Source: AUN News
The investigations of the Capitol Hill uprising on January 6, 2021, show just how close the United States was to overthrowing its democratic system. Last year, Donald Trump and his allies jeopardized the peaceful transfer of power that has long been a hallmark of American history, and it required a lot of work from many people to survive. Unsettling testimony over the past few weeks revealed coordinated attempts to elect Electoral College electors who did not support the candidate who received the most votes in the popular poll, as well as lawyers who encouraged the vice president who was in office at the time to overturn 200 years of constitutional tradition by believing that he alone could determine the winner of the election.
But concentrating only on Donald Trump’s contribution to these initiatives would be a mistake. In Power Politics: Trump and the Assault on American Democracy, my book from the Brookings Institution Press, I make the case that there are several systemic threats to the future of democracy, including imitative candidates, legal takeovers, a toxic information ecosystem, the deterioration of reputable institutions, and the pervasiveness of counter-majoritarianism in our political system. Trump poses an existential danger to the way things are now, but there are other problems the nation must deal with as well.
Candidates who are clones
The growth of imitative candidates that mirror Trump’s behavior and support his anti-democratic strategies is one of the issues we currently face. The Big Lie concerning 2020 election fraud was promoted by potential presidential candidates Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley, as well as dozens of congressional contenders. Some Republicans have even shown a willingness to choose electors who disregard the winner of a state’s popular vote.
Trump’s example of using unethical tactics to engage in power politics has to be one of his biggest mistakes. He has served as a role model for many nationwide candidates because of his unconventional actions that called into question the validity of the 2020 results and his ongoing efforts to sway Republicans in favor of the far-right. Many Republican candidates are imitating Trump’s strategies and leading the nation towards illiberalism rather than recognizing him as a dangerous demagogue threatening our democratic system.
Investigations into the 2020 election’s aftermath also point to several legal coup opportunities caused by flaws in the current legal system. Using tools like the Electoral Count Act, emergency authority declarations, the Insurrection Act, and vote modifications that disproportionately favor one political party, leaders can take advantage of legal loopholes and appoint themselves to positions of power by undemocratic means.
The Electoral Count Act, for instance, is ambiguous on essential topics, including whether state legislatures have the authority to appoint electors who do not support the winning candidate in an election, how to handle accusations of ballot fraud, and the vice president’s role in election verification. Congress must make these points clear early away to prevent unsafe results in that campaign, given the possibility that there will be significant controversy surrounding the impending 2024 elections.
The Insurrection Act and emergency authority declarations both present similar opportunities for mischief. The former enables presidents to declare national emergencies and exercise unilateral power in certain areas. Congress cannot reverse the majority of these decisions, and the chief executives must reveal the proclamation and give a brief justification. Early in the country’s history, the Insurrection Act was passed to give the president authority to handle popular uprisings like Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and conflicts with indigenous communities. Without the consent of Congress, presidents could use state or federal military forces to quell anything from large-scale uprisings to widespread protests.
Voting modifications that favor one party over another could skew democratic elections. For instance, several states have passed legislation that makes it harder for voters from disadvantaged groups to cast ballots or have taken administrative measures to slash the number of polling stations in minority communities. These actions systematically benefit Republicans while hurting voters who have historically supported Democrats. The next election is unlikely to be decided by tanks and troops in the traditional coup fashion. Still, legal amendments or statutory loopholes may rig the results in favor of a particular party and make legal coups possible.
An Ecosystem of Toxic Information
The current information environment makes it easy to spread misinformation, disinformation, and outright propaganda that distorts voter representation and leadership accountability. Algorithms widely disseminate false information to millions of people and convince them to cast ballots in ways contrary to their self-interest or further internal political divisions. Leadership accountability requires voters to access reliable information, but the prevalence of fake news and false information undermines democratic elections and endangers the system as a whole. We see these risks not just with elections but with misleading information about mask mandates, among other things, vaccination requirements and climate change. These weaknesses in our information ecology undermine people’s sovereignty and hurt democracy.
The Fall of Authoritarian Institutions
News organizations, colleges, non-profits, and think tanks are critical to democratic institutions. Still, they are under attack as experts are discredited, and organizations whose goals are to hold leaders accountable and uphold democratic values are targeted. Threats to academic freedom make it harder for professors to pass on knowledge to the next generation and assist students in developing critical reasoning abilities. These attacks undercut accountability and hinder system performance by delegitimizing knowledge sector entities. The erosion of civil society makes addressing fundamental issues such as gun safety, climate change, and wealth inequality impossible.
The Pervasiveness of Anti-Majoritarianism
The political structure of the United States allows for the obstruction of large-scale popular movements by tiny groups of people. This disease, known as “counter-majoritarianism,” describes institutions that overrepresent some groups at the expense of others. The US Senate, which disproportionately represents small- and medium-sized states, is one of the most prominent examples. Due to the equal distribution of senators per state, Wyoming, which has a 581,000 population, and California, which has 39 million residents, have two senators.
A similar issue is that small and medium-sized states are overrepresented in the Electoral College. It makes it possible for candidates who come in last in the popular vote to win the presidency by winning several minor states. Since 1992, Republican presidential candidates have only won the popular vote once (in 2004), yet they have held the presidency for nearly half of that period.
Republican policy is imposed, the federal judiciary is stacked, and they control government operations thanks to the political triumph made possible by counter-majoritarianism. Voters get skeptical about Congress’ inaction when votes on bills backed by significant numbers of voters stalemate. Stopping or delaying action that most voters desire undermines public trust in politics and the government’s legitimacy. Together, these ills undermine democracy and seriously endanger the future of the United States.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network