Donald Trump and top Republican officials appear to have been serious about trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. There also appears to be a broader context for the threat to democracy this episode represents: Across the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been moving to take partisan control over local elections, whether by creating local election boards to inspect voting records or by threatening election officials with criminal punishment for counting irregular ballots. Last year, 17 Republican-controlled states passed laws restricting access to voting. For years, meanwhile, the Democratic and Republican parties have both been undermining competitive elections by drawing outlandishly shaped electoral districts designed solely to give themselves comfortable majorities. At the same time, Democratic and Republican voters have become more hostile toward one another—even more disinclined to live near or interact socially with one another. In recent years, measures of the quality of U.S. democracy have plunged to the point where the research institute Freedom House now ranks the United States below Mongolia. Where is all of this going?
Lucan Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the author of three books about authoritarianism. As Way sees it, U.S. democracy isn’t so much in decline as it is entering an age of sustained instability. Republicans’ increasing willingness to abandon democratic rules—in its most dangerous form, trying to subvert the outcome of an entire presidential election—is stressing the democratic capacity of the American system. But, Way says, the U.S. has sources of democratic strength that can keep it from falling into the ranks of authoritarian democracies like Hungary. What’s unclear even to Way, though, is how America can ultimately escape this era of sustained instability, given how much of it is grounded in Republican voters’ existential fears about the country and their place in it.
Michael Bluhm: How do you understand the health of U.S. democracy these days?
Lucan Way: The biggest challenge to it right now comes from the fact that one of its two major parties has become functionally authoritarian. That puts the United States on the level of an unstable democracy. It puts regime structure fundamentally under question. This is the central node that connects to all the current problems in American democratic life. Twenty years ago, saying this about the United States of America would have seemed insane—but now it’s an inescapable reality.
Bluhm: You’re saying that the central problem is with one political party—but also that factors connect to that central problem. People talk about polarization between the parties, for example; or structural issues, such as the disproportionate power the U.S. Senate gives to small states; or procedures in the Senate that make it difficult for a majority to pass laws; or elitism in the Democratic Party; or material factors, like the influence of donor money or increasing income inequality. Which of them do you see as most important?
Way: It’s true, there are a lot of these factors, each of which partially explains why one of the two major U.S. parties is willing to do what it’s doing. They variously contribute to a developing fear among Republicans that they won’t be able to win a presidential election democratically. Now, it’s hard to talk about this without sounding very partisan in favor of the Democrats—but any party that felt it couldn’t win a free and fair election might have a similar response. It’s not that Republicans are immoral; it’s that they tend now to feel this growing threat to their survival as a party, and that’s part of what’s behind this move into authoritarian territory with their response to the 2020 election.
That wasn’t solely because of Trump. He pushed them over the line, but it fits with the general crisis that the Republican Party is facing. They’ve only won a popular majority in one of the last eight presidential elections. They could respond to this by broadening their electorate, but instead, they’ve made a commitment to this largely white, dominantly Christian electorate that feels a demographic threat from immigration.
This commitment turns everything in politics into an existential threat. It underlines the deep partisan polarization in the U.S. today. Juan Linz and other great scholars of democratic decline from the 1970s would say that if one side feels its whole way of life is under threat from a loss in an election, then democracy is really in trouble.
Juan Linz and other great scholars of democratic decline from the 1970s would say that if one side feels its whole way of life is under threat from a loss in an election, then democracy is really in trouble.
Bluhm: How does that feeling of existential threat translate into a practical threat to democracy?
Way: The most obvious way is that a close election could now easily be overturned. I don’t expect a blowout by the Democrats would be overturned, which makes the American case still different from other unstable democracies—but 15 years ago, you would have taken it for granted that if elections were close, both parties would accept the results. And that is not the case now.
After the 2020 election, it wasn’t many officials who stood up and supported the electoral results in Republican-controlled districts where a Democrat won. Some people credit institutional resilience in those cases—but institutional resilience is about human beings. It’s not some abstract thing that emerges from the Constitution; it’s human beings who decide they’re willing to put up with harassment. And it’s not obvious that those officials are going to make the same decision again.
Bluhm: Where else do you see areas of strength or the potential for resiliency in American democracy?
Way: It’s a good question. We can’t compare the U.S. to a dictatorship like Russia, where elections are completely meaningless, or even to a place like Hungary, where elections are meaningful but there’s really no opposition to authoritarianism in the political system. The United States has core sources of strength in this regard that Russia or Hungary don’t have.
First, one of its two major political parties remains committed to democratic norms and practices, and that party is both strong and cohesive: The Democratic Party is very well funded and no one thinks it’s in danger of splitting. Some centrist Democrats complain about their progressive wing, but overall, the party is united, which is a major functional check against authoritarian tendencies in the Republican Party—and which is something you don't have in other unstable democracies.
