After President Joe Biden called for a Global Democracy Summit, other nations questioned the United States’ authority as a guide for democracy given its broken state. The United States and other Western democracies have seen signs of democratic backsliding in recent years. The issues in the United, such as the lack of mutual toleration, polarization, inequality, and injustice, have contributed to the disjointed image seen by other countries. The United States influenced by the Trump administration does not serve as a guide to other democracies, but the long-established norms of American democracy do.
Some may argue that American democracy no longer serves as a guide to democracy because Trump has caused the breakdown of democratic norms. Furthermore, the democratic norms of America were established after the Civil War on the foundation of discrimination and racism (Levitsky and Ziblatt). However, racism only happened to be present during the establishment of principles and inspired norms to be created. Democratic norms are adaptable to different situations because they can mold to new situations. Whereas racism can only be expressed in one way. The difficulty is only figuring out the best way to apply norms to all citizens and creating new ones to be more inclusive.
However, Trump exploited controversial cultural issues in the United States to come to power as a “sexist, racist, xenophobic, authoritarian, anti-environmentalist figure” (Norris and Inglehart). A figure like him is predicted by the silent revolution theory, which stipulates that someone would gain popularity due to cultural change and polarize the population. The theory relies on society becoming post-materialistic and new focus on moral issues instead of more stringent topics like economic policy. Trump ignited materialistic sentiment among citizens and increased polarization. For example, while Trump has induced more racism against minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement also gained attention, which has created more distinct cleavages in society.
Trump’s attitudes have also intensified frustration with situations of other inequalities, especially economically. Since the 1980’s, there has been an increasing income disparity in the United States (Piketty and Saez). This disconnect in economic improvement causes the economic left-behind to search for someone to blame. The left-behind have been waiting for their opportunity for social mobility, but the government is mostly seen helping minorities through welfare programs (Hochschild). The people who have been waiting for help from the government begin to express resentment towards the minorities receiving it. The left-behind feel dispossessed of their right for upward movement in society and question authority, feeling their work for a better life has been overlooked and opportunities have been taken away from them.
Animosity toward the minorities who receive support from the government increases nationalist sentiment and racism, also characteristic of the radical-right. Trump capitalized on those cleavages through his racist remarks and his claims to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. His use of status politics, a system based on appeals to common resentments of individuals or groups who desire to improve their social status, has become more present in politics (Lipset). These cleavages collapse the moderate section of the poltical spectrum because the radical right wing causes an increase in ideological distance between parties. In order for compromise on legislation between parties, each party now has to travel further along the spectrum to reach agreement, producing stagnation.
The reduced cooperation between parties provokes antipathy and distrust. The skepticism that results makes party members question information due to fear of deception. However, the fear of disinformation actually manifests it because the paranoid distort information to view the other party as an enemy and make the parties irreconcilable (Hofstadter).
The egregious relation toward the opposing party generates the questioning of another party’s right to rule. Whichever party is not in power refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the winning party, which can be seen in the storming of the capital and election fraud claims made by Trump. Legitimacy, according to Lipset, involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate or proper ones for the society (Lipset). Because the losing party, the radical right in America, does not recognize the legitimacy of President Biden’s presidency, there is greater support for non-democratic governments. Although liberal democracy tends to be popular among citizens, citizens express a weak commitment to it (Wike and Fetterolf). The threat to become a nondemocratic government is possible in the United States but is not absolute.
The guardrails that have sustained American democracy for more than 200 years have withheld the resistance of Trump’s effort to break them. There are too many norms in American democracy to list, but two are fundamental: institutional forbearance and mutual toleration. Mutual toleration is the recognizing the legitimacy of the opposing party while institutional forbearance is essentially acting fairly with political power. Majority parties must exercise institutional forbearance and not abuse their powers in office in order to ensure that the current minority does not abuse the same powers when they gain power. The idea of institutional forbearance depends on the alteration of power and competition between parties. These norms encourage fair play in the political arena.
Although polarization is high and democratic backsliding is present, American democracy can still serve as an example to other democracies due to the resilience of the norms of democracy. Democratic norms serve as guardrails for democracy and America’s sustained norms validate their role as a guide for democracy. However, America must reduce the polarizing forces of the nation and restore the moderate section of the political spectrum in order to ensure future democracy. Once American democracy achieves unification of the divided society, they will act not only as a guide for democracy, but as the pinnacle of democracy.
Crowley, Michael. “As Biden Plans Global Democracy Summit, Skeptics Say: Heal Thyself First.” The New York Times, 3 Feb. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/us/politics/biden-democracy-summit.html.
Hochschild, Russell Arlie. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. First Trade Paper, The New Press, 2018.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics: And Other Essays. 1965.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Reprint, Crown, 2019.
