For the first time ever, the U.S. was recently added to the list of backsliding democracies. This event may be surprising to many people, since the U.S. is considered a voice for democratic values. For a long time, the U.S. could have been a sufficient example of quality voter engagement, checks and balances on the government, and impartial administrations. Unfortunately, those who study democratic erosion will notice that there were signs of democratic erosion in the U.S., making its place on the list of backsliding countries less of a surprise. The momentum of democratic backsliding in the U.S. can be attributed to the rise in disinformation and the January Capitol Riot, but there are still ways to reverse this trend in the U.S.
How disinformation and the Capitol Riot contributed to democratic backsliding
There are several factors that contribute to democratic erosion in the case of the U.S., but disinformation and the Capitol Riot are critical factors and turning points that led to the classification of the U.S. as a backsliding democratic state. Disinformation is the intentional dispersion of false information with the intent to mislead. Oftentimes, disinformation campaigns are successful because they create confusion in what a credible source is. The rise in social media outlets that provide news commentary has led people to believe that these sources are credible. However, many of these sources are biased in the news they choose to report, making them unreliable to stay objectively informed. What makes disinformation a threat to democracy is the inability for people to discern fact from fiction. When lies are told about an event that took place or the history of a political candidate, this alters the actions of voters, in turn altering election outcomes. In the case of the January riot, Trump repeatedly told his supporters that he did not lose and even encouraged them to seek justice for the “fraudulent election”. Trump’s claims and call to action were not able to overturn the election results, but they were enough to prohibit a peaceful transition, since the events on January 6th quickly became violent. Rioters defaced several offices, stole items from Congress, and even threatened the lives of some congressmen. Because disinformation around election integrity altered the transition of the 2020 presidential election, democratic stability is weakened until reversal measures are taken.
Democratic backsliding in established democracies can occur slowly and be difficult to notice, however there may be critical points that quicken the rate of backsliding in a state. I would argue that the attempted insurrection on January 6th was a tipping point for U.S. backsliding. Leading up to the riot, there had been disinformation spread by Trump and his supporters, saying that the election results were fraudulent, which polarized people even more and decreased trust in the electoral process. What would have kept the U.S. on its slower backsliding track would have been if people had only spread false information about the election or if people abstained from voting in the next election. However, the rejection of smoothe presidential transition and the violence exhibited on January sixth propelled the process of democratic backsliding. The dependence on violence, rather than democratic institutions, to alter government processes is a sign of democratic erosion, since democratic institutions are being delegitimized by citizens. Also, the Capitol Riot confirms the presence of democratic backsliding in the U.S., because it showed how vulnerable our citizens are to manipulation and how vulnerable our institutions are to backlash. If the U.S. cannot have a peaceful transition of power after an election and maintain public trust in democratic institutions, then this is a clear sign that democratic erosion is taking place.
Is democracy in the U.S. actually strengthening?
Some may argue that the U.S. does not belong on the list of backsliding democracies because there is evidence of democracy strengthening. Political participation is an important component of a healthy democracy, and electoral participation in the U.S. has been increasing. In the previous presidential election, there was a 7 percent increase in voter turnout, marking the highest turnout in any federal election in the U.S. since the 1980’s. Also, women’s representation has increased with 27 percent of the members of Congress being women. Though these numbers may be low in comparison to other countries, it shows progress in the U.S. democratic process. Though political participation is increasing, it does not mean that other democratic processes are not still suffering. The presence of one does not eliminate the existence of the other, and it is important to keep this in mind so that we notice signs of democratic erosion and do not dismiss them.
Reversing democratic backsliding
Being put on a list of backsliding democracies is not a death sentence for democracy in the U.S., because there are measures that can be taken to reverse the effects of the Capitol Riot and limit the spread of disinformation. Disinformation is tricky to eliminate without infringing on free speech, but there are proposals to limit disinformation during critical periods, such as elections. One existing proposal is to pass the Honest Ads Act, which would require the existence of a public archive of election related advertisements and revealing who paid for the ads (Persily, Stamos 2019). In a time where it is increasingly difficult for citizens to be able to discern facts from lies, the Honest Ads Act would decrease the number of people unintentionally consuming biased news. Democratic erosion is able to persist because it is difficult to detect or measure over time, but the Honest Ads Act is a great opportunity to monitor actors who influence democratic processes.
Reversing the effects of the riot is another difficult task to take on, because it also involves reducing disinformation and increasing confidence in the integrity of democratic institutions. Disinformation is not always spread by TV networks or ads, so the Honest Ads Act can only have limited influence. In the case of the Capitol Riot, Trump encouraged an increase in polarization, by spreading lies about the integrity of the election results and encouraging his followers to act in his defense. It can be incredibly difficult to censor an individual without infringing on their freedom of speech, let alone the president. However, more can be done to limit the spread of polarizing disinformation by individuals, so that the integrity of elections is not questioned. Platforms like Twitter have already begun to place warnings or even suspend accounts that are believed to have false information, and this will help to reduce the impact false information has on an audience. It is difficult to imagine that so many people would have felt compelled to storm the capitol if less people had seen Trump’s message spread on various media outlets. Additionally, it can be easier for people to understand why a foreign actor may want to manipulate voters, but it can be more difficult to accept that our democratically elected leaders also have their own agendas and may manipulate voters to achieve their goals. The best course of action to limit disinformation’s effect on electoral integrity by an individual seems to be controlling the amount of people the false information reaches. By limiting the number of people reached, polarized action is less likely to take place, allowing for a peaceful transition of power.
The U.S. may have been placed on the list of backsliding democracies, but there are mechanisms that exist to save our democracy. We just have to implement them.
Persily, Nate and Alex Stamos. 2019.“Regulating Online Political Advertising by ForeignNationals and Governments.”Chapter 3 inSecuring American Elections. Michael McFaul, ed. Stanford: Stanford Cyber Policy Center.