Second, American civil society is strong. News media that hold governing powers and politicians to account are well-established. There are all sorts of NGOs that monitor what’s going on, can mobilize popular support, and would be very difficult to shut down.
Third, American federalism is strong. As bad as things might get, it is wholly implausible that one political party is going to dominate every state. You don’t have this kind of bulwark in democracies that are truly in decline.
So to say that U.S. democracy is in decline would be a little misleading. It’s not entirely wrong, but there’s a limit to it. U.S. democracy is declining, yes, but it can only decline so far, because the resilience in the system is ultimately very powerful. Democracy in America is now unstable. Instability is the best word for the condition.
U.S. democracy is declining, yes, but it can only decline so far, because the resilience in the system is ultimately very powerful. Democracy in America is now unstable. Instability is the best word for the condition.
Bluhm: To what extent do you see Donald Trump as a cause of this instability, or to what extent do you see him as a symptom?
Way: He was definitely not the cause. The causes are much more long-term and structural, going back to the polarization that emerged out of the civil-rights movement. Since then, the Republican Party has become a largely white, dominantly Christian party, and that—combined with demographic shifts—has fostered a sense of existential threat and a fundamental fear about survival.
That was there long before Trump. For example, Republicans made efforts since the early 2000s to restrict the right to vote at the state level. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also made efforts to attack the core, informal institutions that surround democracy—specifically with his decision to not allow Senate confirmation hearings for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in March 2016, eight months before the presidential election.
This is the context for Donald Trump. He’s not a strategic genius; he just came into the Republican Party with a political formula that could take some of its preexisting tendencies to a new level. Historically, many found it easy to believe that the Republican electorate just cared about cutting taxes. But a large segment really cared about identity politics.
That allowed Trump to activate a still relatively latent impulse in the Republican Party to question free and fair elections that didn’t go their way; and it allowed him to activate a relatively latent racism in the Republican Party’s white, Christian base. Before Trump, Republican politicians thought that they could only approach racial issues with a “dog whistle,” a notion that came from Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. The idea is that you evoke race in an indirect way that doesn’t alienate people who want to think of themselves as non-racist. In 1968, Nixon talked about crime and “law and order.” In 1980, Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens.” But Trump just came out with directly racist rhetoric, and it struck a vein.
Bluhm: When you refer to effects of the civil-rights movement, you’re thinking of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to lure into the Republican Party Southern whites who were unhappy about the Democratic Party’s support for Black civil rights?
Way: Yes. Which brings up another factor that’s tremendously important. Democracy is stable when there are members of the same demographic groups in both parties. For example, you might have union members who could support the Democratic Party for one reason but are also susceptible to Republican appeals. But the U.S. electorate has divided more starkly around regional—urban versus rural—religious, and generational lines, so it becomes less costly for Republican leaders to make overtly racist appeals.
The Republican Party has become a largely white, dominantly Christian party, and that—combined with demographic shifts—has fostered a sense of existential threat and a fundamental fear about survival.
When Nixon was doing it, he had racist Southern voters, but he still had to maintain the support of urban Republicans who didn’t want to see themselves as racist. That made him use the dog whistle. But now they don’t have to worry about urban Republicans, and they don’t have to limit their rhetoric. The polarization of the electorate changes the cost-benefit calculation for making overtly racist appeals.
Bluhm: What do you make of the findings of the January 6th Committee so far?
Way: They highlight the uncertainty of the moment. They highlight the extent to which things could and can still go in different directions. They highlight the role of a few individuals who prevented things from getting much worse on January 6th. If those people had a little less moral fortitude, you might not have had a stolen election, but you would have had a much more severe constitutional crisis. The hearings emphasize, to me, that if there is a rerun of this scenario—which there almost certainly will be at some level—things could go very differently.
Bluhm: Some quantitative measures of democracy show that both parties have moved toward more extreme ideological positions over the last couple of decades. For example, some Democrats on the left have taken illiberal positions on free speech. To what extent do you think that movement by the Democratic Party toward the left might have exacerbated the same trend among Republicans?
Way: I think the idea is largely misdirected. What’s driving the Republicans isn’t a reaction to what Democrats do, but a fundamental fear for their own survival—which is much more powerful. Fear of being wiped out and never winning power again is going to be a much more powerful motivator than getting annoyed at a Democrat like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It is true that there are illiberal parts of the broader left coalition—people who want to control speech or shut down free expression—but that’s outside the Democratic Party. It’s far from the Democratic leadership. So you wouldn’t want to suggest an equivalency: On the Republican side, you have officials in the White House supporting white-supremacist ideas and even working with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Proud Boys. On the Democratic side, you have powerless activists in universities—who are actually opposed to the Democratic establishment—saying wacky things. I feel frustrated by leftist campus activists, personally. I don’t think they’re very important, but they make it easy for interests like Fox News to say otherwise.