How Much Danger Is American Democracy In?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s Politics Chat. The transcript below has been edited slightly.

Sarah (Sarah Frostenson, Politics Editor): A lot of pro-Trump rioters on Wednesday attacked the US Capitol when Congress met to confirm the 2020 presidential election results. But as shocking as Wednesday’s events were, in many ways they marked the culmination of the last four years of Trump’s presidency.

President Trump has long spat lies to his followers about the election, until recently rejected admitand has routinely shown his contempt for both the integrity of the American elections and its tradition a peaceful transfer of power. And just before the chaos broke out on Wednesday, Trump was just finished urged his supporters to protest the congressional vote to confirm the election resultsand told them “[Y]You will never retake our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. “The Capitol was attacked within an hour.

This violent episode raises many questions about the future of democracy in America – not only about its continued health, but also about the extent to which the US has already become less democratic. First, let’s unpack that question by delving into this data point: Polls show the majority of Americans condemned what happened on Wednesday, but several Republican voters support it. What does this say about the current state of democracy in the US?

jennifer.mccoy (Jennifer McCoy, Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University): It shows that Americans are terribly divided about the perception of democracy itself – including whether it is even threatened and who is responsible for the threat. That does it extremely difficult to propose solutions. However, it’s important to remember that 15 percent of the population, maybe 20 percent, said they tolerated the violence.

lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow at New America and contributor to FiveThirtyEight): Democracy requires parties that commit to free and fair elections and accept the outcome – even if they lose. So if the dominant position in the Republican Party is that the only free and fair elections are those where Republicans win and everything else is “stolen” and fraudulent, then we are on the brink of no democracy.

But as Jennifer said, the only silver lining here is that the vast majority of Americans reject the anti-democratic rhetoric of Trump and his allies. This is important.

cyrus.samii (Cyrus Samii, Professor of Politics at New York University): I find it helpful to put this moment in a broader historical context because I think there are two trends at play here. First, Decades of mobilization and a struggle for a more democratic, inclusive society has led to generational changes in American politics, including more women, people of color and other long-excluded groups who now have a seat at the table. That made our politics more inclusive and democratic, but there is a second trend here – a politics of resentment The can’t tolerate these growing diversity. That mindset is particularly widespread within the Republican Partyand part of what Van Jones from CNN called a “whitelash”, or conservative white Christian Americans who are mobilizing against the kind of progress that embodies President Barack Obama’s term in office. The Atlantic Adam Serwer also wrote about the pendulum that swings between the moments of Progress on inclusion and white resistance.

Last Wednesday embodied this dynamic within a few hours: we had the historic election of two Democratic senators in Georgia, followed by a mob, including a number of white supremacists, who looted the Capitol on behalf of Trump, and most of the Republicans have no date willing to do a lot about it.

jennifer.mccoy: Yes, and I think the question now is whether this unwillingness to condemn the mob or call on their colleagues who uphold the myth of a “stolen election” is the dominant position in the Republican Party or just a faction that is contained can be .

Sarah: Do we have a sense of what drives these attitudes?

jennifer.mccoy: The politics of resentment that a number of scholars have written about, including Kathy Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, who has written definitive books on the subject, derives from the perceptions of injustice or injustice that accompany diversification of the job or community and alter the structures of power that Cyrus spoke about. The urban-rural divide in American politics illustrates this. Rural Americans, mostly Republicans, perceive more democratic and racially diverse city dwellers to be more than their “fair share” of tax revenues and opportunities. Given the stagnation in wages and the growing service-oriented economy, white men in particular without a university degree feel a Loss of social status this can lead to anger and support for more authoritarian politics. For this reason, “identity politics” is more of an issue for the GOP than it is for the Democratic Party. What is particularly worrying here, however, is that the political rhetoric from politicians and media personalities genuinely engenders latent resentment to create the politics of outrage we saw last Wednesday. Republicans have gone further than Democrats defamatory language and to paint terrible scenarios when the “radical, liberal, socialist democrats ”and their“ anarchic mobs ”take over.

lee.drutman: Take what Vice President Mike Pence said at the Republican National Convention this summer to elaborate on Jennifer’s position on politicians who are driving part of it. He said that the election was about “whether America will remain America.“These are incredibly high stakes. So when you add this type of rhetoric to our electoral system, you have a recipe for a very disgruntled minority who believe the system is against them. As we saw last Wednesday, one answer is to take matters into your own hands through violence.

