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.