the Georgian Dream Party has led to the steady decline of electoral processes and a breakdown in the rule of law. In Myanmar, the military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, ending an experiment in partial democracy. In El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele staged an executive coup by removing the attorney general and Supreme Court justices who were obstacles to his consolidation of power. In Peru, democracy hangs from a thread as the right-wing autocrat Keiko Fujimori advances vague claims of election fraud in a bid to overturn her narrow electoral defeat to left-wing opponent Pedro Castillo.
What is especially striking about this last case is that Fujimori’s gambit bears a grim resemblance to the lie perpetuated by former U.S. President Donald Trump and his followers about the 2020 presidential election. This is no coincidence. As the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum has observed, fictitious claims of fraud and “stop the steal” tactics are becoming a common means by which autocratic populists try to obstruct democracy. Such tactics have long been a source of instability in countries struggling to develop democracy. But the fact that the most recent iteration of the antidemocrat’s playbook draws heavily on precedents in the world’s most important and powerful democracy marks the start of a dangerous new era.
Today, the United States confronts a growing antidemocratic movement, not just from the ranks of fringe extremists but also from a substantial group of officeholders—a movement that is challenging the very foundations of electoral democracy. Should this effort succeed, the United States could become the first ever advanced industrial democracy to fail—that is, to no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections as political scientists and other scholars of democracy define them.
The failure of American democracy would be catastrophic not only for the United States; it would also have profound global consequences at a time when freedom and democracy are already under siege. As Huntington noted, the diffusion of democratic movements and ideas from one country to another has helped drive positive democratic change. Antidemocratic norms and practices can spread in a similar fashion—especially when they emanate from powerful countries. That is why the acceleration of a democratic recession into a democratic depression happened largely on Trump’s watch. And it is why no development would more gravely damage the global democratic cause than the democratic backsliding of its most important champion.
A democratic system of government stands on three legs. The first leg is popular sovereignty—rule by the people. Democracy demands that people are able to choose and replace their leaders in regular, free, and fair elections; that all adult citizens are able to vote free from intimidation and obstruction; and that candidates and parties are free to compete and campaign. Crucially, elections must be administered impartially, so that valid ballots are counted accurately and power is granted to those who win.
Liberty is the second leg of liberal democracy. A fully democratic system provides strong protections for freedom of speech, the press, association, and assembly. It ensures that these rights are equally protected for all social groups. And it promotes a culture of mutual tolerance and respect for the rights of political opponents.
The third leg—the rule of law—defends and strengthens the other two. It ensures that democratic procedures are impartially enforced by an independent judiciary and other regulatory bodies that check the abuse of power. In most advanced democracies, excluding the United States, these instruments of accountability include national bodies to administer elections and to monitor corruption.
Trump was the first U.S. president to demonstrate contempt for all three legs of the triad of liberal democracy. He attacked the media as “fake news” and “absolute scum” and called for his election opponent to be “locked up.” He invited his followers to commit acts of violence against protesting opponents. Upon his defeat, he insisted that the election results were fraudulent and had to be overturned. Throughout his presidency, he waged war on an independent judiciary, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, his own attorney general, the Office of Government Ethics, the civil service, and a host of other actors who refused to bend to his political will or sought to enforce the rule of law.
The United States’ outsize importance will influence struggling democracies and embattled autocracies alike.
Many scholars of democracy perceived an unprecedented threat to U.S. democracy when Trump entered office in 2017 and feared grave assaults on the second and third legs of the democratic triad, in particular. This assessment was partially correct. Not since President Richard Nixon and rarely in U.S. history has there been such a determined effort to misuse and subvert administrative and rule-of-law institutions for nakedly political ends—but these attempts achieved only limited effect. The bulk of the press and the judiciary remained independent. The FBI avoided political capture. Outside the Republican Party and Trump’s own administration, freedom of speech thrived. From 2017 through 2020, liberty and the rule of law more or less held.
In three respects, however, most scholars misjudged the nature of the peril—and underestimated its gravity. First, many assumed that Trump himself constituted the biggest threat to U.S. democracy and that his defeat would lance the poisonous boil on the body politic. Second, with notable exceptions, including the Yale historian Timothy Snyder and the Carnegie Endowment scholar Rachel Kleinfeld, many underestimated the potential for violence on the part of Trump’s true-believing followers. And third, most underestimated the extent to which Trump would remake the Republican Party as an institution not only slavishly loyal to him but also hostile to democracy.