We also know that opposition to democracy is much stronger among Republicans, who believe political scientist Larry Bartels called “ethnic antagonism”, a measure of “unfavorable feelings towards Muslims, immigrants and other outside groups … [and] Concerns about the Political and Social Claims of These Groups ”in his research.

The following graph is extremely striking because it shows that the higher the level of ethnic antagonism among Republicans, the more likely they are not to trust the election results, to use violence as an alternative, and to support authoritarian positions. (Bartels “normalizes” the distribution so that half of Republicans are above zero on the ethnic antagonism scale, and then presents the data in two ways – using statistical analysis to estimate the values ​​(left) and reporting the actual data in the limited sample (right)).) Overall, however, the takeaway is clear: Bartels finds a worryingly high level of support for these feelings among Republicans.

Sarah: Is what happened on Wednesday a somewhat anticipated consequence of what happens when a significant portion of the electorate loses confidence in our elections and institutions?

jennifer.mccoy: The research we have does not necessarily show that loss of confidence in elections and institutions leads to violence. For example, it can have effects such as withdrawal and political apathy. We saw this in Venezuela when the opposition subsequently shouted fraud with no evidence lose a referendum Remove President Hugo Chavez in 2004. They struggled to find supporters in the gubernatorial elections and then called for a boycott in the 2005 general election by giving Chavez’s party total control and allowing them to nominate loyalists to all Venezuelan political institutions. It took the Venezuelans another decade to mobilize to regain the legislature, but by that point Chavez’s successor was balanced more authoritarian and remains in power today.

However, if political rhetoric stirs violence, uses demonizing and dehumanizing language, and glorifies martial language, then supporters are likely to use violence because they believe their leaders are calling for it, as we saw last Wednesday.

lee.drutman: Jennifer’s argument on political rhetoric is extremely important. The level of nativism or anti-immigration sentiment was for some time the population has remained roughly the same. But there are character that it has become a much stronger partisan issue in the world last decade or so how Trump and other Republicans played with rhetorical fire. It is true that far-right leaders have fueled this problem in several Western democracies, and as the graph below shows, this is evident among Republicans in the US.

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jennifer.mccoy: And the future of the Republican Party is absolutely critical to what happens to US democracy. Early signs after Jan 6 are not encouraging – the party Trump’s hand-picked candidates for the RNC, Chairman Ronna McDaniel and Co-Chairman Tommy Hicks, were re-electedand many party leaders have too I avoided being accountable for TrumpInstead, it is said that if we have to unite, this will continue to divide the country.

Sarah: Some historians have argued that if there is no accountability it will all escalate. Is that correct? What do you all think of the implications for the progress of democracy on Wednesday?

cyrus.samii: If there is no accountability, the lesson for Republicans will be that they can continue to use illiberal means to control power. And on the left, this could play into the hands of those who would say there is no point in sticking to liberal institutional processes if the other side doesn’t. In other words, a clear recipe for escalation.

jennifer.mccoy: And when there is no accountability for what happened on Wednesday, organized citizens, as well as the next generation of political leaders, will be given permission to embark on the same thing – or worse. Political learning is a real thing and it can be positive or negative.

If Congress or others fail to act, the path remains open to Trump (and everyone else) to act with impunity, run again for office, or support future acts of violence. Congress has the ability to indict Trump and take the extra step of banning him from running again, and the power to blame and even disqualify members of Congress for spreading the same disinformation about the election and against certification of the results in two states agreed. This is important as the failure to condemn Trump’s exclusive and hateful rhetoric used in his presidency means that it could be a viable political way to address the fears, anxieties and resentments of a segment of the electorate.

