What is the most salient causal explanation for democratic erosion in the U.S.? Is it economic inequality and neoliberal policy? What about the decay of political parties, norms, and legal institutions? Or rather, is it rooted in identity-based politics and affective polarization? To answer this question, a working definition of democratic erosion must be employed. According to Huq and Ginsberg, the most useful definition of democratic erosion in the U.S. derives from the concept of constitutional retrogression. Retrogression refers to the subtle and incremental decay of major institutional functions of democracy (such as competitive elections, the rights of political free speech and freedom of association, and the rule of law) (pg. 6). This is contrasted with authoritarian reversion, which entails the “rapid and near complete collapse of democratic institutions,” usually as a result of a direct coup (pg. 6). Retrogression presents a greater risk to democracy in the U.S. for several reasons. First, authoritarian reversion usually occurs in poor countries with recently established democracies (pg. 27). The fact that the U.S. meets neither of these criteria significantly minimizes the statistical probability of the U.S. experiencing an authoritarian reversion. Second, countries at risk of authoritarian reversion typically have experienced complete democratic collapses in the past, which the U.S. has not (pg. 27). Third, the elasticity and gap-filled text of the U.S. constitution allow the executive a wide range of emergency actions that do not directly undermine the constitution and disrupt the political process in an authoritarian fashion (pg. 30). Thus, constitutional retrogression is operationalized as the main definition of democratic erosion for this paper, as it is far more likely in the context of the U.S (Ginsberg & Huq, 2017).
This paper asserts that identity and affective polarization are the most integral theoretical approaches to understanding democratic erosion in the U.S. today. Based on the historical foundations, as well as present-day characteristics of anti-democratic politics in the U.S., these factors emerge as the key causal mechanisms. Furthermore, affective polarization is empirically shown to be driven by partisan identity, as opposed to policy preferences, which further legitimizes the argument that these social/societal factors are ultimately more important than concrete policies, such as economic and institutional structure. Ultimately, economics and institutions are driven in large part by the societal ripple effects of identity and affective polarization. Thus, this conceptual framework provides the most comprehensive analysis of democratic erosion in the U.S.
Historical Foundations of Anti-Democratic Politics in the U.S.
The historical foundations of contemporary anti-democratic politics in the U.S. are best understood through the lens of identity-based politics and affective polarization. Lieberman et. al. argue that to understand the threat presented to U.S. democracy by the Trump administration, one must first adopt a historical and comparative perspective on U.S. politics. Based on the empirical evidence uncovered in the study, the authors assert that Trump’s presidency effectively augmented the anti-democratic trends of affective polarization and identity-based politics in the U.S. At the time of Trump’s presidency, neither of these conditions could be considered novel elements of American politics. However, the authors contend that their combination was unique. The ways in which identity and affective polarization feed off of one another presents a particularly dangerous environment for democracy. Trump effectively capitalized on the present conditions of polarized two-party presidentialism in his 2016 campaign. He ran on a populist platform that created artificial identity-based divisions between the “virtuous people” and the powerful “elite” who betray the people for their own self interest. By creating this identity-based division, Trump was able to project the belief that the institutional constraints of democracy only benefit the elites, and thus, he should be able to use his executive power to embody the will of the people. Trump’s campaign trail statement, “I alone can fix it,” speaks to his disregard for constraints on executive power on the basis that these constraints only serve to benefit the illegitimate “elite.” Polarization works along with identity-based politics to allow the partisan capture of institutions that are supposed to provide checks and balances. These institutions are “captured,” and turned into “unaccountable instruments of partisan or incumbent advantage,” (Lieberman et. al. 2017)
Although partisan polarization in U.S. politics was already plainly apparent prior to Trump’s presidency, his administration brought this anti-democratic trend to new heights. Channeled by preexisting populist and anti-establishment currents, Trump was able to exacerbate polarization through inflammatory rhetoric, discrediting political rivals, and displaying open contempt for institutional checks on executive power. The politicization of racial identity under Trump’s administration also played a significant role in the elevation of partisan polarization. Conflict over civic membership (i.e. who has the right to participate in democracy) has been shaped by racial identity since the country’s founding. Decades of slavery, reconstruction, and white supremacy are crucial influences in American political development, as these factors shaped policymaking institutions, party alignments, mass popular opinion, and the stakes for inclusive and participatory politics. Additionally, recent voting regulations put in place that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, such as the hollowing of voting rights act, voter suppression efforts designed to eliminate “voter fraud,” and felon disenfranchisement, show that active attacks on the citizenship rights of minorities persist to this day. Thus, challenges to citizenship and participatory rights of minority groups should be seen as challenges to democracy as a whole. Trump’s rhetorical embrace of racial identity allowed him to capitalize on the longstanding trend of American parties dividing themselves and drawing support along racial lines. Expectedly, outspoken white supremacy and racial violence saw a rise during Trump’s presidency as a result. This trend of undisguised hostility toward minority groups allowed Trump, as a populist leader, to define “the people” in a way that “mobilizes resentment and licenses disenfranchisement,” both of which are incredibly dangerous for democracy (Lieberman et. al. 2017).
