The United States has experienced deep political turmoil several times before over the past century. The Great Depression caused Americans to doubt the country’s economic system. World War II and the Cold War presented threats from global totalitarian movements. The 1960s and ’70s were marred by assassinations, riots, a losing war and a disgraced president.
These earlier periods were each more alarming in some ways than anything that has happened in the United States recently. Yet during each of those previous times of tumult, the basic dynamics of American democracy held firm. Candidates who won the most votes were able to take power and attempt to address the country’s problems.
The current period is different. As a result, the United States today finds itself in a situation with little historical precedent. American democracy is facing two distinct threats, which together represent the most serious challenge to the country’s governing ideals in decades.
The first threat is acute: a growing movement inside one of the country’s two major parties — the Republican Party — to refuse to accept defeat in an election.
The violent Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress, meant to prevent the certification of President Biden’s election, was the clearest manifestation of this movement, but it has continued since then. Hundreds of elected Republican officials around the country falsely claim that the 2020 election was rigged. Some of them are running for statewide offices that would oversee future elections, potentially putting them in position to overturn an election in 2024 or beyond.
“There is the possibility, for the first time in American history, that a legitimately elected president will not be able to take office,” said Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who studies democracy.
The second threat to democracy is chronic but also growing: The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.
The run of recent Supreme Court decisions — both sweeping and, according to polls, unpopular — highlight this disconnect. Although the Democratic Party has won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections, a Supreme Court dominated by Republican appointees seems poised to shape American politics for years, if not decades. And the court is only one of the means through which policy outcomes are becoming less closely tied to the popular will.
Two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote. Senators representing a majority of Americans are often unable to pass bills, partly because of the increasing use of the filibuster. Even the House, intended as the branch of the government that most reflects the popular will, does not always do so, because of the way districts are drawn.
“We are far and away the most countermajoritarian democracy in the world,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University and a co-author of the book “How Democracies Die,” with Daniel Ziblatt. [Continue reading…]