Democracy in the United States is slowly collapsing under the weight of hyper-partisanship and demagoguery. Enabled by the Republican Party, Donald Trump has placed an incredible amount of strain on the country’s democratic institutions and norms. According to Freedom House, a leading NGO that ranks countries’ political climate, the status of political freedom and democracy in America has declined considerably in the past decade. Naturally, as the opposition, the Democratic Party and the political left as whole have taken the lead on combatting President Trump, both on his policies and his authoritarian leanings. In the protests of the past few months, some on the left have taken on the President and attempted to remake the American state in a more equitable and just fashion. Though their goals may be laudable, the increasingly extreme rhetoric and symbolic actions employed by the left may hurt their cause by helping to push America in an even more authoritarian direction.
Over the past two and a half centuries, dozens of nations around the globe have transitioned into stable democracies, and academics have been able study the methods through which democratization proved successful. Applying lessons learned from this democratization theory, then, can potentially help to slow—or even reverse—democratic erosion such as we see in the U.S. One common theme throughout these studies has been that democracy is more likely to emerge if those in power face a relatively small threat than if they face complete destruction. In a seminal work on democratic theory, Robert Dahl postulated that “the likelihood that a government will tolerate an opposition increases as the expected costs of toleration decrease.” Fellow political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset agreed with him, noting that, even if they stand to lose their power should democracy prevail, groups traditionally in power tend to feel more secure if their status as whole remains relatively unthreatened. Though a well-defined ruling class does not exist to the extent that it did pre-democracy, certain elites and powerful groups maintain considerable authority within the U.S. political system, with law enforcement, the wealthy, and elected politicians high among them. As Democratic (and democratic) forces try to counter President Trump, then, they should take care not to unnecessarily push these established elites into a corner, where they will have no choice but to fight back without restraint. Divisive rhetoric, though, may do just that.
Perhaps the most rhetorically inflammatory cases in recent months have come from the widespread demonstrations against police brutality. Slogans such as “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) and “F*** 12” have permeated protests, with demonstrators using them to decry systemic racism in law enforcement. Though less purposefully provocative, even the phrase “Defund the Police” specifically targets law enforcement, even as it means more generally to redirect funding toward other outlets that could improve public safety. At the same time, police—and law enforcement in general—have outsized power in government and have, by and large, been vocal supporters of President Trump, who has returned the favor in kind. The adoption of this rhetoric solidifies their support for a politician without which they fear they could lose everything; for instance, the New York City Police Benevolence Association issued their first endorsement in recent memory in support of the President in August, justifying it by claiming that “police officers are under attack.”
In addition, symbolic actions taken by some protesters have shown their disdain for those who historically have occupied positions of wealth and power. In another attempt to root out systemic racism, protesters around the country have pulled down statues of Confederate generals and other widely condemned figures, but some have moved to tearing down statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as well, denouncing them as slaveholders and human traffickers. Others have engaged in widespread looting, with some justifying it as a form of reparations. These more controversial actions work to engender distress among those currently in power—if the previously untouchable Founding Fathers and innocent businesses can face attacks, then they certainly can too. President Trump, for his part, has been quick to signal his opposition to both the removal of statues and any form of looting in an effort to retain elite support. It may be working; notably, Republican Senators up for reelection are sticking with him despite his low approval ratings, and, though Trump’s overall share of the vote held at 41%, his support among those earning $100K+ increased seven points from May to July 2020—a time span encompassing the turbulent protests following the death of George Floyd.
Though these movements have not been explicitly about combatting the recent rise of authoritarianism in the U.S., they have increased the motivation of certain groups—law enforcement, Republican politicians, wealthy business owners—to stand behind President Trump, even if they disagree with his authoritarian leanings. Just as Dahl and Lipset warned, the perceived dangers of allowing democracy to flourish seem to take precedence. Authoritarianism, in this case, serves their interests better than democracy, even if they prefer democracy in the abstract. Because these groups wield considerable political power through institutionalized authority, campaign contributions, and voter mobilization, antagonizing them harms the pro-democracy camp.
These issue are not at all limited to opposition activists; President Trump himself regularly espouses hateful rhetoric on Twitter and out loud. On the other hand, many of these protesters also have legitimate grievances with public policy and the nature of political power in this country. Their inflammatory rhetoric and actions, though, may hurt the democratic cause without providing any tangible benefit.
