American democracy is fracturing—but there is reason to hope

Since the election of Donald Trump, scholars and commentators have wondered whether he was a symptom of US decline. Perhaps he was a mere puzzle piece of the real problem that is the entire GOP, empowered by US institutions and a seemingly bottomless disregard for the practice of political restraint we sometimes refer to as norms. Most recently, the panic has centered on the question of whether the US is close to civil war, as argued by political scientist Barbara Walter in a new book that identifies the conditions under which countries experience large-scale political violence. 

Each of these prospects has been debated. 

Trump’s presidency was punctuated by horrific events: the Charlottesville “unite the right” violence; the 2019 impeachment trial; the 6th January attack on the Capitol. But much of the challenge to the functioning of American democracy has happened without dramatic events, and has taken the form of subtle evolution rather than even the kind of “erosion” described by the top scholars of democratic backsliding.

Three alarming trends threatening American democracy have continued in the months since Trump left office: the consolidation of power on the right; the resurgence of racism and white supremacy; and the dominance of political spectacle over substantive debate. Each one has been re-adapted to the environment of the current era, highlighting new as well as old threats. 

Consolidation of power 

Institutional jockeying for political advantage has long been part of American politics, with its ambiguous processes, fluid institutions and many veto points. Politicians have used the federal structure, the separation of powers and the bicameral legislature to maximise their chances of getting what they want. But rarely have the two parties been as neatly separated by race, culture and geography as they are now. This offers unique opportunities to consolidate power by altering the institutional environment, with the intent to give one side a political advantage. 

The consolidation of power takes two related forms: minority rule and reducing legitimate political competition. 

We see this consolidation happening in three ways: the malapportionment of Congressional representation; countermajoritarian power in the courts; and the partisan takeover of election administration. The unifying theme is the use of institutional rules to both inflate the power of one side in relation to its representation in the electorate, and to make it more difficult—if not impossible—for real two-party competition to happen. This has already happened in the state legislature in Wisconsin, where I live. The state is very competitive, with Democratic governor Tony Evers winning by about 30,000 votes in 2018. Trump won the state’s electoral college votes in 2016 by similar margins while Biden won them in 2020 with an even slimmer margin. Wisconsin’s Senate delegation is perhaps the most divided the country has ever seen. But in the state legislature, Republicans control more than 60 per cent of the seats, despite winning just over half the vote. 

At the national level, two main obstacles increasingly stand between the country and the concept of majority rule. One is the Senate. The arcane filibuster rules have attracted the most attention—and serious arguments have highlighted their role in blocking civil rights and anti-lynching legislation, effectively handing a veto to the South in the 20th century. But the malapportionment of the Senate is perhaps an even more fundamental problem. This is by design, of course. Modern American politics has evolved in two key ways. First, voting has taken on increased importance, both literally and in the public imagination. The Senate was originally conceived as an indirectly elected body. After the ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913, senators were popularly elected. And over the course of the country’s history, Americans have come to see votes as critical to political legitimacy. It makes less and less sense to give states with vastly different population sizes the same amount of representation. This fundamental feature of the US Constitution was designed when state population differences were much smaller—and not distinctly mapped onto partisan politics.

The US Supreme Court also reflects the existing GOP commitment to power consolidation. In 2016, with the death of justice Antonin Scalia, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell would not bring Barack Obama’s nominee up for a vote. An entirely different standard was applied when Ruth Bader Ginsberg died with only a few months left in Trump’s term. As a result of these decisions, along with the 2018 retirement of Anthony Kennedy, Trump appointed three justices, leaving the court with a 6:3 balance in favor of justices with conservative leanings, appointed by Republican presidents. 

Scholars of the legal system have debated whether the US Supreme Court rules in ways that are out of step with national majorities. Its decisions on campaign finance, which have invalidated regulations and established the principle that campaign spending is protected political speech, are largely out of step with public opinion. The court seems poised to take on abortion rights, even though the majority of Americans support these rights. Some fear that same-sex marriage and other LGBT+ rights may be next. The leaked opinion in May suggested that the court was ready to overturn the Roe v Wade decision that for nearly 50 years has shaped abortion rights, and suggested that the court might also re-examine the stance on privacy rights that has underpinned several key civil liberties decisions.

