February 3rd, 2020- The Iowa Caucus saw a close Pete Buttigieg win (26. 2% of the vote) over Bernie Sanders (26.1%), with Elizabeth Warren (18%) coming in 3rd and Joe Biden (15.8%) trailing at 4th place.
February 11th, 2020- The New Hampshire Democratic primary saw a Bernie Sanders victory (25.7%), with Pete Buttigieg coming in 2nd (24.4%), Amy Klobuchar taking the 3rd spot (19.8%), Elizabeth Warren at 4th (9.2%) and Joe Biden coming in last with a measly 8.4% of the vote.
August 20th, 2020- Joe Biden accepts the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination.
How did we get here? How did we go from a candidate consistently finishing towards the bottom in primary elections to that same candidate facing off against President Trump in the upcoming United States General Election? While this question will be examined and studied for years and years to come, one reason that we cannot ignore when looking at Joe Biden’s seemingly sudden rise to Democratic Presidential candidate is gatekeeping.
Gatekeeping, as talked about in Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die”, is the responsibility or onus of political parties and political leaders to filter out potential extremist forces and prevent them from rising to power. Gatekeeping is necessary because without checks and balances on these outside forces, authoritarian power could take on a more substantial role in government and democracy could suffer.
Gatekeeping is easier said than done. It is important to acknowledge that democracy is constantly being threatened and that it does need someone or something to actively protect it. It is also important to acknowledge that behavioral shifts that may be confused with democratic backsliding could actually just be part of the larger democratic process.
While we can’t always be sure if what we are witnessing is a threat to democracy or part of a grander process, so-called “gatekeepers” of democracy will always try and defend against what they believe to be a threat, and this oftentimes includes authoritarian leaders. Once again, leaders may not be obviously authoritarian or reveal their entire agenda ahead of their election—but the previously mentioned Levitsky and Ziblatt do have an answer for this.
The authors of “How Democracies Die” outline a set of criteria that help us identify who is acting as a threat to democracy, saying that if the person/ organization meet even one of these four criteria they should be examined as potential threats. The litmus test is comprised of the following criteria:
1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) the democratic rules of the game
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
3. Toleration/encouragement of violence
4. Readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including media
As well as listing the four criteria given in “How Democracies Die”, I have also attached hyperlinks as to how President Donald Trump has violated/ been guilty of preforming each of the criteria.
Which brings me to my main point: is Donald Trump the authoritarian threat to democracy mentioned by Levitsky and Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die” and were the measures taken to nominate Joe Biden an example of democratic gatekeeping?
For this to be true, first it is important to establish that, through the eyes of (at least) the Democratic Party, President Trump is a threat to democracy. I think this is pretty safe to assume, seeing the constant conflict between the Democrats and the Trump administration—i.e the Democratic party didn’t have to wait to see if Trump was holding authoritarian-agenda type cards close to his chest because we’ve seen him play them for the last 37 or so months. With Trump being in power a blatant threat to democracy in the eyes of the Democrats, it follows that getting someone in his position out of power would be a priority for defending democracy.
Flash back to the Democratic primaries: Biden was trailing most other candidates and it wasn’t close—so why did he emerge as the Democratic nominee? Well, after the disappointing losses for the Biden camp in Iowa and New Hampshire, a string of important endorsements paired with a statement(!) win in South Carolina (48.4% of the vote) demonstrated to many that Biden could act as unifier in the coming election.
In a powerful, swift move, Pete Buttigieg (whose campaign was by no means in “the dumps”) dropped out of the election, remarking in his concession speech “Our goal has always been to help unify Americans to help defeat Donald Trump and to win the era for our values. And so we must recognize that at this point in the race the best way to keep faith with those goals and ideals is to step aside and help bring our party and our country together” (CNBC). He also, importantly, endorsed Joe Biden.
Promptly, Amy Klobuchar (again, whose campaign was not in turmoil) dropped from the race and, like Buttigieg before her, endorsed Joe Biden for President.
This sense of party-first (and in their minds, country-first) exhibited by Buttigieg and Klobuchar are first hand examples of the gatekeeping of democracy. Sure it can be argued that Buttigieg and Klobuchar were primed to lose the election anyway, so this action was just them trying to save face, but the timing in which the two dropped out and the immediate endorsement of Joe Biden might say otherwise. This striking, simultaneous move was done strategically to act in the Democratic Party’s best interest.
That said, coming together in a political party’s best interest does not automatically qualify as democratic gatekeeping and a party-first mentality doesn’t necessarily qualify as a country-first one… to see this we don’t have to glance much further than across the aisle. The early 2016 Presidential primary race saw Donald Trump find unlikely victory early, surpassing more established, tenured Republican candidates like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. After some of the earlier primary races, it was apparent that the Republican Party’s supporters did not want said established candidates to be their next president… they wanted Trump. Soon after, when it became clear that any path to victory in the general election was by betting big on Trump, Republican Party support (even from those who had been disrespected or shamed by Trump) went heavily to Donald Trump in an all-in move.
While it isn’t necessarily the case that a party’s endorsement of any outsider is an example of failed democratic gatekeeping, this particular case is more complex than that. It isn’t difficult to find ways in which President Donald Trump threatens democracy (see the authoritarian guidelines above*), but it is important to acknowledge that he isn’t the sole offender. Trump didn’t reach the presidency alone. The Republican Party gave him a boost by endorsing him and defending his actions throughout the general election process. While this may have been in the best interest of the Republican Party (as there is currently a Republican in the White House), the damage the president and, by extension, the Republican Party have done is not in the best interest of democracy. Therefore, in this instance I would argue that the Republican Party has failed in their job as democratic gatekeepers.
The coming together of the Democratic Party to endorse Joe Biden and form their best attack at defeating their common enemy, an enemy who to them is a threat to democracy, is just one instance of gatekeeping. However, if Donald Trump wins this November it could mean that this was the grander plan of democracy all along or that the Democratic Party picked the wrong horse in this race. With one of the most presidential elections in United States history imminent, only time will tell what the future of democracy holds.
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