In American politics across both parties increased polarization and feelings of elite domination have caused concerns over an erosion of democracy and a move away from liberal democratic ideals. Following the election of President Trump in 2016, Americans have felt a change in the way conservative politics are administered. Emboldened by the success of Trump’s presidency, near success of the insurrection, and the overturn of key liberalizing court cases the Republican party has been increasingly pushing laws that turn back liberal movement in America. The political actors behind these laws are similarly increasingly disloyal to the tenets of liberal democracy: equal rights, free elections, rule of law. Increasingly, they are willing to betray democracy to consolidate power for their party.
In the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, DeSantis is concerningly illiberal. Most recently DeSantis has signed legislation he calls the Stop Woke Act, with the purpose of preventing “woke indoctrination” in Florida schools. This act will limit the conversations teachers can have on race, sexuality, gender. This act comes after the Parental Rights in Education Act, also called “Don’t Say Gay” which bans lessons around sexual orientation or gender identity. The Governor argues that this legislation will protect all students from feelings of division. He wants all students to feel equal as individuals and not divided by differences in background, citing that “woke indoctrination” teaches kids what to think rather than how to think.
This move is concerning for those dedicated to open democracy. Most immediately impactful, it minimizes minority rights. Banning teachers from explaining and exploring in a classroom environment differences between racial groups, sexualities, and the challenges faced by different groups in the past and present delegitimizes their realities. In recent abortion debates DeSantis has enforced that only “women get pregnant and not men”. DeSantis has gained popularity in the Republican party by pushing his political and personal views in Florida policy. DeSantis is one of the newly popular figures on the “Trump” front of the Republican party. These policies may have been technically democratically enacted in Florida, but that does not speak to the legitimate representation of all groups in the democratic bodies that approved these policies, nor do all groups have equal opportunity to protest such policies.
Conservative politicians increasingly push these types of debates, seeking to rally support from their base with feelings of democratic encroachment of “woke”culture. This trend is concerning in the context of a threat to American liberal democracy. DeSantis and other Republicans have shown their willingness to forfeit a dedication to liberal democracy in favor of pushing party ideals. Though a small issue it has the potential to spiral out of control.
The gravity of this threat can be seen in Hungary, who exemplifies a possible American future should we go down this illiberal path. In 2010 the Fidesz party gained a majority in parliament and has since been able to radically change the constitution, courts, laws, agencies, and media. The head of the party Viktor Orban, the current prime minister, represents a right-wing populist turn for the country. Orban has been prime minister since 2010 and in more recent years has embraced that his party is against liberalism. He describes his illiberal democracy as a democracy that operates differently than Western democracies, postulating that just because a state is a democracy it does not have to be liberal. This shift has been driven by Orban’s efforts to make democracy seem inseparable from immigration, multiculturalism, and non-traditional family structures, such as gay marriage. His aim is to convince those on the conservative side of these issues that democracy is failing them, that his less-liberal government will save the country from liberal ruin. Such rhetoric is claimed by Levitsky to be a red flag of a budding authoritarian leader.
This rhetoric is like what the republican party has been pushing lately. The same types of issues over queer representation, multiculturism, and immigration have become both increasingly polarizing and subjects of debate rather than legitimately debated subjects. Such a change in Hungary may sound inconsequential for the US, but the connections go beyond common conservative sentiments. This year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Milkos Szantho of a Hungarian think tank was invited to speak. This is a change in direction for the CPAC, as normally conservative politics are exported out to other countries, foreign ideas are not brought in. On top of this the CPAC is endorsing and taking notes from a country that is explicitly illiberal. To become illiberal would be to step away from equal rights and fair elections.
This is troubling as conservatives, and American politics at large, have historically been wholly dedicated to preserving democracy as the founding fathers intended. That the republican party may become opposed to liberal democracy is a threat to American democracy. In conversations such as those at CPAC, in political figures such as Governor DeSantis, the insurrection, and other smaller actions one can see the possibility for such a change rising in the republican party. Those Trump loyalists who feel that the election system was rigged and that democracy has failed to protect their traditional values and ways of life, could be easily convinced to follow an illiberal path to preserve “their country”. Actors such as DeSantis are a dangerous part of this game. More extremist members have always existed in any party, but they are contained by the moderate body of the party at large. As we have seen many times in the past these types of leaders are only a threat when in exchange for votes they are given power, power that soon spirals out of the control of mainstream party leaders. DeSantis, one of the main aspirants to be Trump’s successor, represents a possible similar threat. He has displayed slight autocratic tendencies in the policies he has enacted in Florida, and earned support from fed up conservatives for the moves he is making to reclaim their ideals. In several cases DeSantis has offered his citizens a “choice” without one being there. With COVID vaccines for young children, he has said parents can choose to get them, but did not allow the state to preorder any doses, making a vaccine now nearly impossible to obtain. In a similar move his new gerrymandered redistricting map has gained attention as giving an obvious advantage to republican candidates, though the map has so far been held up in court. In both these cases, the guise of choice is given, but it is DeSantis pre-deciding the outcome behind the scenes.
DeSantis is not the only politician acting in this way, he is part of a greater movement of the conservative party towards embracing the tools of illiberal democracy. This change could easily pull a large base of support from those who are fed up with the polarization and gridlock that plagues current American politics. Such a push to increase distrust in government has the potential to be devastating to preserving our liberal democracy. Voters should be mindful of exclusionary policies and politicians as we move into the future.
While I fully agree that divisive rhetoric and intentional polarization by political leaders can contribute to democratic backsliding, I do not believe that it can act as a legitimate threat alone.
The Republican party has increasingly launched attacks against the left’s “woke culture” and isolated marginalized groups of society in attempts to rally the conservative right, as explained in your article. As you acknowledge, the perpetuation of polarization and the Republican’s “willingness to forfeit a dedication to liberal democracy” has the potential to spiral out of control. However, I believe that without the national removal of institutional and constitutional checks and balances, rhetoric cannot suffice democratic backsliding by most scholarly definitions.
This article offers the analogy between Hungary and Florida’s “illiberal democracies”, but they are not of equal characteristics or caliber. You acknowledge this but warn that Hungary exemplifies a potential American future. Hungary’s constitution, courts, laws, agencies, and media have changed – clear signs of democratic backsliding, but we can’t be sure those changes were a direct result of Orban’s extreme rhetoric. Therefore, how are we to know that America will follow in Hungary’s footsteps? I argue, consistent with Political Institutions theories of social science, that we would not know until after similar extreme institutional changes have been imposed.
The article offers gerrymandering as an example of a tangible threat to democracy that DeSantis has imposed. I agree that gerrymandering is a blatant threat to democracy – more so than divisive rhetoric because it affects elections and effective representation; These are widely agreed upon pillars of democracy. However, the article states that a presumably legitimate court upheld the map, meaning that a check was in place. Also, nearly every state and party participate in gerrymandering. So, is it an outcome of DeSantis’s particular polarization or just corrupt American politics?