Affective Polarization (Party Identity or Policy Preference)
In the article, “The nature of affective polarization: Disentangling policy disagreement from partisan identity,” Dias and Lelkes answer the question of whether partisan identity or salient policy preferences exert a greater effect on affective polarization. The study found that partisan identity drives affective polarization to a greater degree than policy preferences, and thus, identity and affective polarization are fundamentally interrelated causes of democratic erosion. The authors define affective polarization as “widening difference between in-party and out-of-party affect” (i.e. feelings of warmth) (775). Two hypotheses are presented as reasonable causes of affective polarization. The party-over-policy hypothesis suggests that affective polarization mostly results from an evolved tendency to dislike outgroups (775). In contrast, the policy-over-party hypothesis suggests that affective polarization primarily reflects disagreements over salient policy issues (775). As evidence of the policy-over-party hypothesis, the authors found that candidates being characterized by popular media as either moderate or extreme affects feelings of warmth toward them (778). Learning about extreme policy preferences can lead to a greater shift in the feeling thermometer than learning about partisanship (778). However, it is extremely difficult methodologically to disentangle policy preferences from partisanship, as each can result from the other (778).
Although it is also difficult to disentangle partisanship from policy in many respects, the authors ultimately found greater support for the party-over-policy hypothesis. Social identity theory contends that humans evolved to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups (777). In line with this theory, U.S. voting behavior can increasingly be predicted with partisanship alone (777). These in-group/out-group dynamics are more visibly apparent than ever before, as the identities of race, religion, and ideology do not transcend, or “cross-cut,” party lines as much as in the past (777). Finally, strong partisans have been shown to regularly change their policy preferences depending on what their party supports in the current moment (777). In sum, partisanship explains affective polarization to a greater degree than policy preferences. Because partisanship is informed to such a significant degree by identity, identity-based politics and affective polarization represent fundamentally interrelated causes of democratic erosion that operate even in the absence of salient policy disagreements. This relationship provides significant support for the claim that identity and affective polarization provide the most effective conceptual frameworks for understanding democratic erosion, as these factors are proven to exert measurable effects independently of economic or institutional policy.
Why Other Explanations are Subservient
Economic factors are instrumental for understanding democratic erosion in the U.S., however, it is impossible to disentangle the present state of economic inequality from the racialized politics that have reinforced it. The film “Race: The House We Live In” discusses how for all of American history prior to the civil rights movement, race and nationality were the most salient factors in determining citizenship. Citizenship determines political participation, economic opportunities (such as starting and maintaining a business), and general social status to a significant degree. Thus, the denial of citizenship to non-whites and immigrants directly translated to reduced opportunities for participation in the public sphere, and thus, widening economic inequality.
Norms, parties, and legal institutions are also important factors for understanding democratic erosion in the US, however, declines in the democratic integrity of these systems are highly attributable to identity politics and affective polarization. Ziblatt and Levitsky’s influential book, “How Democracies Die,” introduces a four-point litmus test for the subversion of norms, parties, and legal institutions. The denial of free and fair elections/unwillingness to accept defeat, the denial of legitimacy of opponents, the willingness to incite violence for political gain, and the readiness to curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics (mainly the media) constitute the four criteria. If a leader satisfies all of these, then they have displayed anti-democratic ambitions. Interestingly, these four points all have something in common beyond the dangers they present to democratic norms, parties, and legal institutions: they all derive from identity-based politics and affective polarization. The denial of free and fair elections first requires a willingness to delegitimize the opposing party on the basis of identity. It requires a highly polarized electorate that is willing to accept malicious intent on the other side. The denial of legitimacy of political opponents requires these same preconditions, yet applied to the level of the individual politician rather than the party and electoral system as a whole. The willingness to incite violence for political gain is also reflective of affective polarization and identity, as it necessitates that the opposing party is not viewed as a legitimate political entity, but rather an entirely alien and hostile outgroup. The readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics is also a derivation of identity and affective polarization. To readily curtail free speech, the party must first internalize the idea that rivals and critics do not present healthy intergroup competition, but rather, a fundamental threat to the existence and identity of the ingroup. Thus, the preexisting dynamics of affective polarization and identity-based politics have to be in place for a subversion of these democratic frameworks to be feasible.