In his essay in the New York Times titled, Trump Poses a Test Democracy is Failing, Thomas B. Edsall, a professor of political journalism at Columbia, explains the changes to the American political system that allowed Trump to hold the presidency from 2016-2020. Edsall illuminates how politics have become extremely polarized within the last twenty years causing the guardrails of democracy—parties and elections—to fail. Edsall borrows a quote from Milan W. Svolik, a political scientist at Yale, who wrote, “When punishing a leader’s authoritarian tendencies requires voting for a platform, party, or person that his supporters detest, many will find this too high a price to pay”. In other words, American voters feel such passionate hatred for the opposing party that they would rather vote for a leader in their own party that they know is harmful to the country. Svolik and Matthew Graham, a researcher at George Washington University, found that only “3.5% of voters realistically punish violations of democratic principles” (NYT). This is a concerning statistic considering that a healthy democracy relies on voters holding their leaders accountable and voting them out when they do not adequately perform. Another concerning statistic comes from Sara Goodman at the University of California, Irvine, who found that in 2004, most voters agreed on what makes someone a “good citizen”, no matter their political party. In 2019, though, that agreement has practically disappeared, and Democrats and Republicans no longer agree. After examining these statistics, one can easily see that the United States democracy is deeply fractured. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why someone like Donald Trump, who many consider a populist or authoritarian leader, could snatch the presidency, and have such an influence over the Republican party. While many think that Trump is the cause of democratic erosion in the United States, I argue that he is simply a product of the deep-seated polarization and democratic erosion that has taken place in the US over the past twenty years.
Democratic erosion has been at the forefront of political conversations in recent years. Political scientists have argued about the definition of democratic erosion, how to measure it, and the extent to which it exists in the United States. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two Harvard political scientists, explain their definition of democratic backsliding in their book, How Democracies Die. They believe that democratic backsliding is a slow, gradual process which makes it difficult to notice until the effects are irreversible. Some symptoms of democratic erosion are electoral manipulation, executive aggrandizement, increasing importance of political parties, tolerance of political violence, and rejection of democratic institutions and procedures. All those factors can be easy to miss if they happen steadily over time. The easiest factor of democratic erosion to identify is the allowance of a populist or authoritarian leader to take political office. Frances Lee, a professor of politics at Princeton University, claims that the United States party system is not strong enough to prevent populist leaders from taking office because of the rising popularity of social media and the rising unpopularity of political elites within those parties. A populist leader, someone like Donald Trump, can start building their fan base on social media apps like Twitter and Instagram by bashing unpopular political leaders, either from their own party or the opposing party. The populist leader’s audience feels heard and appreciated because they are not benefiting from the current state of liberal democracy. The populist leader continues to gain supporters, against the will of the elite party members, and eventually wins an election and a seat in government. Once the populist leader is in office, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University, claims that they will use legal measures to weaken the rule of law and manipulate democratic institutions to give themselves more power. For this reason, it is clear that if the United States had a healthy democracy, a populist leader would not make it into office in the first place, proving that there was already a large amount of democratic backsliding in the United States, and that Trump winning the presidency was merely a consequence.
Once a populist leader is in office, they can quickly accelerate the democratic erosion through encouraging increased polarization between parties and other non-democratic norms. Edsall identifies four key threats to democracy that have been on the rise: political polarization, economic equality, conflict over the civic status of members in other social groups, and executive aggrandizement. Edsall claims that Trump has “exacerbated” all four of the threats, creating a more toxic and less effective government. His main supporters are white people who fear that they are losing their spot at the top of the social hierarchy due to the surge in the US promoting diversity. Trump uses anger, scare-tactics, and exaggerations to keep his supporters in a constant state of worry that distracts them from his political shortcomings. Throughout Trump’s four years in office and in the two years after, the polarization between political parties has only escalated. If Trump wins the primary elections for the Republican party, it is likely that he could win the presidency again—not because Republicans like him, but rather because they hate Democrats more than they hate Trump. If Trump were to take office again in 2024, the causes of democratic backsliding will only get worse, and it is likely that the United States would be on a quick path toward autocracy.
Edsall, T. B. (2022, April 13). Opinion | Trump Poses a Test Democracy Is Failing. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/13/opinion/trump-democracy-decline-fall.html
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How Democracies Die (Reprint ed.). Crown.
Müller, J. (2016). What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
Lee, F. (2020). Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints. Perspectives on Politics, 18(2), 370-388. doi:10.1017/S1537592719002664