On January 6th, 2021, the United States was subject to a betrayal of its democracy in a display of violent protest against the free and fair election of the 46th President of the United States. As a young American, watching angry protesters demonstrating violence on our capitol building was something we haven’t experienced in modern U.S. history. However, it is not a unique situation in comparison to similar events all around the world. Democratic erosion happens every day, all around the world, in ways Americans simply are not used to. In the last 3 months alone, events comparable to those that occurred in the United States on January 6th have happened in multiple countries. According to Christina Kulich and Elizabeth Iams Wellman in their article published in the journal Insights from the Social Sciences, three of these instances include Kyrgyzstan over a disputed election, Guatemala over a controversial budget crisis, and Armenia over a potential peace deal. All three of these instances hold striking similarities to the occurrence in the United States yet did not warrant the same type of shocking reaction. I believe this is due to the reputation of power and democracy the United States holds throughout the rest of the world. The United States has a solid foundation in democracy and keep this democracy in mind through decision making at every level of government. Because of this public display of affection towards democracy, any person or group of people keen on undermining these foundations must use more subtle and less overt efforts to follow through in their goal.
Democratic erosion and backsliding all over the world changes depending on the nation and the leaders in power at the time of the backsliding. While backsliding looks different all over the world, Nancy Bermeo determines the general trends of major, dramatic backsliding in three parts. 1) Coups d’état 2) Executive coups by elected leaders 3) Blatant election-day vote fraud. In the United States, these are more difficult to come by. What we have seen in recent history, including on January 6th, has seemed to be less dramatic instances of erosion. For example, many scholars and experts disagree on whether or not what occurred on January 6th constituted an official coup d’état. Without this more official label, it is difficult to determine whether or not what occurred on January 6th was representative of a larger problem of democratic erosion or just a unique display of violence that came with a disputed election. So, what did we as the American public miss, and how can we spot backsliding earlier?
Even without the more dramatic and major displays of democratic backsliding that Bermeo points out, the United States faces a decline in democracy regardless. In their article Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding, Ellen Lust and David Waldner write about the hallmark of the erosion of democracy when initiated by leaders and authority figures in power: governments used mechanisms of democracy to erode various governmental institutions from within. When looking at the insurrection on January 6th, this looked like our government leaders, famously Donald Trump, using the democratic usage of protest overall to encourage his followers to dispute the free and fair election in November. Slogans like “Stop the Steal” were displayed on flags, t shirts, and other merchandise at the January 6th insurrection. This slogan, along with other similar messaging tools, were used as a patriotic front to the undemocratic nature of the violent protest. This message was encouraged by former President Donald Trump as a way to boost his supporter’s energy and anger towards the election results. This energy manifested into what America and the rest of the world saw on January 6th. Therefore, this insurrection was not the cause or the beginning of democratic backsliding in the nation, but rather an outcome of years or even decades of slow erosion taking place all over the nation.
Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 5–19.
Huq, Aziz Z., and Tom Ginsburg. “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2017, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2901776.
Kulich, Christina, and Elizabeth Iams Wellman. “The United States Has a Democracy Problem: What Democratic Erosion Scholarship Tells Us about January 6.” Insights from the Social Sciences, Items, 18 Feb. 2021, items.ssrc.org/democracy-papers/the-united-states-has-a-democracy-problem-what-democratic-erosion-scholarship-tells-us-about-january-6/.
Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Reviews, 2018, www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.