The summer of 2020 brought a fierce wave of protests and demonstrations throughout not only the United States, but much of the world. While perpetuated by the pervasive police brutality that resulted in the murder of George Floyd and countless others, these movements also highlighted much broader systemic issues such as voter disenfranchisment, failing social nets, and the divestment of communities. This broadened the public focus to encapsulate what this movement could tell us about a greater number of political affairs within our country and added momentum to existing policy changes. The question becomes then, what can these protests and their aftermath tell us about the possibility of democratic erosion, especially in the United States? Despite the emerging conflation of social movements and American democracy, their proliferation calls into question the efficacy of our political system.
The George Floyd protests inspired a considerable amount of legislation which sought both to protect protesters and to punish them or to make it increasingly difficult to protest at such a large scale. One such area of legislation surrounds the act of motorists driving into protests, sometimes injuring or killing protesters. This has been made infamous from the Charlottesville encounter in 2017 as well as around 100 instances during the 2020 protests. While this created a stir in the media and public, it also resulted in legislation being drafted to codify this practice and protect motorists from being charged. Bills introduced to make this legal, however, are not new and tend to crop up following any significant wave of protests alongside other anti-protest legislation. Regardless, such legislation is threatening due to the allowances it offers in terms of violent action towards protesters and the increased stigma that keeps many from joining in future movements.
The violence towards protesters and codification of such has also been highlighted as a potential area for weakening the strength of democracy in the United States as it chips away at the protections granted by the Bill of Rights, specifically the first amendment. This is reminiscent of professor Ozan O. Varol’s definition of stealth authoritarianism, as these actions are done so through legal avenues: legislation which is passed in a generally democratic fashion. Yet this legislation seeks to criminalize assembly and to allow violence against those who do, dictating who has the opportunity to protest and restricting movement. Other precedents have been set that can be seen as dangerous, such as the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse (the 17-year-old who was charged with shooting three protesters). This sets a precedent that emboldens similarly-minded individuals.
Such legislation also brings another aspect into the conversation: political polarization. It is interesting to note at this point that most, if not all, of these bills are drafted and backed by Republican politicians, clearly drawing the line between a majority of Democrat support of the protests and the Republican disapproval. Not only are these bills highly polarizing themselves, they illustrate just how strong polarization already is on issues: some feel so strongly they take to the streets and risk their lives while others feel so strongly that they are backing bills to justify violence and prevent others from assembling. Social movement cycles and protests are also polarizing, especially at the scale of the 2020 protests. The following media-tracked trials like Rittenhouse can add to this effect even more. Overall, political polarization can be a strong indicator of democratic erosion as it increases the focus on positional issues over democratic compliance; voters will begin to vote for those who cater to their political beliefs , disregard any potential for undemocratic behavior, and increase their party loyalty. This is what we see when looking at the work of political scientists Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, who also demonstrate how platform polarization of the two parties can also allow for more undemocratic behavior to go unpunished. Cornell political scientist Robert Lieberman also displays how a polarized two-party system can result in a divided polity as well as an increase the erosion of democratic norms which are essential to the stability of American democracy. This cycle can also cause an increase in tribal partisanship, or the intense desire of voters to follow party lines regardless of whether potential leaders are likely to engage in undemocratic practices.
Ultimately, restricting who is allowed to assemble and who is allowed to protest against the government or against unfair treatment is a slippery slope that strips away protections and removes avenues of expressing unrest. This type of restriction raises questions about the integrity of political pluralism and participation in the United States and works to limit the ability of certain groups to engage in political opportunities. The actions that seek to legalize this are polarizing themselves, but also demonstrate that polarization has reached new, extreme levels. In doing so, we are furthering the opportunities for even more erosion to occur, even if unintentionally. While the protests of 2020 have been analyzed for what they can reveal about many other socio-political issues, it is imperative that we also focus on what they can reveal about the state of democracy in the United States.