Behind the ongoing investigations into former U.S. President Donald Trump’s and others’ roles in the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot—and in the attack on American democracy it was a part of—there’s a broader context: Across the United States, 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 plummeted to the extent that 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. To Way, U.S. democracy isn’t necessarily in decline so much as it’s entered an era of ongoing instability. Republicans’ increasing willingness to abandon democratic rules—which now includes trying to subvert the outcome of an entire presidential election—has been stressing the capacity of the American democratic system. But, Way says, the United States has sources of democratic strength that can keep it from falling into the rank of authoritarian democracies like Hungary or lower. What’s unclear even to Way, though, is how the U.S. can ultimately bring itself out of this era of instability, given how much of it is grounded in existential fears among so many Republican voters about the country and their place in it.

Michael Bluhm: How do you understand the health of American democracy right now?

Lucan Way: The biggest challenge to it right now comes, in my view, from the fact that one of its two major parties has become functionally authoritarian. There are a number of challenges, certainly, but this is the biggest. It puts the United States in the category of an unstable democracy. It puts the regime structure of the United States fundamentally in question.

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