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?

Joseph Chan

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.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in