The court’s constitutional role and the hesitancy and politicisation of “court packing” mean that its authority is in some ways unchecked. State legislatures, meanwhile, occupy a privileged position in the Constitution and policymaking, limited far less by Constitutional understandings because of the country’s federal structure. 

These dynamics all existed before the Trump presidency. In 2020, professional election administrators—many of them Republicans—pushed back against Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results. Since then, loyalists to the former president have sought these positions, which are typically low-salience offices that attract little competition or attention. 

In other words, the conservative movement and the Republican Party have been able to harness the structure of American government and consolidate their power, enacting minority rule and jockeying to control the apparatus of elections. The Democrats, however, have not done this in a competitive fashion—and do not particularly even appear to have tried. Why is power consolidation so one-sided?

The answer lies in the different composition and ideas of the two parties. Numerous political science scholars have identified an important asymmetry between the parties: the modern Democratic Party is a coalition of religious, racial and sexual minorities. The Republican Party is heavily dominated by white and Christian voters. Both parties, in some sense, are driven by identity politics—but they are very different identity politics. For Democrats to consolidate power would be to risk alienating some elements of the coalition, potentially elevating the needs and power of one group over the others.

At the national and local level, Republicans have made attacking critical race theory a central goal

Critics of the asymmetry thesis have suggested that Democrats are motivated by ideology as well as by their status as a coalition of minorities. But in response to the expansion of executive power during the Bush administration, the Democrats criticised the consolidation of power and the violation of democratic norms. These ideological commitments make it much harder for Democrats to play the Republican power consolidation game. 

Racism and white supremacy 

Since Trump’s election in 2016, certain positions and statements have found their way back into the mainstream, long concealed, however thinly, by coded language and proclamations of colorblindness. Race informs politics in complex ways in the United States. Current politics reflect multiple waves of overt backlash to power claims made by non-white Americans—first the presidency of Obama, and then the surge in support for the movement for Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020. 

These overt forms of racism have not replaced the more subtle and insidious racial hierarchies structuring American life, embedded in wealth disparities and geographical segregation. US electoral politics is racialised in divisive ways. Furthermore, as Princeton political scientist LaFleur Stephens-Dougan observes, there is no truly racially liberal party in American politics. Democrats “shy away” from their image as a racially liberal party, and engage in what she terms “racial distancing” to demonstrate that, in the end, they put the concerns and needs of white voters first. 

At the national and local level, Republicans have made attacking critical race theory (CRT) a central goal, using the legal scholarly framework to encompass all teaching about racial inequity or racial history in the United States. Governors and state legislatures have begun proposing policies to prevent the teaching of race and history, sometimes called “divisive concepts.” As of May 2022, 17 states had enacted these limitations.  

The story of race—and how it relates to educational policy —is central to the story of power consolidation. At least some of the Republican priorities in this area are unpopular nationally. The prevalence of “anti-CRT” bills might suggest that Americans overwhelmingly oppose teaching and talking about race, slavery and US racial history in schools. However, a recent CBS poll found just the opposite—that a majority of Americans oppose these bans and support some discussion of the country’s past racial struggles. Federalism structures the opportunities to impose these policies, but collectively they form an unpopular agenda, requiring further power consolidation and minority rule. 

As with most things in American politics, the dominant lens for understanding race and politics is through partisan disagreement. And there is plenty of material to support this framing. Republican members of Congress attended a white nationalist gathering this February (a decision condemned by formal party leadership). Local and state challenges to education are coming from Republican and conservative elected officials. However, race also shapes the Democratic coalition. 

After the 2016 election, the Democratic Party struggled with its future and past. One narrative that emerged immediately and across ideological factions—coming from both left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders and moderate voices—was that the party had focused too much on “identity politics.” Political scientist Seth Masket finds in a study of the 2020 nomination that the belief that “identity politics” had cost the party the presidential election also influenced views of whom to nominate in 2020. The idea that a “safe, old, white man” was necessary to beat Trump influenced formation of a coalition around Joe Biden. During the Biden presidency, bitter debates about “popularism” and whether the party has placed excessive influence on divisive identity issues have continued. Democratic problems in the polls and at the ballot box have been blamed on the “squad”—a group of legislators, mostly women of color, who have represented progressive positions in the House.