Sarah: Let’s take a step back. In November, New Yorker Andrew Marantz wrote an article about How civil resistance can deter authoritarian leaders from consolidating their powerComparison of the events in the United States under Trump with other parts of the world. “In the past 15 years, what scholars of international relations call a” democratic relapse “has increased significantly around the world,” wrote Marantz, “with more authoritarian and authoritarian leaders consolidating power.” To what extent is there a democratic relapse in the US?

lee.drutman: If democracy depends on a set of common rules for free and fair elections, we are definitely in a relapse.

cyrus.samii: I don’t know, the term “democratic relapse” is problematic in my opinion in that it does not clarify what the conflict is in the US between them With democratic means achieving progressive change (and in some moments being successful) compared to those who want to fight back against this change by undermining democracy. The fact is, great strides are being made through the ballot box, with the US Senate runoff election in Georgia being a prime example, and it is for this very reason that Republicans seek to pose obstacles to its widespread use. Republicans tried Disenfranchised minority votersfor example, and these efforts are subject to heated litigation.

Sarah: As Cyrus said, democratic relapse may be too toothless, but how would we describe the path of democracy in the US? Are we less democratic than a year ago? Four years ago?

jennifer.mccoy: According to international rankings, US democracy is waning faster than in other large western democracies – according to the global think tank, it is more comparable to Brazil, Bangladesh, Turkey and India Democracy Report 2020 by the V-Dem Institute. The Economist Intelligence Unit The US was also downgraded to a flawed democracy in 2016. Expert surveys by political scientists such as Bright Line Watch and Authoritarian warning pollalso measure higher threats.

Each of these groups measure democracy by different measures – electoral integrity, rule of law, media and academic freedom, civil liberties, to name a few. But one measure I would like to enlarge is “Toxic Polarization” (what I call “harmful polarization “ in my research with Murat Somer), as we have found, it is particularly de-legitimizing and on the rise. In essence, this is the case when society is divided into two mutually suspicious camps and the demonization and delegitimization of opponents increases. Our research has shown that this can often lead to calls for violence.

This is also used by V-Dem in its reviews. It was found in a 2020 paper that the Republican Party was at its new level with autocratic parties in Turkey, India and Hungary Illiberalism Index, especially in the use of demonizing language to describe political opponents, the disregard for basic minority rights and the promotion of political violence.

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lee.drutman: (If you are interested in how these different surveys rate the quality of a country’s democracy, here is the information below A great paper that describes the different ways they measure democracy – overview table below.)

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Sarah: It is true that polls after polls, as you have all said, Republicans have expressed less support for democracy than Democrats, but I was hoping we could do a little more with the debilitating effect this had on American democracy unpacking.

For example, after the protests in Portland, Oregon last summer, Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight and Shom Mazumder found evidence that members of both parties held anti-democratic views.

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As the graph shows, this was particularly true of Republicans, so I’m not trying to do this “both sides”, but I want to unpack the effects of strong polarization on democratic erosion. How can you account for polarization as you look at how the US has become less democratic? Is it the most important factor in what we see? Or is that too simple?

cyrus.samii: The breakdown by parties is just the right view. Democrats are embroiled in a bottom-up battle to widen political inclusion, while Republicans struggled to limit it, including in last year’s election. So it is not so much a question of a democratic relapse at the country level, but of whether the parties see themselves as democratically competitive or whether they have to use anti-democratic strategies in order to maintain their influence.

lee.drutman: Jennifer’s work on harmful polarization is incredibly important here and has really influenced my thinking. When politics becomes deeply split in a binary way on cultural and identity lines (as is the case now in the US) then democracy is in a really dangerous place.

jennifer.mccoy: And that kind of polarization is there rather lead to democratic erosion because it is based on a “us versus them” division, not just disagreements on issues.

lee.drutman: On this chart, Sarah, showing support for strong leader / army rule, I co-authored two recent reports on the subject: one in 2018 and another in 2020. And it is true that we have found support for these alternatives to democracy on both sides, which is worrying. But again overwhelming majority of Americans support democratic institutions.

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But this is where political leadership is so important. The fact that some voters have weak ties to democracy is not a new problem. Actually, Research has found This is typical of those who are least educated and least politically active. The new problem is a political leadership that encourages and stirs up these anti-democratic sentiments.

jennifer.mccoy: And when the partisan antipathy increases, the perception of the threat from third parties increases, and that leads people to it to question democratic norms to keep their own party in power and keep the others out.

cyrus.samii: The way I interpret the question, Sarah, is: How is polarization affecting Republican thinking, whether to abandon the strategy of limiting democratic processes in order to retain their power instead of looking for new coalitions to expand their attractiveness and strengthen themselves? democratically competitive?