Ultimately, some people are going to say and do incendiary things. The issue lies in that much of this rhetoric and those espousing it have been, if not popular, at least tacitly accepted by leading Progressive figures—though Joe Biden and other moderate Democrats have pushed back. To help combat President Trump and promote democracy, Democratic politicians and leaders can obviously refrain from engaging in this type of rhetoric themselves, but they can also denounce the most egregious of it without moderating their policy stances. If Democrats can soften the perceived blow to elites, as Lipset described, perhaps they can decrease the incentive some feel to support an authoritarian leader, and democracy can win out in the end.
 Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven; Yale University Press, p. 15.
 Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” American Political Science Review 53(1): p. 87.
You provide a sobering, tightly reasoned warning against polarizing rhetoric. Your cynicism is perhaps appropriate, given how deeply entrenched the interest groups you identify are, especially under our system of effective minority rule, held together by the political gravity of post-Citizens United corporatist jurisprudence. The optimist in me, though, would hope that the elites you identify — law enforcement, the wealthy, and elected politicians — can be dislodged through political discourses that identify their hegemonic influence as anti-democratic. Reframed in this way, the “symbolic actions” you point to against those who “historically have occupied positions of wealth and power” may not be symbolic after all, having produced salutary, pro-democratic mobilization. Under Dahl’s theoretical framework that underpins your analysis, sustained opposition of this type increases the “costs of suppression” over the “cost of toleration” which, under his third axiom, increases the “chance for a competitive regime.” In other words, even if these elites prefer the institutional advantages that authoritarianism could provide them, popular resistance, in part mobilized through what you describe as provocative rhetoric, becomes a powerful counterbalance.
Hi Samuel! This is an excellent, challenging article. I don’t know if you all at Williams read this piece, but your post made me think immediately of Laura Gamboa’s “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela.” She argues that opposition movements against authoritarians rarely/never succeed when they combine radical goals and extra institutional strategies. While the more radical slogans and ideas that you write about do not encompass the whole movement and looting/rioting certainly doesn’t define the movement, the fact that they exist has allowed right-wing media and politicians to portray Black Lives Matter and the Left overall as radical and extra institutional and, therefore, illegitimate. As you and Gamboa describe, this isolates and polarizes people who may otherwise support the movement. Gamboa goes further to talk about how the perception of an opposition movement as being radical and extra institutional can justify a more harsh, anti-democratic response from the elites.
All in all, I’m impressed (and spooked) by how well your piece fits into Gamboa’s framework. I just hope that she’s wrong about the conclusion!
I think you could have perhaps nuanced your argument more by citing some of the readings we’ve had about polarization and its effects on democratic erosion, such as Graham and Svolik’s “Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States” or Lieberman’s “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis.” In this case, it seems that polarization on the left is taking place at the mass level and beginning to work its way up to the elites, rather than going from the elites to the mass public, which has been seen to be more common in polarization. Do you think this is a symptom of an even deeper polarization within the United States? Additionally, I liked how you used Dahl’s argument that a government’s toleration of opposition increases as cost of toleration goes down, however I think there is a counterargument to your claim in its opposite. Dahl also argues that as the costs of suppression increase, there is a greater chance that the government will tolerate opposition. While violence is not conducive to a democracy and should not be practiced by either sides of these protests, if protesters on the left persist as an annoyance to right-wing elites, isn’t it possible that the cost of suppressing protesters could increase to the point that elites are forced to make concessions?
Hi Samuel, I was actually going to address the same thing that Shaili did in a previous comment. You mention Dahl’s argument that a government’s toleration of opposition increases as cost of toleration goes down but also Dahl argues as the cost of suppression increases, the chance the government will allow opposition increases. Also I understand your point that inflammatory rhetoric can cost support for a movement but I think its all about how media frames protests and not what actually happens. If police attack protestors, Fox still calls it a violent protest even though the violence was not started by protestors. Also you mention people pulling down statues of confederate generals as an inflammatory action that can cost support and that to me kind of proves the point that it doesn’t matter how mild protests are or what specific words the left uses because its always going to be seen as too violent or too radical. I can’t understand how pulling down statues in response to black people being murdered by police can be seen as being even slightly dramatic or radical. If anything, having push back on that or having push back at the words Defund the Police just makes me realize that worrying about losing support is a waste of time and I might as well say what I actually want, in this case, Abolish the Police. I think part of the reason that maybe people see the left’s actions towards the right as pushing the elites unnecessarily as you said, is because the United States is more comfortable with its history of racism and police brutality than with destruction of property so the Republican rhetoric seems normal and the left’s response seems overwhelming and unnecessary. If people have to put aside the issues they care about in order for Republicans to stop supporting an authoritarian leader then I don’t feel like that is democracy actually surviving though I get technically it would be. Thanks for your post, I enjoyed reading and responding to it!