Serious concerns have arisen about the continued viability of American democracy against the backdrop of the 2020 presidential elections. There are a number of reasons for alarm.
First, rising authoritarianism within the current administration is actively threatening the democratic order.
Second, a sharp rise in exclusionary identity politics has polarized society like never before.
Third, there has been a marked loss of confidence in “free and fair” elections and an orderly transfer of power as the president has cast doubt on the process.
Historically, rising authoritarianism, deep polarization, and a loss of confidence in the democratic process have resulted in anarchy, violence, and conflict in other parts of the world. Is this America’s fate?
Fortunately, there are reasons for optimism.
Authoritarianism in the US
For a dictatorship to prevail in the US, it would require a complete breakdown of the electoral process, rule of law, and freedom of speech, much like conditions that helped the rise of authoritarianism in Europe in the last century.
At a minimum, a would-be autocrat seeking to seize power in the US in a slow-motion coup d’état would need control of the public narrative, a subservient judiciary, a gagged press, and prolonged suspension of the democratic process. Such a development is possible if Americans allow the stanching of political freedoms without opposition; a highly unlikely scenario.
Institutional checks and balances, a long democratic tradition, and “American individualism” function as the main bulwarks against authoritarianism in the country.
The US has the world’s oldest democratic constitution, tested national institutions, an experienced civil service, and a critical press. There are also conscientious leaders at the national, state, and local levels.
For these reasons, the country can avoid the reversals of democracy seen elsewhere in the world in recent times.
For decades now, American democracy has maintained a stable balance within the two dominant ideologies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Ronald Reagan’s anti-government populism — citizen’s obligations to each other in pursuit of the common welfare and individual rights.
President Donald Trump’s populism is a variation of Reaganism. But it’s Trump’s “my way or the highway” style of leadership that is in sharp contrast to Reagan’s engaging, conciliatory, and inclusive style.
Today, American politics is more divided along the left and right of the political spectrum than it has ever been, with fewer centrists as Democrats displaying ever more liberal tendencies and Republicans becoming more conservative.
Despite increasing partisanship, most Americans still want politicians to work together on issues. They prefer leaders that accommodate the opposition in contrast to those who ignore bipartisanship to impose their agenda.
The entrenched two-party system, a healthy mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters, isn’t interested in a one-party, totalitarian model of governance such as in China. Unlike the Chinese model, Americans prefer a balance of democratic freedoms and economic prosperity.
There’s also no doubt that, more than in the past, identity politics growing out of a sense of victimization and distrust has polarized society and the electorate. However, this has not been enough to derail democracy in the country.
However, in a crucial election year, voters should be on guard against vested elites who pursue narrow political, social, and economic interests by exploiting the defenseless they claim to serve based on race, religion, and social status.
Another factor is that despite the pre-election propaganda, the US has engaged and informed voters who recognize the dangers to democracy from power-hungry leaders pursuing a divisive and destructive agenda. The truth is that clashes of interests and ideological tug-of-war are inevitable. Like debate, compromise, and bipartisanship, they are an integral part of a vibrant democracy.
As expected before an election, there is disagreement on “hot-button” topics such as the unequal distribution of wealth, tax cuts for the rich, cutting benefits for the poor, and universal health care. However, there is a consensus among most US voters that “endless” interventions and wars abroad are a costly mistake and that the country should focus on nation-building at home.
The continued strength of the US economy reflected in a booming stock market, low unemployment, and consistent growth helps to sustain democracy. A big caveat on the economy probably felt in years to come is the disastrous impact of COVID-19. Future economic turbulence will impact American democracy well beyond the upcoming elections.
Despite the reasons for optimism, the best way to protect and advance American democracy is to avoid complacency. Citizens and politicians must realize that it is their common interest to promote democratic norms and practices. The way forward is for engaging voters in large numbers to make their democratic choice.
Voters should cast their ballot for candidates working for a democratic society, strong institutions, decreased partisanship, and competitive elections.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.