Editor’s note: This column is from one of the participants in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which is being held virtually this year. It runs from Tuesday through Friday. For details, go to worldaffairsconference.org.
Journalists, academics and experts have explored whether the Trump presidency heralds the end of democracy in the United States. Even with Donald Trump’s defeat, some fret about the growing authoritarian forces within the Republican Party. Did the 2020 election mark the beginning of the end for democracy in America?
Americans often view their country as exceptional; perhaps in some ways it is. Greek-Americans, who most Americans now consider white, can embrace Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Black Greek sports star as authentically Greek even if some whites in Greece cannot fathom how a Black man born in Greece can be Greek. For many Americans, birthright citizenship and the image of an immigrant nation are powerful concepts, even when they overlook the long American history of genocide, forced migration and slave labor that built the nation.
The United States is the world’s oldest constitutional democracy; but others such as Iceland have much older legislatures. Our democracy has an enormous electorate but not as large as India’s. And more voters stumped for the winner of Brazil’s 2002 election than voted for Al Gore two years earlier. The U.S. government permitted women to vote a century ago, but New Zealand passed women’s suffrage three decades earlier. Black citizens gained the full right to vote in the United States 56 years ago. Haiti granted Black slaves the right to vote shortly after the U.S. Constitution counted Black slaves as three-fifths of a human being.
Election Day 2020 was a huge success for democracy in America. The outcome was not decided beforehand, and partisans in both camps believed they could win. Voter turnout was the highest in over a century. The ruling Republican Party did not jail opposition candidates, break up opposition party rallies or send vigilantes to terrorize voters.
Vote counting, a local affair conducted by thousands of bipartisan volunteers and not by an election tribunal selected by the president, unfolded largely as expected. The ruling party did not use the courts or the internal security apparatus (what Americans know as police, the National Guard and Homeland Security’s alphabet soup) to shut down opposition media outlets. And journalists reported without harassment from ruling party thugs.
If election day was a success for democracy, the 2020 election season was less so. The apparent anomalies were the ruling Republican Party disinformation campaign, abetted by partisan media, to delegitimize the election (the Big Lie) and the violent insurrection by ruling party thugs to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power. However, disinformation campaigns and ruling party violence are not foreign to the United States. The Democratic Party ruled the South as a virtual dictatorship for nearly a century while Jim Crow police and white terrorist groups waged war against Black voters. The Redemption myth and de-humanizing anti-Black ideology — neither of which is exclusive to the South — are centuries-long disinformation campaigns. And one party, this time Republican, has campaigned on fear and disinformation rather than policy platforms for decades.
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However, many in the ruling Republican Party sided with democracy in 2020. Ruling party officials counted votes fairly in opposition strongholds such as Atlanta, even if the same scrutiny was absent in rural ruling party strongholds. Numerous elected officials from the ruling party resisted the president’s attempt to alter, perhaps rig, the vote count. Further, the Big Lie was so preposterous that ruling party judges in the courts repeatedly rejected it.
Some long-term trends that work against democracy in the United States are also moving in the right direction: Fewer men from historically powerless ethnic minority groups are in prison today than two decades ago. And the legislature is more representative than ever. De facto poll taxes may be on their way out too.
Will democracy survive? The party that cannot currently win a plurality will continue to suppress votes. But so too will mobilization against these efforts. Media with a national audience — such as ABC News, Fox News, New York Times and Wall Street Journal — are likely to survive intact, free to criticize the government. Ruling parties are unlikely to buy votes by handing out gift cards; opposition legislators will investigate corruption; and the military will stay in the barracks. Some votes will still count more than others. And, whichever party holds the presidency, elected leaders will step down peacefully without fear of assassination or exile once they leave office.
And lest anyone is still concerned about the survival of our democracy, do not worry: both parties will continue to use the power of the government to redistribute economic gains to the rich. And so long as democracy protects the rich, it will survive.
Joseph Wright is the co-author of “How Dictatorships Work.”