Many saw Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election as a light at the end of a four year long tunnel of anti-democratic behaviors and rampant populism. As Joe Biden and his administration took over, it became apparent that many of the anti-democratic tendencies of his predecessor had not disappeared, since supporters and colleagues of Trump continued to play major roles in policy making and political culture. So, the question remains––can American democracy survive Donald Trump?
In How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, authors Huq and Ginsburg develop a theory of the mechanisms that drive democratic backsliding. While democratic institutions can collapse through authoritarian reversion, I will focus on constitutional retrogression, wherein subtle, incremental changes to key democratic institutions erode democratic foundations. I aim to focus on a key institution––competitive elections. While constitutional retrogression can occur through a number of avenues, I posit that competitive elections are specifically eroded through the elimination of political competition. In the United States, the proposed limits on voting rights in several key states, alongside the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Alabama, demonstrate erosion to competitive elections through the elimination of political competition.
The aftermath of the 2020 election saw President Donald Trump and much of the Republican party lead a coordinated effort to discredit the results of the Presidential election. Some of this occurred through unofficial, yet still alarming means––rallies in battleground states and even an insurrection in the nation’s capital. However insidious these efforts proved to be, the official, institutional changes brought about by the Republican party are far more sinister.
Since the 2020 election, battleground states, especially those held by a Republican legislature, have attempted to alter the framework of their state’s electoral system. For example, Arizona legislators attempted to transfer authority over election lawsuits from their Democratic secretary of state to their Republican attorney general. They also drafted legislation that would give them the authority to un-certify the state’s election through a majority vote prior to the presidential inauguration. In Georgia, a highly contested state in 2020, legislators reduced the powers of the Secretary of State and passed a law that offers them some control over removing local election officials. Pennsylvania legislators attempted to make Secretary of State an elected office, rather than a gubernatorial appointment.
In short, Republican-controlled State Legislatures used institutional channels to further remove Democrats from the electoral process and cement their own power. This is a clear example of eroding competitive elections by placing the control of those elections in the hands of a single party. Many of these states have served in election-defining, battleground races, meaning that any institutional changes could have massive impacts on the outcomes of statewide and nationwide elections. These measures aim to decrease the power that Democrats have in the electoral process, thus eliminating competition and furthering democratic backsliding.
In addition to legislation of individual states, the United States Supreme Court has also weighed into electoral practices in this country, specifically through Alabama’s new congressional map. Alabama, home to seven congressional districts and a Black population of 27 percent, decided through its State Legislature to create just one majority Black district in its new congressional map. However, a key section of the Voting Rights Act declares that individuals cannot be given fewer opportunities to vote on account of their race. In accordance with this section, the lower courts forced Alabama to allocate another majority Black district. In early February, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, declaring in a 5-4 decision to reinstate the original map. Because arguments for this case will be heard in the fall and the decision will arrive some time after that, the original map will be used in the 2022 election.
Though we might consider the judiciary merely an ineffective force against democratic retrogression, this example proves that they can actually be an active participant in the process. The decision to request another majority-Black congressional district falls squarely in the bounds of the Voting Rights Act––the Court’s decision to ignore that demonstrates a clear effort to erode democracy through the elimination of political competition. In a state where voting has been proven to be racially polarized, both the Alabama State Legislature and the Supreme Court took steps to remove the power of the vote from Black citizens and disenfranchise them in the process.
Both of the aforementioned examples demonstrate the capacity for constitutional retrogression in the United States, especially through established, institutional channels. State legislatures and the Supreme Court have attempted to erode democracy by creating deliberate disadvantages for opposition groups. These kinds of institutional disadvantages make it more difficult and expensive for these opposition groups to gain a foothold in power. As Republicans continue to chip away at the electoral process and the Supreme Court continues to wear away at voting rights, it becomes increasingly difficult for Democrats to gain equal footing and participate in a true two-party system. In order for American democracy to survive, there must be a way to fend off the erosion of the electoral system and ensure that everybody has equal opportunity in this process.