Why US democracy as we know it may soon be over

In the future, the United States may be described as a “hybrid authoritarian” system rather than an unequal democracy. 

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Next Tuesday’s presidential election is not only about Joe Biden or Donald Trump winning or losing the White House. It is not only about what kind of democracy the US wants to be, or what policies it will have in place. It is about whether we will ever have a properly democratic presidential election again.

I know, typing that, that this sounds dramatic and paranoid. But I also know Donald Trump has, as president, broken with precedent by attacking the legitimacy of America's elections. He has baselessly called mail-in voting fraudulent. He was impeached for apparently pressuring a foreign leader (the president of Ukraine) to open an investigation into his political opponent, Joe Biden, and was reportedly considering firing the FBI director for not announcing an investigation into Biden. He called for his supporters to go to the polls to watch people casting their ballots, which I and many others understood to be encouraging voter intimidation. 

Trump and Republican senators rushed through the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice after people had started voting, because they wanted to make sure they had another justice on the bench in case that bench is forced to decide the election. He is calling for results to be announced on the night of 3 November, which will likely not be possible due to the sheer number of mail-in ballots cast and the rules in some states that they cannot start counting until election night. Ballots can also continue to come in so long as they are postmarked on or before election day. Trump knows this. He is calling for it anyway.

[See also: To save US democracy, Democrats must learn from Republican ruthlessnes]

The United States has serious structural and institutional problems that need to be addressed independent of Trump. A combination of the Electoral College (under which every state has a certain number of votes, and presidential candidates need those, not the popular vote, to win the White House), the Senate (where Republicans have more seats even though they represent 15 million fewer Americans than the Democrats), gerrymandering and voter suppression all mean that ours is a country in which a white, conservative minority rules over a more pluralistic and diverse majority. That is, of course, the way the system was set up to work, but since the system was established when women couldn't vote, and black people were enslaved, perhaps it is time to rethink and expand it, as indeed we have enfranchisement. The legitimacy of a government arrives from the consent of the governed, and there are serious questions, at present, as to whether we are giving our consent. 

But a system can be fixed. Institutions can be changed, laws can be rewritten, and bad policies can be thrown out and replaced with better ones.

Or, rather, a system can be fixed in a democracy. In a hybrid authoritarian regime, or in a democracy where the game is rigged, none of that necessarily happens. And there is every indication that Trump, despite his repeated statements that being president has made his life worse, is still interested in expanding his power while diminishing that of the American people. He wouldn't be asking to throw out votes counted after midnight if that were not the case.

Some reading this will point to America's deep, pluralistic democratic traditions as protecting its institutions and norms even from a second Trump term. But the system of checks and balances has neither checked nor balanced Trump. A Republican-controlled Senate has acted like a rubber stamp on the president's agenda. Because said Senate did not give a hearing to the judge Obama nominated in his last year, Trump has put in place one-third of the justices who sit on the Supreme Court. He has also installed roughly 30 per cent of circuit court judges and has taken to lambasting those judges who hand down decisions with which he disagrees. Not content to corrode the legislative branch and erode judicial independence, Trump has also made his mark on the executive branch, moving to strip protections from civil servants. No wonder even Jon Bolton, Trump’s erstwhile national security adviser, has called Tuesday’s election “the last guardrail” for American democracy.

[See also: the US 2020 Election Swing States]

There have been real, human casualties from Donald Trump's presidency. There are the 545 children separated from their parents by US immigration authorities, which now cannot find the parents to reunite with their children. There are the victims of attacks by the white supremacists the president has emboldened and refused to condemn. There are the hundreds of thousands of people, disproportionately black and brown Americans, who lost their lives to the coronavirus pandemic the president could not be bothered to manage.

But there is another potential casualty. It is not an over-exaggeration to say that, depending on how next week goes, we may begin to speak of American democracy – as imperfect and unequal and unfair as it is – in the past tense. There will be other, different terms to describe the country’s system of government; terms such as “hybrid authoritarian”. America has a chance to pull through on Tuesday. But it may be the last chance.  

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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