In other words, it is about the strategy that the Republicans are pursuing. With that in mind, increased polarization – by which I mean distancing oneself from outgroups and dehumanizing them – could perpetuate Republicans’ fixation on restricting democracy as they cannot envision new alliances with people outside their traditional whites Christian base close.

lee.drutman: Cyrus – that is the central question, but I think there is a significant division among Republicans. Let me rephrase your question a bit: what do Republicans who want to build a more inclusive, democratic party need to triumph over those who subscribe to ethnonationalism and complaint?

cyrus.samii: Yes, Lee, exactly.

lee.drutman: And as long as we view this as a zero-sum battle between Democrats and Republicans, we are stuck. But if we look at this in terms of the forces of democracy versus the forces of ethnonationalism (or whatever you want to call it), I think we can make some progress.

Sarah: Are there any institutional changes (electoral college abolition, Senate reform, etc.) that would strengthen American democracy or make it less prone to similar challenges in the future?

lee.drutman: I wrote a lot about what would happen if the US moves to a more proportional voting systemand I think that would allow a center-right party to act independently of a far-right party. It could also allow for a broader ruling coalition that could keep the right wing out of the government, as happened in lots Western film Democracies with more proportional voting systems.

And maybe we’re seeing this a little in the US. That said, I could see a pro-Democracy faction within the Republican Party joining forces with Democrats to support electoral reforms (such as the law on fair representation, part of electoral reform legislation that would establish multi-member districts with voting rights).

cyrus.samii: Institutional changes to the electoral college or Senate would certainly make a difference as these institutions are part of what Republicans are currently relying on in the anti-democratic aspects of their strategy. But changing politically is probably too difficult.

For example, if Texas turns blue, for example, these institutions will of course have the opposite effect, locking out Republicans – unless they change who they can attract. Also, Sarah, I think the idea that “general trends are pointing to increasing illiberalism” only applies when it comes to strategies Republicans use to keep their power in control, not in terms of that democratic politics of the US as a whole.

lee.drutman: Yes, changing the electoral college or senate would require constitutional changes. Interestingly, however, it is entirely within the power of Congress to establish proportional representation.

jennifer.mccoy: I want to come back to an earlier point on how we got here. I have written with Somer on how democracies could solve this dilemma by “repolarizing” democratically against authoritarian principles, and what we found is very similar to Lee and Cyrus’s point about inclusive movements versus exclusive ethno-nationalist movements. This means that shifting the axes of polarization to the principle of protecting democracy instead of a gap between different party-political and social identities could actually help protect democracy, as long as this is not done with demonizing or hyperbolic language.

And that’s important because, as the political scientist Daniel Ziblatt wrote, a principled conservative or center-right party is essential for a functioning democracy. Even President-elect Joe Biden did reaffirmed the need for a Republican Party for the health of our democracy. The problem is that our two-party system is currently submerged in toxic polarization and therefore the extreme elements within the parties are intensifying. We need institutional reforms to provide political incentives for change.

lee.drutman: I think the events of January 6th were a tremendous wake-up call to many of the urgency of democratic reform.

cyrus.samii: It was certainly a wake-up call, Lee. I also think the incredibly tumultuous times current 18- to 35-year-olds have been through – September 11th, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, Trump’s Presidency, the events that the protests against Black Lives Matter were in this summer, and of course, COVID-19 could create a political awareness that we haven’t seen since the 1960s or 70s.

lee.drutman: Cyrus – yes, there are many similarities to the era of Great Society, which was the final era of the great democratic reform and included the great one Voting reform. There are also many similarities with the Progressive Era that was the previous one Era of comprehensive democratic reform.

So if you believe in political scientists Samuel Huntington’s theory that there is a 60-year cycle of democratic reform movements – that American democracy falls short of its democratic ideals about every six decades and that reform movements emerge to expand our democracy, we are Exactly according to plan.

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