Fortunately, leading up to the 2020 election, democracy scholars and civic organizations correctly anticipated the threats to electoral integrity posed by zealous Trump partisans, as well as the staggering logistical challenges presented by the pandemic. As a result, they launched one of the most energetic civic campaigns in U.S. history to register an unprecedented number of voters, to give them safe and early access to the ballot, to ensure that local electoral administrations had the resources necessary to administer the vote, and to prepare to combat any potential efforts to overturn the legitimate results of the presidential election. The election was not a nightmare scenario, as some had feared. In fact, it proved to be one of the best-administered elections in U.S. history, leading election experts Nathaniel Persily and Charles Stewart III to call it a “miracle.”
Yet what followed was, in the words of Persily and Stewart, a “tragedy,” with “lies about vote fraud and the performance of the system [cementing] a perception among tens of millions of Americans that the election was ‘rigged.’” Such “manufactured distrust” has extended past the January 6 insurrection in Washington. Although President Joe Biden’s inauguration has deescalated imminent threats to civil liberties and the rule of law, the core element of electoral democracy—free and fair elections—is now under relentless partisan assault. Republican state legislatures are accelerating efforts to make it more difficult for African Americans, Latinos, and other Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote by passing laws that make it more difficult to vote by mail and to vote early, and that make it easier to purge voters from voting rolls. These changes are driven not by documented evidence of malfeasance associated with these practices but by deliberately false narratives about election fraud.
Now, the greatest threat to American democracy is posed by legislative initiatives seeking to subvert the independence of electoral administration, including the counting and certification of the vote. As the election law expert Richard Hasen has observed, “At stake is something I never expected to worry about in the United States: the integrity of the vote count.” A recent law passed in Georgia, for example, removes the secretary of state (currently Brad Raffensperger, who refused to manufacture the 11,780 votes Trump needed to win the state) as chair of the state Election Board and gives the state legislature—a highly partisan institution—the ability to name the new chair. Representatives in Michigan have politicized the Board of State Canvassers, which certifies election results, by replacing a Republican who voted to certify Biden’s election victory with a movement conservative. In Michigan and in Nevada, Trump loyalists are seeking to consolidate control over election supervision by running candidates for secretary of state—giving them the authority to preside over election administration and the tools to try to block Democratic votes. And at the federal level, Republicans could take back control of the House of Representatives (helped by their unilateral ability to redraw 187 congressional districts following the most recent census) and use their majority to manipulate the 2024 presidential results in their favor—especially if the 2024 election resembles 2020, when Democrats won a decisive popular vote victory but relied on narrow margins in a handful of states for an Electoral College majority.
Once a political system loses bipartisan consensus respecting the rules of the democratic game, it can be a short slide to autocracy. The world has watched this happen in Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. It is not inconceivable that it could happen in the United States.
To warn of the failure of American democracy is not hyperbole or simply a slogan meant to motivate action. Political scientists may differ on the minimum conditions for democracy, but they agree on this: a country cannot be considered a democracy if it does not broadly ensure the neutral and fair administration of elections. If the outcome of a major national election in the United States were to be determined by fraudulent exclusion or the manipulation of votes, the country would cease to be a democracy, no matter how much freedom of expression might survive (for a time).
More than 100 prominent democracy scholars recently warned in a collective statement that Republican assaults on electoral integrity could bring about the demise of U.S. democracy. They appealed to Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and to adopt other measures to “ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration.” But with broad national legislation to ban partisan gerrymandering and strengthen voting standards unlikely in the near term, it will also be up to civil society to defend American democracy.
That defense is made more urgent by the gathering storm of democratic backsliding around the world. The United States’ outsize importance as a source of political diffusion, for good or ill, makes it an example that will influence struggling democracies and embattled autocracies alike. Both in backsliding democracies such as the Philippines and Poland and in deepening autocracies such as Turkey and Venezuela, Trump’s mantra of “fake news” emboldened strongman leaders in their assaults on the media. If the United States winds up disfiguring its democracy by politicizing electoral administration and suppressing minority votes, autocrats will gleefully seize upon the American precedent as justification for their methods of blocking democratic change. And in declining democracies, politically vulnerable incumbents will embrace similar methods of violating electoral integrity in order to hang on to power.
In short, what happens to democracy in the United States is likely to determine the fate of democracy around the world: whether this third wave of democratic reversals is turned back or gains horrific new momentum.