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.