Democratic Backsliding in the U.S.

Democratic backsliding

Democratic backsliding has been ongoing in the U.S. since the late 2010s. The V-Dem Institute’s electoral democracy index score for the United States peaked in 2015 and declined sharply after 2016, for which year it was also downgraded to ‘flawed democracy’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit in its annual ‘Democracy Index’ report. Both V-Dem and Freedom House downgraded the United States in 2018.

Iranian–German sociologist Behrouz Alikhani cites the government following the interests of global corporations rather than citizens and loosening of campaign finance laws, especially the ‘Citizens United’ decision, to enable the wealthy greater influence in politics. Political scientist Wendy Brown argued in 2006 that the United States was de-democratizing because of neoliberalism and neoconservatism. In a 2021 book, historian Karen J. Greenberg argued that policies adopted during the war on terror enabled later democratic backsliding under the Trump administration.

Democracy is a form of government where majority of citizens vote to rule. Free and fair elections, universal suffrage, protection of civil rights is based on the vote of the majority, and the rule of law which the majority decides the law. Robert Mickey, an associate professor who studies American political history, believes that the United States only became a proper democracy after the federal government ended the one-party, authoritarian enclaves of the Southern states, which had been characterized by majority rule ‘state-mandated segregation, the disenfranchisement of Blacks and many whites, and restrictions on multiparty competition with state-sanctioned violence.’ Although, Mickey believes that there were obstacles to fair, multiparty electoral competition in some states and localities until the 1980s.

According to constitutional law scholar Aziz Z. Huq, the primary causes of democratic backsliding are: ‘(1) the incomplete democratization of national institutions created in 1787; (2) a half century of rising inequalities in wealth, market power, and political influence; and (3) a resurgence of intolerant, authoritarian, white-ethnic identity politics associated with the Republican Party.’ Huq argues that the Supreme Court can be a vector of democratic backsliding by enabling these trends to connect and helping entrench political power in a permanent minority insulated from democratic competition. However since the Constitution has delegated States with fixed representation regardless of population in the Senate, The House of Representatives was established as a bicameral legislative body with the Senate, so by this very Constitutional requirement prevents the United State of America from being a Democracy. The United States Supreme Court role is to check the powers of the legislative and executive branch of government.

Robert Mickley and Ashley Jardina wrote in their article ‘White Racial Solidarity and Opposition to American Democracy’ that during the twenty-first century, voting rights eroded away and partisan gerrymandering by state legislatures increased. These scholars, alongside a doctor of philosophy named Robert Rowland, wrote that during the presidency of Donald Trump the undermining of democratic norms would be accelerated. A paper published in ‘The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science’ said, ‘Trump undermined faith in elections, encouraged political violence, vilified the mainstream media, positioned himself as a law-and-order strongman challenging immigrants and suppressing protests, and refused to denounce support from far-right groups.’ After Joe Biden won the 2020 United States presidential election, Trump supporters attempted to overturn the election, including during the 2021 United States Capitol attack.

The Roberts Court has never struck down an election law for infringing suffrage or Equal Protection rights. On the other hand, it struck down the ‘Voting Rights Act’ preclearance regime in ‘Shelby County v. Holder’ (2013), which existed to prevent disenfranchisement by states. It has also not acted on partisan gerrymandering. As a whole, according to Huq, these changes shift the institutional equilibrium to ‘enable the replication of the system of one-party dominance akin to one that characterized the American South for much of the twentieth century.’

In 2019, political scientists Robert R. Kaufman and Stephan Haggard saw ‘striking parallels in terms of democratic dysfunction, polarization, the nature of autocratic appeals, and the processes through which autocratic incumbents sought to exploit elected office’ in the United States under Trump compared to other backsliding countries (Venezuela, Turkey, and Hungary). They argue that a change to competitive authoritarianism is possible but unlikely. In 2020, Kurt Weyland presented a qualitative model for assessing democratic continuity and reversal using historical data from the experience of other countries. His study concluded that the United States is immune to democratic reversal. In 2021, political scientists Matias López and Juan Pablo Luna criticized his methodology and selection of parameters and argued that both democratic continuity and reversal are possible. With regard to the state of scholarly research on the subject, they wrote that ‘the probability of observing democratic backsliding in the United States remains an open and important question.’

One survey between 2017 and 2019 found that a third of Americans want a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections,’ and one-quarter had a favorable view of military rule. A research study administered in 2019 found an association between support for Trump and support for executive aggrandizement. Republicans are more likely to support a candidate who suspends Congress or ignores court verdicts. Multiple studies have found that support for democracy among white Americans is negatively correlated with their level of racial prejudice or racial resentment, and that ‘support for antidemocratic authoritarian governance is associated with some whites’ psychological attachment to their racial group and a desire to maintain their group’s power and status in the face of multiracial democracy.’ Black voters however are not a monolithic voter group, but hold independent scholarly views.

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