It has been over a year since this image was burned into the minds of Americans. Many remember the revolting pictures of flames and smoke looming over the Capitol on the evening of January 6th, 2021. Today, we think back as a nation to how we got to that point, and I think it’s quite clear: misinformation and stealth authoritarianism have driven us to the point of democratic backsliding.
We live in a country where a presidential nominee could go out on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and the majority of members of that party would still back him. Why? Misinformation and downright lies have penetrated our democracy and rot away at our democratic norms of justice, truth, and commonality in opposition. Frankly, Republicans hate Democrats and Democrats hate Republicans more than they love their own. That’s the America we live in right now, and if 2020 wasn’t a wake up call, then 2024 will be the shot heard around the world.
Democratic backsliding is a term often thrown around today by those studying the means of democratic erosion, and it is unsettling for many of us to consider. However, backsliding refers to the breakdown of qualities that embody a democracy. As Founding Director of the Program on Governance and Local Development at Yale University and political scientist, Dr. Ellen Lust says, “it is a decline in the quality of democracy, when it occurs within democratic regimes, or in democratic qualities of governance in autocracies.”
The decline occurs differently depending on the context and breadth of the democracy, or autocracy. In democracies, we see assaults on the press and freedom of expression, these being an easy, legal way for someone with authoritarian veins to legally suppress the voice of the people and press. This is the stealth authoritarian portion of our backsliding. It’s the use of the legal system and existing rules to consolidate power and institutions into a central source with anti-democratic intent. In our case, President Donald J. Trump and the Office of the President, hoping to reduce transparency and suppress the public into watering down their own speech.
Dangerous demagogues often weaponize their rhetoric to express their desires. At a Trump Rally, President Trump would coerce the crowd to deploy the mob on demonstrators or those who spoke out against him, similar to tactics deployed by Hitler and his Sturmabteilung (Brownshirts). Specifically, “knock the crap out of [them].” Compared to Secretary Clinton or Vice President Biden, who would allow security to adequately remove the disturbance or attempt to engage with the demonstrator. Furthermore, there are plenty of instances of former presidents and candidates policing their own supporters to treat the individual demonstrating with respect, or even stopping the spread of misinformation.
This is a paramount divergence in how we communicate in our democracy. We have those who wish to consolidate the power of speech and strip the protections of it to benefit their party in power and suppress those in the political minority. And then we have those who recognize the legitimacy of an opposing view, ideology and are willing to engage with it. Those who weaponize communication do it for one reason: their own benefit; compliance. It isn’t going to persuade anyone beyond their base, and it denies everyone the opportunity to engage. Whereas, politicians who use speech as rhetoric to persuade—what Mercieca (2019) deems “heroic demagogues”—do so because they believe in a competitive democracy where they can use persuasion to consensually attract voters through active engagement.
That was the case in the 2020 Presidential Election. Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. convinced over 7,000,000 more voters that he was a better leader for our country over incumbent President Trump. Shortly after noon on November 7th, 2020, nearly five days after Election Day, the media called the race for Joe Biden.
How did President Trump respond?
13:20:18 Tweet: “Tens of thousands of votes were illegally received after 8 P.M. on Tuesday, Election Day, totally and easily changing the results in Pennsylvania and certain other razor thin states. As a separate matter, hundreds of thousands of Votes were illegally not allowed to be OBSERVED…”
15:36:36 Tweet: “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”
21:53:34 Tweet: “THE OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS. I WON THE ELECTION, GOT 71,000,000 LEGAL VOTES. BAD THINGS HAPPENED WHICH OUR OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE. NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WERE SENT TO PEOPLE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR THEM!”
This continued for the next two months, even after the Electoral College casted their votes. For two months the Leader of the Free World and Commander-in-Chief of the most supreme military in the world day in and day out went to war on American democracy through what started as a misinformation campaign and ended in outright lies about legitimate facts.
China did not dump votes in Maricopa County, Arizona. The absentee ballot surges in Wisconsin weren’t some deep state conspiracy, it was the system created by… Republicans. There was no fraud in either Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, nor Cobb Counties in Georgia.
How did the Congress react to this resounding message of our democracy being a secure, safeguarded system controlled by impartial state actors?
Well, some Republicans showed up to Washington on January 6th, 2021 determined to rehash the misinformation of outgoing President Trump. In fact, 147 did. They were stoked by many but above and beyond by a Senator from the Show-Me State, Missouri—who certainly put on a show, fist-clenched. Sen. Hawly said, “I cannot vote to certify the Electoral College results on January 6th without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws. At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act.”
Get this: Republicans voted against certification in states where their own elections were certified. That is the upside down, twisted, demented reality we live in. There was no widespread fraud, anywhere.
The attack on the Capitol occurred shortly after President Trump told his Election Fraud Rally crowd that he would “never concede, give up” and implored Vice President Mike Pence to invoke powers beyond his constitutional abilities to overturn the election. I think we all know what happened after this, but what happens in 2024?
What happens when the Democratic nominee wins the presidency, but Congress is controlled by enough Republicans who believe in the Big Lie?
Truthfully, no one knows. We are in a backslide in America and the traction holding back the mudslide is losing grip every day from misinformation and stealth authoritarianism. We should fear what is to come because we have allowed this to occur from becoming complacent with voter apathy and civic decline—we have allowed our democracy to be hollowed out. It’s now whether we are going to fight back or let that shot heard around the world hit the final nail in the coffin of American democracy. Lust (2015), Mercieca (2019), and Varol (2015) all warned us. It is time to act.