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Regardless of who wins the 2020 presidential election, the health of American democracy will not soon recover. Over the past decade, and particularly over the last four years, scholars of democracy have tracked a gradual decline in the quality of democracy in the United States. That decline, rooted in part in deepening partisan and racial polarization, began well before the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. But to a degree far surpassing any of his 44 predecessors, this president has severely damaged the norms, and to some extent the institutions, of American democracy. His constant effusion of lies and disinformation; his relentless assaults on the media, the courts, the career civil service, and the political opposition; his efforts to politicize and demand personal loyalty from the military, the intelligence apparatus, and federal law enforcement; his misuse of presidential power and discretion for political and financial advantage; and his gestures of sympathy and support for racist right-wing extremist groups have no parallel in the annals of the American presidency.
Whatever the final election results, much of the world—and much of the United States—will be stunned by the fact that a populist demagogue and friend to autocrats around the globe will have won more votes than any presidential candidate in American history, save for Barack Obama in 2008 and Joe Biden in 2020. Scholars, analysts, and foreign diplomats will struggle for years to explain how Trump, in the wake of the most dismal performance managing the pandemic of any advanced democratic leader, and facing the most moderate, least polarizing Democratic candidate imaginable, could have come within roughly three percentage points of winning the popular vote and at worst only narrowly missed winning the Electoral College.
Trump’s behavior during the campaign was especially damaging to American democracy, in particular his preelection attempts at voter suppression and his unfounded allegations of fraud in the casting of mail-in ballots. Predictable though it was, the president sank to a new low on election night, when he repeated his false assertion of “a major fraud on our nation,” claimed to have won several states that were still very much hanging in the balance (including Michigan, which he has since lost), stated flatly that “we did win this election,” and vowed to challenge the result in the U.S. Supreme Court. Such statements—which Fox News commentator Dana Perino condemned as “deeply irresponsible” and Trump’s own longtime ally, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also criticized—sowed distrust in the electoral process and risk stoking violence. Preelection surveys found growing proportions of both Democrats and Republicans who think there is at least “a little justification” for using violence to advance their cause or to protest an election defeat. Between 15 and 20 percent of the staunchly liberal and staunchly conservative voters think there could be a “great deal” of justification for violence. In seeking to delegitimize the vote, the president is playing with fire.
A Biden victory will not by itself heal the deep wounds that American democracy has sustained in recent years.
There is no reason to expect that Trump will be any less venomous or polarizing if he wins a second term. But a Biden victory will not by itself heal the deep wounds that American democracy has sustained in recent years. In a two-party system, it takes two parties to reduce political polarization and repair democratic norms. With its increasing maximalist tactics to manipulate the rules to its immediate advantage, suppress racial minority votes, and pack the courts, the Republican Party has gradually lost sight of those norms. And in the last four years, it has abandoned them altogether as a result of Trump’s “hostile takeover” of the party, to quote the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. One unfortunate consequence of the 2020 election is that because Republicans have done better than expected (retaining the Senate, possibly gaining House seats, and getting close in the presidential vote), the party will likely remain under the spell of Trump’s illiberal populism for some time to come.
It is difficult to draw analogies with the decline of other democracies because no other wealthy, mature liberal democracy has suffered a similar institutional breakdown. But the broad signs of political decay are familiar—and alarming—to comparative scholars of democracy: the growing polarization, distrust, and intolerance among supporters of the main opposing parties; the increasing tendency to view partisan attachments as a kind of tribal identity; the intertwining of partisan affiliations with racial, ethnic, or religious identities; and the inability to forge political compromises across partisan divides—and hence to mount effective policy responses to national issues. Scholars of democracy know where these trends have led in the past—to democratic breakdowns in interwar Europe and post–World War II Latin America and to the more recent rise of authoritarian populists in countries such as Venezuela and Turkey. The United States is not alone in its democratic decline, of course; long-standing democracies such as India, and even liberal ones such as Israel, are struggling with similar ills.
This is a season of Caesars and democratic discontent. The problem is made worse by the ill winds that have blown against democracy everywhere in the world of late: the pernicious influence of social media, which puts a premium on outrage and emotional engagement and hence has a natural affinity for disinformation; the multiple technological, economic, and environmental disruptions threatening people’s sense of self and security in what the journalist Thomas Friedman has called “the age of accelerations”; the rise of China and resurgence of Russia as authoritarian powers that see degrading and destabilizing democracy as an existential imperative; and the retreat from global responsibility of the country that in previous decades was the chief defender of embattled democracies—the United States.
Now the United States is experiencing its own democratic crisis. The thin but resilient membrane that protects the spinal cord of American democracy—the embrace of mutual tolerance and restraint, the steadfast commitment to the rules of the democratic game—is badly fraying. Whether or not a defeated Trump tries to overturn the Electoral College results in the courts or in Congress, come January American democracy will still be in serious trouble. And only the American people can fix it.