The racially precarious Democratic coalition was assembled at a time when its white members could rest assured that their black counterparts would be kept out of positions of real power. The election of Obama, the selection of Kamala Harris as vice president and the rise of social movements like Black Lives Matter—which addresses economic inequality as well as racial injustice—have shaken this faith in the old hierarchies. Competition for influence in the Democratic Party is both a struggle across race lines, among new groups and among different versions of black politics. Politicians like Cory Booker and Obama have found themselves at odds with more traditional forms of African American politics because they are tied to party power structures and white institutions, not social movements in the black community. And younger black voters in the Democratic fold have moved away from the politics of Booker and Obama, favoring candidates on the left like Bernie Sanders. 

Political spectacle has combined with resentment to create a politics that is fundamentally disconnected from any serious debates

These complex dynamics help to explain the asymmetry in power consolidation. The Republican Party can, for the most part, claim that its power consolidation happens on behalf of the groups it best represents: white, wealthy and Christian. 

The Democratic Party’s patchwork approach was effective at wielding power under previous arrangements—patronage, local machines and even the executive bureaucracy of the New Deal era. In this new iteration of American politics, the patchwork coalition is marked by internal distrust and the absence of mechanisms to distribute power. If Democrats tried to wield power as Republicans do, they would risk both major backlash at a national level and pushing at the fissures within their coalition. 

Political spectacle 

Politics is about resource distribution, but it is also about theatre—rousing speeches, symbolic actions. This theatre is especially important for more powerful and removed offices like the presidency. These displays balance democratic access and humility with the seriousness and power of public office. They are necessary and important. But in contemporary US politics, theatre and spectacle threaten to overtake serious debate. 

Twenty-first century politics, with its hyper-partisanship, its ubiquitous media and its celebrity figures is poised to focus more on spectacle than ever before. In retrospect, the 2008 election served as an important turning point for the role of political spectacle. Both Obama and Sarah Palin represented candidates not seen before, and Obama’s entire family—both his lineage and his own wife and children—were brought out to symbolise a particular vision of America. But the entire show turned out to be short on specific plans. In many key areas, the change the Obama administration brought was minimal or insufficient. 

On the left, superficial displays in favour of systemic change are followed by cautious, focus-grouped half measures. 

Real political pathologies have emerged on the right. Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein has been pointing out for years that the GOP is post-policy. In an interview in 2016 with political scientist Katherine Cramer about her book The Politics of Resentment, the product of years of conversations with voters in rural Wisconsin, I asked her what the people she spoke to wanted: policies, resources, revitalised towns? Very little in the way of specific demands, she answered—illustrating the essence of resentment politics. 

Political spectacle has combined with resentment to create a politics that is fundamentally disconnected from any serious debates about policy. Trump mastered the politics of spectacle, winning office on rallies, promises to restore America’s greatness and verbal displays of toughness. But Trump’s initial run for office represented variations on the presidential spectacle theme. Political scientist Bruce Miroff identifies Ronald Reagan as a master of presidential spectacle, highlighting the administration’s use of the invasion of Grenada to claim that America was once again “standing tall,” and carefully controlling the narrative surrounding that decision. 

Imagery and rhetoric have long helped presidents define the values associated with their administrations. But it was in Trump’s re-election campaign that the clues to an entirely spectacle-driven future could be found. In 2020, the GOP simply declined to create a new party platform, choosing instead to simply renew the platform from 2016 and endorse the president’s second-term agenda. Party platforms may not be binding but they have, in modern American politics, become 80-page behemoths devoted to laying out broad party principles on issues and detailed viewpoints on policies important to interest groups. The decision not to issue a platform in 2020 was an abandonment of any pretense of doing the hard work of governing, and the commitment to plans and processes that it entails.

The 2020 Republican convention similarly prized spectacle over policy in a new way. While modern conventions are hardly known for their substance, the 2020 spectacle served to muddle and distract. Presumably in response to criticism of his immigration policies, Trump signed naturalisation papers for immigrants at the White House, and held the convention’s final fireworks on the South Lawn. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo addressed the convention remotely while on an official diplomatic trip, possibly violating the Hatch Act. Many commentators noted the encroachment of campaign practices into the business of governance, in violation of the law. But the implications were even larger, allowing the logic of campaigning to overtake the imperatives of governance. In other words, the spectacle has replaced consistent principles and commitment to governing ideas.  