Lipset, Seymour Martin. Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review, American Political Science Association, 1959. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1951731?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. “Trump’s America.” Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 331–63.
Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. “Income Inequality in the United States.” Berkeley, Feb. 2003, eml.berkeley.edu/~saez/pikettyqje.pdf.
Wike, Richard, and Janell Fetterolf. “Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 29, no. 4, 2018, pp. 136–50. Crossref, doi:10.1353/jod.2018.0069.
I agree with your statement, “The egregious relation toward the opposing party generates the questioning of another party’s right to rule.” I appreciate the fact that political polarization is one of the principal causes that is dismantling American democracy. How can a country represent two general sub-groups that have fundamentally opposed worldview bases? Personally, I see Trump as more of a symptom of the problem, rather than a problem himself, and in my opinion, that’s far more frightening. Trump’s existence has pointed out many of the holes we have had in our system, some of which have existed since its founding. While he did exacerbate the problem for political gain, (and isn’t the only one to do so) he certainly is not the source of the problem. I think I’m a bit more skeptical as to whether the United States can return to being a model for democracy globally. If what we choose to do is fix the holes on our currently damaged ship, I am not sure the people floating in that ship will trust it. I think if American democracy is going to be taken seriously, serious reforms are needed: but since those reforms are contingent heavily on cultural change, I fear that some of the damage is irreversible. I certainly hope the United States can reduce its political polarization to manageable levels.
I found your piece to be a particularly interesting and succinct examination of the current state of the American project in the eyes of the rest of the world. I agree with your assessment that Trump was not able to break the guardrails of American democracy, but I do believe that he has done more damage to them than you believe. Personally, I believe that Trump was able to complete the shift of the republican party to the radical-right. his support of radical-right candidates such as Marjorie Greene Taylor and Lauren Boebert followed by their electoral success paints a grim future for American democracy. It is figures like them that I see undermining one of the two fundamental norms, mutual toleration. These figures and many more within the GOP seem more than satisfied with not recognizing the legitimacy of President Bidens victory.
I also found your section on economic frustration interesting. I believe that you are correct in your assessment that many of the economic left-behind have been searching for someone to blame and that they have found their oppressor in minorities, but it is important to note where this comes from. It is radical-right figures such as Donald Trump who point the left-behind towards minorities in order to achieve electoral success. There can be no doubt that many Trump voters were themselves racist and sought to advance their agenda through their vote, but there were also those who fell for the lies of Trump and his ilk when they pointed out minorities getting aid while downplaying the aid that whites were getting. It is an extremely complicated set of circumstances, but I found your analysis particularly interesting. We will see if your conclusion on American democracy serving as the pinnacle comes true, but I wait with bated breath.
Hi Brian! I think your blog post highlights an important issue as you raise a question about the international ramifications for America’s democratic decline under Trump. I agree with your assessment that democracy in the U.S. has proven resilient in the face of Trump’s anti-democratic efforts. However, I disagree with your argument that America can serve as a “guide for democracy” or a “pinnacle of democracy” around the world. I was never in favor of holding the U.S. up internationally as the greatest democracy in the world for a few reasons.
First, as you noted in your blog, American democracy is not perfect and it has been riddled with the issue of systemic racism since the country’s inception. Second, democracy is something that we all have to actively work towards – it is not guaranteed and it is not something that one country has perfected. Holding the U.S. as an example of democracy may stunt the growth of democracy elsewhere for various reasons. Other established democracies may relax their pursuit of democratic norms using the logic that if the best democracy can falter, then so can others. Moreover, countries where anti-west sentiment is high, democracy can be denied, not on its merits, but by its portrayal as a western imposition. I think this is partly what happened in the Middle East and is happening in China.
Finally and most importantly, I think that the U.S. needs to, frankly, come off its high horse. As a supposed pinnacle of democracy, the U.S. supported so many authoritarian regimes when it was geopolitically expedient to do so. Additionally, it used democracy as a means to an end in regime change wars, most of which were unsuccessful. Therefore, America has not been democratic internationally. The idea of American exceptionalism – that America is the greatest democracy in the world – has driven many non-democratic foreign policies by the U.S. This has now led authoritarian regimes to follow American methods and export their authoritarian models to other countries. The issue with exporting any form of government to other countries is that the practice itself is anti-democratic. Democracy means government of the people, by the people. Thus, popular will is more important than outside interference to promote democratic ideals.
I think that it is incredibly dangerous to promote American exceptionalism because of America’s own flawed democracy and its anti-democratic record abroad. Democracy is an ideal that we have to strive towards, including us here in the U.S. However, no country should feel exceptional enough to enforce democracy upon others, because this practice is inherently anti-democratic.