The Unravelling of American Democracy?

On the 246th anniversary of the signing the Declaration of Independence it may be helpful to reflect on an alarming trend.

During the presidency of Donald Trump numerous anti-democratic policies, practices, laws, and events in American society occurred. This happened not just at the federal level, but at the state level too. Despite the election of President Joe Biden, many of these undemocratic trends, like the Supreme Court’s recent repeal of Roe v. Wade, continue to this day.

Short of listing all of these actions, this situation naturally leads to a handful of interrelated important questions. These are:

A. Did we really have democracy before the election of Trump?

The United States and selected states have a rich history of anti-democratic politicians, movements, organizations, and events. Whether we are talking about gender discrimination, homophobia, inequality, or racism, the roots of these antidemocratic sentiments go deep. Meanwhile, compared to similar countries, since 2009, the United States has had one of the highest incarceration rates per capita in the world. In a somewhat similar pattern, undoubtedly highlighted by the increased presence of smart phones, and social media, we have seen numerous deaths of unarmed African-Americans under questionable circumstances.

B. What factors are causing or driving undemocratic tendencies?

Numerous trends in American society facilitate undemocratic rhetoric and practices. These include lack of education, poor education, and a belief among some constituencies that formal education is a waste of resources. Add to this increased perceptions that experts are not to be believed, easy access to social media websites, and a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. The constitutional protection of the right to free speech and the development of social media and its pervasive use is another contributing factor. Not only are informal collectivities (e.g., Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, etc.) doing their best to foment anti-democratic unrest, but the Republican Party refuses to hold anti-democratic members at bay, frustrate policies, practices and laws that would increase equality. Most people do not have a good understanding of democracy, the constitution, and believe that it is associated with having your own way. There is also a proliferation of escapist activities, that people can retreat to that mitigate citizen involvement, exhausted responding to the craziness and end up throwing in the towel. There is also a significant amount of outrage fatigue.

C. Did the election of Trump serve as a catalyst for the undemocratic tendencies?

In a fairly short period of time, often through executive orders, Trump was able to scale back many pro-social public policies and legislation. And with the assistance of a Republican dominated Senate he dodged being convicted of impeachment twice, and install two supreme court justices who would tip the balance in significant court cases that provided protections to women and Native Americans tribes. Short of a full blown analysis, given the above, Trump was the right person at the right time to coalesce these anti-democratic trends, including people (e.g., political and news media pundits), organizations (e.g., Fox News, etc.), and tendencies in the Republican Party. He did this through his natural inflammatory rhetoric and sheer bravado which resonated with his followers. Trump was also able to recruit a number of true believers, enablers, and opportunists in to his orbit that would assist him in his mission.

D Are these undemocratic trends co-ordinated?

Although selected elements of these undemocratic trends are co-ordinated (e.g., the activities of high-ranking members of the Trump White House), it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that all of these trends and events were somehow co-ordinated. And any person or organization that espouses this belief should be questioned. Moreover, this kind of interpretation borders on some of the same conspiracy theory thinking that many (e.g., QAnon) in the MAGA camp use as the basis of their belief system.

E. Can we stop these trends or is it too late?

It’s still possible to frustrate many of the undemocratic trends. But it’s exhausting.

Clearly increased funding of public education may stem the tide of poor education. But simply throwing money at problems is not the solution. There must be a thoughtful approach to curriculum and instructional reform. Part of this includes the study and use of critical thinking skills. Another initiative has been the White House’s ambitious infrastructure bill, that was eventually scaled back by the senate. Although Biden and the Dems were not successful in getting everything they wanted, they did manage pass a substantial amount of things. The hope was that it would provide jobs and stimulate the economies of pro Republican districts, and thus appease the MAGA crowd. Regardless, continued vigilance, strategic planning, and being flexible are important approaches to dealing with the undemocratic challenges, like the ones we are currently witnessing and experiencing now.

Photo Credit:
Thomas Hawk