While Trump’s spectacle-driven approach to the presidency and to electoral politics had their roots in business as usual, they seem to have set the country, and specifically the GOP, down a very specific path. Spectacle always distracts and distorts, and thus has a little bit of bad faith at its core. But its political uses have turned a corner. Political science research has found that members of Congress are devoting increased resources to communication rather than policy staff. Some version of the Ohio GOP Senate primary took place on Twitter, in which JD Vance and Josh Mandel compete for who can generate more attention with their culture warrior stances. The point is not hypocrisy. People change their stances or behave inconsistently with their words, even with their own past actions. The point is that a highly developed political conversation exists without even pretending to address the many pressing issues facing the country. 

The extreme political theatre of the Senate confirmation hearings for judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in March 2022 further illustrates how spectacle has replaced serious politics. The senator for Texas Ted Cruz used his time to quiz Brown Jackson about her position on the book Antiracist Baby and her views on CRT. The kicker? Cruz’s children attend a school that emphasises some of the same anti-racism pedagogy castigated at the hearing—which, again, was for a Supreme Court justice and not a principal at an elementary school. 

Are these tendencies strictly a problem of the right and the Republican Party? The same dynamics that keep Democrats from consolidating power also prevent them from relying too heavily on spectacle as a substitute for a policy agenda. The patchwork Democratic coalition does demand policy accomplishments. The Democrats have other problems as well—their coalition and their leadership are frequently at odds, and they campaign on promises of systemic change and often find themselves forced to govern in ways that rock the boat only minimally. 

The other question is whether the fever will break. To some extent, the reliance on spectacle is at odds with the turn toward consolidating power. A party that is both intent on maximising its domestic power and trivialising its political message will have to reconcile these two impulses—or become an authoritarian party untethered by governing ideas, ideological boundaries or accountability to its voters. 

Fears for the future 

How bad can we expect American politics to get over the next few years or presidential cycles? 

There are several serious, structural problems that are not going to be easy to overcome. Each grows out of a set of political forces that were in place before Trump, but were exacerbated or transformed by his presidency. Especially concerning for advocates of American democracy is the sense that government accountability has been abandoned as both an aspirational value and purpose of the political process. We have seen this in big ways, such as the two failed Trump impeachments and the slow-moving process of holding high-profile 6th January participants accountable. But we also see it in the smaller ways, in the consolidation of power, the promotion of white supremacy and racism and the substitution of spectacle over real policy. 

Some observers have suggested that American politics is self-correcting—that the pendulum will inevitably swing toward centrist, reasonable and pluralistic policies. This approach neglects the work required for democracy to function. 

In that work, we can find reasons for hope. Periods of democratisation in the US have featured chaos and conflict. This includes the civil rights era of the 1960s, marked by intense political violence, the civil war and the early republic. A record number of women, LGBT+ people and people of color hold positions of power. The brutal response to these developments signals the degree to which they threaten established political power. It is also easy to overlook the vibrant civil society that sustains the nation along with its governing institutions. Authoritarian regimes rarely feature such extensive civil society ties. 

Unlike any point in our own past, the US has the potential for a multi-racial coalition with the potential to win national majorities—as it did in 2020. This coalition is fragile, subject to the whims of messaging and of economic fortunes that have been slow to align. The country emerged slowly from the Great Recession of 2008, only to suffer from a Covid-19 recession and, now, amid record-low unemployment, record levels of inflation. Inequality and precarity threaten the potential for broad coalition-building. But the potential is still there. 

The troubles with American democracy are deep and concerning. Some of the main threats to the nation’s pluralistic democracy emanate from problems deep in its history and fundamental to its Constitutional structure. The 2020 election affirmed, in part, a desire on the part of the American public to return to a state of “normal”—of a politics that is both milder in tone and more inclusive and bound by institutions. Yet events since that election have shown that achieving these goals requires a more radical departure from our current path—and a restoration of so-called normal politics will require extraordinary effort. 

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