An analysis of American democratic erosion is conducted leveraging findings from political science professors Sheri Berman and Ozan Varol. Particular attention is paid to the populist Trump presidency and Citizens United v. FEC (2010).
The United States is democratically eroding. Polarization, normalized doubt in institutions, widespread divisiveness, and unprecedented executive power proves this. The doubt placed on the 2020 presidential election by Donald Trump and his subsequent inaction during the January 6 insurrection casts a dark shadow on the United States’ future. These recent events can be explained through political science professor Ozan Varol’s “stealth authoritarianism”, a term referring to subtle authoritarian practices which can take root in countries with longstanding democratic traditions. In this essay, I attempt to merge American political and economic realities using political science professor Sheri Berman’s diagnosis of American populism along with stealth authoritarianism. In doing so, I argue political participation within American democracy is hamstrung by parties and politicians serving the interests of economic elites.
Political polarization sees a downturn in so-called “catch all” parties and a rise of more extreme political agendas. This brings institutional decay, as parties become more concerned with attacking opposition candidates rather than listening to everyday citizens. Berman argues decay of this kind lessens “traditional channels for citizen participation in politics” (Berman, 2). She notes how polarization within both parties weakens Democrat and Republican organizational capacity, resulting in less opportunities for activism-based participation. Less opportunities for political participation leads politicians to care more about those funding their campaigns, weakening democratic stability. The more opposition or donor targeting, the more divided the United States becomes along party lines.
Since general economic equality correlates to stronger democracies (Berman, 3-4) one could argue that lowering wealth gaps could nullify political divisiveness. In the United States however, income and wealth inequality has risen dramatically over the past forty years, resulting in a shrunken middle class and lower rates of social mobility. This relative economic inequality reinforces polarization in creating politically salient voting blocs along socio-economic lines. While coming from opposite sides of the aisle, the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders highlighted these blocs in the 2016 presidential elections. Both catered to a disgruntled working class suffering from lack of social mobility caused by what Trump and Sanders claimed to be a corporate-controlled legislature. This notion is at least partially correct as, “political scientists have shown that economic elites and the organized groups representing their interests powerfully shape government policy while poorer Americans and the groups that represent their interests have effectively no influence over government” (Berman, 4).
The anti-establishment populism promulgated by Trump and Sanders is a response to reinforced polarization and inequality which befits stealth authoritarianism. In other words, American political parties can be conceived as “facilitating a certain level of authoritarian learning that has prompted the replacement of transparently authoritarian mechanisms with more stealth authoritarian mechanisms of control” (Varol, 1681). This means that, while the United States may not be overtly oppressing its citizens, its politicians are subversively undermining democracy by demonizing opposition and neglecting middle and lower classes. Sherman confirms this in finding that when policies are “strongly opposed” by wealthy elites but not middle-class members, they are only adopted four percent of the time (Sherman, 4). In contrast, “when the affluent support a policy it is adopted forty six percent of the time” (Sherman, 4). These findings demonstrate a decision to disempower voters in reinforcing socioeconomic class boundaries.
Varol’s idea that stealth authoritarian regimes seek to “retain power indefinitely” (Varol, 1687) comes into play here. In his conclusion, Varol writes “specifically, they [stealth authoritarian regimes] learned to perpetuate their power through legal mechanisms” (Varol, 1741). Citizens United v. FEC decided January 21, 2010, builds on this power perpetuation theory as it enabled American politicians to gain power so long as they support corporate interests. The Citizens United case, which ensured corporate funded political advertisements are backed by the first amendment, represents the entirely legal but undemocratic breakdown of American politics. After 2010, politicians were incentivized to represent large corporations and lobbyist groups to secure campaign funding, most times neglecting their constituents for large corporate checks. Thus, politicians favoring small groups at society’s pinnacle have become normalized and institutionally supported, more akin to stealth authoritarianism than true democracy.
Systemic support of wealthy interest groups in the United States creates political polarization between salient socio-economic classes and incentivizes politicians to undermine democracy. These strategies are stealth authoritarian because they refute policies directed at expanding the middle class in favor of cementing a status quo oligarchy. This speaks to American democratic erosion, manifested in the Trump presidency and Citizens United, with broader symptoms sure to emerge. Should the United States continue this path, there is no telling the amount of damage which could be rendered. Research should prove that efforts to re-democratize the United States through political activism will combat the problems plaguing its democracy today.
Berman, Sheri. 2017. “Populism is a Problem. Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution”. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/12/20/populism-is-a-problem-elitist-technocrats-arent-the-solution/. Accessed 17 October 2022. PDF Download.
Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism”. Iowa Law Review 100 (4): 1673-1742. https://ilr.law.uiowa.edu/print/volume-100-issue-4/stealth-authoritarianism/. Accessed 17 October 2022. PDF Download.