By Oren Jacobson
Over the last 30 years, the world has witnessed a shift away from democracy and toward autocratic rule. As Donald Trump’s presidency has rolled on, observers inside and outside the United States have wondered: Is America next? In his comments at the Democratic Convention, former President Barack Obama explicitly cautioned Americans that democracy was on the line in 2020. Despite his warning, awakening America to this threat is difficult because most misperceive how modern democracies die. In our collective imagination, the end of a democracy comes about through a high profile singular moment, like a military coup, or even a civil war. In reality, modern democracies die slowly.
The phenomenon is called “democratic backsliding.” It’s a process by which the incumbent party successfully consolidates power through intentional actions often legitimated within democratic institutions. These efforts curtail basic rights like voting, and attack free speech, the right to assemble, and free press. The goal is to substantially undermine opposition so the regime can maintain power. Elections still happen, but the party in power is incredibly difficult to defeat as they control the rules of engagement. A thin veneer of democratic legitimacy remains, but the result is what political scientists call an illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarianism.
So how does this happen, and is America at risk? To unpack this question we have to understand how other democratic countries (Poland, Hungary, Turkey) have slid back into autocratic systems. Functionally, the ruling party does three specific things in order to shift the balance of power and ensure control. First, it alters the rules of elections to make it harder for the opposition to vote, let alone win. Second, it attempts to silence and weaken dissenting voices. Third, it impairs, or breaks, the independence of the judicial system. As we look around America today, we can find strong evidence of all three occurring.
The Republican Party has aggressively purged voter rolls, changed registration rules, limited voting locations and times, altered voting districts (gerrymandering), and added new burdens on the act of voting, including attacking the postal service infrastructure during a pandemic. Further, Trump is intentionally and consistently spreading misinformation about voter fraud, which lays the groundwork for potential legal challenges to throw out otherwise legitimately cast ballots. These are all examples of voter suppression and electoral manipulation designed to shrink the selectorate (those who can vote, do vote, and have their votes counted).
What about the silencing of dissent? Perhaps the most aggressive form of silencing dissent abroad comes in the direct jailing of opposition leaders. This is what makes Trump’s 2016 “Lock Her Up!” chant so dangerous. Recently, Trump spoke about using the Department of Justice to target leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. This type of rhetoric can lead to the arrest of political opposition in the worst cases, and in the best cases has a chilling effect by increasing the risks for opposition protests.
Dissent can also be silenced through new libel or defamation laws (as Trump has threatened). When Trump calls the press “the enemy of the people”, he is softening his base to support efforts to restrict the press and/or simply to negate any contrary voices. All bad stories are “fake news” and all opposing voices are not to be trusted. Additionally, political allies use media institutions (where state owned media doesn’t exist) to coordinate and protect their shared interests. Trump attacks Fox News, for example, whenever on-air talent is critical of him. This is necessary to keep the base in line by demonizing all opposing voices, hence weakening them, and sowing doubt more broadly.
Dissent can also be stamped out from within a party when the leader aggressively attacks internal critics, like Trump has often done (McCain, Flake, Romney). In democratic societies, politicians vie for the support of their voters. In an autocratic society, politicians perform for the leader. When this happens, a major check on executive power is broken as the political cost for speaking out against the leader is too high. Increasingly, the GOP’s political class is behaving like an autocratic party. Those in positions of power offer lavish praise, propagate and encourage his lies, refuse oversight, and defend his autocratic impulses.
What about the independence of the judiciary? In 2016, Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, citing the election eight months away. In the four years since, the courts have been packed with (sometimes unqualified) loyalists. And now, with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the GOP looks likely to confirm a new Justice, despite being weeks from an election night with voting already underway. This would lock in a six to three conservative majority, fundamental altering the balance of power for decades.
While we often think specifically about judges when we consider the idea of judicial independence, we should also consider the prosecutor’s office. Specifically, a regime could install prosecutors to ignore wrongdoings by individuals close to the regime. For example, Attorney General Barr fired the prosecutor in the Southern District of New York who was overseeing investigations into Trump and his family. Trump’s assault on inspectors general is yet another example meant to weaken independent oversight.
In countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, society splits into three basic groups. Group A backs the party in power. Group B resists. The decisions of Group C are the most critical in highly polarized countries. Members of Group C may be politically moderate and independent, feeling unrepresented by either group. They may be politically aligned with either group, but distrust its political institutions or leaders. Or, they may be disaffected and/or disengaged, facing structural impediments to vote or simply refusing to participate.
Here’s how democratic backsliding unfolds. The process is catalyzed when the incumbent power pursues a nationalist agenda, activating Group A (loyalists), which is composed mostly of members of the dominant racial/ethinic group. This ethnic-nationalism, though, limits the ability to expand the party’s support beyond its base, driving the party toward anti-democratic strategies as a necessity to maintain power. Further, the nationalist appeal creates an “us versus them” framework. The outgroup is always defined as a threat to the members of the “real” nation. In order to protect their way of life, presented as being under attack, the ingroup tolerates more undemocratic tendencies as a trade off.
Group B (resistance), defined as the threat to the members of the “real” nation, rallies to oppose the regime. The challenge for Group B is that they may appear hyperbolic to those less engaged (Group C). The warnings, while accurate, are too dire for many to grasp, and hard to imagine. Thus, as the nationalistic attacks increase, Group B’s reactions escalate, affirming the fears of Group A. This self-fulfilling prophecy is cyclical and polarizes the groups even further.
How Group C responds ultimately determines the fate of democracy. When the economy is strong, history shows the incumbent party tends to get rewarded, enabling the incumbent to pursue autocratic power consolidation. When it’s weak, the fundamentals work against the incumbent, and fear and voter suppression are the only options they have left. If the incumbent party wins subsequent elections pursuing this strategy, democratic backsliding unfolds as the barriers to consolidation of power are removed.
This is where America finds itself roughly six weeks out from the 2020 election. The Republican Party and President Trump, a leader who praises autocrats across the globe and exhibits unprecedented autocratic tendencies among American presidents, have pursued all three functional strategies necessary to consolidate power. The only question now is what happens at the ballot box.
But several questions will shape this outcome. How large is Group A in America? Will enough members of Group B be able to vote, despite voter suppression efforts? Will their votes be counted with the rush of new mail-in ballots, or will they be challenged in the courts the GOP now controls? Will Group C recognize their agency and vote in large numbers (90 million sat out in 2016)? And, which candidate or group will they align with?
None of these questions even explore the worst case scenario. How will all three groups respond to the potential events Trump is already previewing? An Election Day without a decisive result as states struggle to process surges in mail-in ballots because of the pandemic, combined with a (false) claim of widespread voter fraud through the mail, and the fate of the election being kicked into the hands of the Supreme Court Trump and the GOP just successfully stacked.
Our institutions have been badly damaged, the guardrails are almost gone, democracy is fragile, and the hour is late. No country which has reverted into an illiberal democracy has yet broken free of its authoritarian leaders and the party that backs them. America could be next.
Oren Jacobson is multi-sector consultant, policy advisor, and a member of the Truman National Security Project. He holds a Master’s in International Relations from the University of Chicago, a Master’s in Economics and Policy Analysis from DePaul University, and a Master’s in Business Administration from Regis University.