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Jonathan Bernstein

U.S. Democracy Faces Real Threats

All democracies are flawed. But the U.S. system is confronting new risks that need to be squarely confronted.

Not ideal.

Not ideal.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty

I was planning to write an optimistic item about the fate of democracy in the U.S. But a realistic optimist has to begin with a recognition of how precarious democratic governance has been and how serious the threats to it are now. So for now the threats will have to do, but don’t despair: These are risks, not done deals, and I’ll go into more depth on the reasons for optimism soon.

Until 1965, a large group of those who lived in the U.S. were deprived of full citizenship, and in many cases effectively barred from public life. That exclusionary system did feature elections and republican institutions, but it wasn’t what we really want to call “democracy.” Only with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the U.S. start to live up to its own democratic aspirations — aspirations, to be sure, that have never been universally shared, but that I think have always been quite real.

Even at its best, post-1965 democracy in the U.S. still had many real flaws, with the franchise and other forms of political participation often more available to some than to others, and features such as the malapportioned Senate that are hard to defend in a republic. But lots of democracies are flawed in one way or another.

What’s happened recently, however, has opened up both old and new risks to this system, enough to make many scholars worried — as detailed, most recently, in the latest Bright Line Watch survey of political scientists. The old risks include efforts to make it more difficult for people to vote; the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Voting Rights Act protections; the possibility of increasing precision in gerrymandering, also now sanctioned by the court; rising social and economic inequality, which can have the effect of making political equality harder to achieve; and more. The new risks? Republican politicians and other important party actors have, for 25 years or more, rejected the healthy democratic norms needed to make a republic function, with the situation becoming more dire with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and, eventually, Trump’s attempt to overturn his defeat in 2020.

The bottom line is pretty straightforward. In a two-party system, both parties will eventually hold office. If one of those parties has turned against democratic norms, it will eventually hold power and, well, enact its preferences. It is extremely unlikely that rank-and-file voters would prevent such a party from taking power; people simply don’t vote based on that kind of abstraction. And thanks to partisan polarization, most voters will automatically support their team in any event. Democracy depends on a willingness to lose elections. If that willingness starts wavering — as it seems to be for Trump and his allies — we’re in trouble.

So the context for optimism requires confronting the risks out there to republican government, which shouldn’t be minimized. Elected officials should be strengthening laws and institutions to make it harder for anti-democratic forces to succeed. But even those efforts may turn out to be insufficient. Fortunately, we’re not quite at that point yet. Stay tuned, and I’ll deliver some reasons that no one should give up yet on U.S. democracy.

For your weekend reading, here are some of the best items from political scientists this week (in addition to those linked above):

1. Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction on the debate about Democratic messaging.

2. SoRelle Wyckoff Gaynor at the Monkey Cage on the tools available to congressional leaders.

3. Dan Drezner on a foreign-policy disaster.

4. Matt Grossmann talks with Laurel Harbridge-Yong and Eric Merkley about President Joe Biden, the media and gasoline prices.

5. And Stacie Goddard, Jack Snyder and Keren Yarhi-Milo on the late international-relations scholar Robert L. Jervis.