It seems odd, even unpatriotic, to suggest that American citizens want anything less than democracy. In school, I was taught that the United States was founded on freedom and equal representation, as were most other children in the country. Because of this, America is often seen as synonymous with democracy. But, perhaps, that is part of the problem.
Because the concept of America is so intertwined with democracy, the nation risks being incapable of seeing when it’s moving towards authoritarianism. By this, I mean that citizens of the United States often see anything the country does as democratic, because it could not possibly be anything else. But if one was to take a step back and observe America in its current state, it’s clear that the country is trending away from how we traditionally perceive it.
We currently have a president that refuses to commit to a peaceful transition of power. While his press secretary said he would accept the results of a “fair and free election,” Trump continues to claim that the only way he could possibly lose is in a rigged election. Therefore, if Trump loses, the election is rigged and he will not accept it. He’s told the public exactly what his train of attack will be: mail-in voting. He will say that there were millions of fraudulent ballots cast in Biden’s favor, with reports indicating he already has lawyers ready to challenge the results. Under a country that values democracy, this would be disqualifying for a president; and yet, this hasn’t phased Trump supporters at all.
In fact, I would bet many conservatives will support Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the election, should he lose. It’s become obvious through the course of this presidency that his supporters don’t care if the President breaks the law or threatens democracy. Take the Trump administration’s constant violation of the Hatch Act, his request to the Ukrainian President for a public announcement that the country is investigating his political opponent, or the launch of tear gas into a peaceful protest for a photo opp. Combined with his attacks on the press, these actions are parallel to that of dictators in Belarus, Russia, China, and North Korea. And yet, the president has a remarkably consistent approval rating.
Let’s be clear, the United States is more free and representative than any of the countries I listed, but it takes constant rejection of authoritarian leaders and policies to prevent a shift from happening. Resistance is shrinking in this moment. Trump supporters have felt no hesitation as their idol pushes passed the checks and balances of our government. Part of it is because of the hyper-partisanship we are living through, where the idea of acknowledging the dangers of one’s own party is smothered by the realization that this would give credit to the arguments of Democrats.
Another reason for this shift is a frustration with democracy itself. Polarization has created a Congress that is unwilling to compromise. This means that, when playing by the rules, any given president will accomplish very little on their agenda, especially with a House or Senate ruled by the opposing party. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not viewed favorably by the party’s bases, because they failed to bring about any sustainable change.
Both sides of America’s political ideology haven’t gotten what they wanted for quite some time. Now, they want everything. Trump has given his supporters this, bypassing precedent and the dangers of executive action to provide them the legislation they have always desired, but never thought possible. He has let them know how it feels to achieve absolute wins and they are thus content with what it will take to continue it.
To be fair, many Trump supporters believe he is making the country a better place. It is a “the end justifies the means” scenario. And make no mistake, the left is likely to have many in its ranks that would be fine with an authoritarian president, so long as they were a liberal. Bernie Sanders supporters are the first to tell people how dire the situation is and how much drastic action needs to be taken. Ultimately, the progressive idea that the system is entirely broken and incapable of being fixed, means that it is pointless to play by the rules the system has established.
Part of what makes this current shift towards authoritarianism so dangerous is that the United States is not a full fledged democracy, but actually a republic. It is important to remember that the country is only ranked 25th in the world on the Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. If it was 100% a democracy, then we would not have the Electoral College and Donald Trump would not have been elected. The Senate would not give equal representation to both California and Wyoming.
This type of government has its reasons for existing, such as allowing those who live in rural communities to have political say on issues that specifically affect their geographical location. But, this also means that a minority of the population has significantly more power to shape the laws in America. With this group of people becoming more supportive of authoritarianism, the risk of the country sliding in that direction increases. The only way democracy falls is if enough people in it don’t want democracy anymore; and in this political climate, America’s system of government is flawed enough to allow it.
There were other democracies before the United States. Civilizations like Athens and Rome had representative governments and yet they fell. They were revolutionary and yet society regressed. At the end of the day, people within the United States are growing more comfortable, if not supportive, of an authoritarian leader who can “get stuff done.” The perception of the opposing party has become so poisonous that it is becoming acceptable to do whatever it takes to negate their influence, despite whatever office they hold.
America holds itself as a country that lets the will of the people rule, but if the will of the people rejects democracy, the institution will collapse in on itself.