It is difficult to understand why a country’s leader would erode the same system that elected him or her to power. One would assume a person would have great respect for and an immense desire to maintain the institution that bestowed authority upon him or her. But for many leaders, this is not the sentiment. They reject the restraints imposed on them by democracy, seeking to gain the power they believe has been wrongfully denied. With the cooperation of political parties, norms, and legal institutions, demagogues have succeeded in their pursuit of democratic erosion, even in countries such as the United States with seemingly unassailable democracies.
Democratic Erosion Defined
To appreciate the role of political parties, norms, and legal institutions in the decline of democracy, it is vital to understand democratic erosion as a concept divided into two categories, namely authoritarian reversion and constitutional regression. The former, as defined by Huq and Ginsburg, is “the complete and rapid transition of a democracy to authoritarianism” often through a military coup d’état or via emergency powers (2018). Although authoritarian reversion is less common today, it has been replaced by a more insidious and complex form of democratic erosion that infiltrates a country’s governmental security, constitutional retrogression (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018). Constitutional retrogression gradually removes elements of the democratic system in ways that are easy to ignore until a democracy is completely eroded, occasionally beyond repair.
According to Huq and Ginsburg, constitutional retrogression is the substantial, incremental decline of three integral components of democracy: “competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law” (2018). But to qualify as constitutional regression, a democracy’s shifts must possess certain characteristics. They must (1) be “on their own incremental in character and maybe innocuous;” (2) happen relatively simultaneously; and (3) entail a decline in a) election quality, “b) speech and association rights, and c) the rule of law” (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018) Cumulatively, these factors may result in a shift toward an illiberal democracy, or a “modal endpoint [of] a hybrid regime” comprised of elements of both democracies and unrestrained autocracies (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018). It is only occasionally that a fully authoritarian regime will emerge.
It is easy to view constitutional retrogression as presenting minimal danger to citizens given that the Constitution (as a document) and other democratic institutions remain. But to regard this form of democratic erosion as harmless would be to ignore the accumulative effects of withdrawing basic rights. For instance, proposed voter laws limiting access to voting for people of color do not explicitly revoke the right from certain demographics, as that would violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but legislation such as Florida Senate Bill 90 does so implicitly (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2020). This law has restricted voting-by-mail by requiring individuals to provide their state ID numbers or Social Security Numbers on mail ballot applications (Wilder & Baum, 2018). The law is not overtly exclusionary and superficially appears to be a mere inconvenience, but the lack of alternative for those who do not possess the aforementioned information disadvantages certain marginalized populations (Wilder & Baum, 2022). Florida is not unique. States including, but not limited to, Texas, Georgia, Montana, and Iowa have additionally introduced bills that slowly restrict voter access, encompassing the deterioration in election quality that contributes to constitutional retrogression (Wilder & Baum, 2022).
The Role of Political Norms
It is the ever-changing norms of the political system, particularly within the electoral process, that have given way to constitutional retrogression. Although the growing polarization and hostility between parties may appear to solely impact the passage of new legislation, it has far more consequential effects regarding the security of democracy. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, two norms must be developed to secure democracy, namely mutual toleration and forbearance (2017). The former, defined as “accepting one’s rivals as legitimate (not treating them as enemies or traitors),” has been under attack for decades, beginning with Newt Gingrich in 1979 who established “politics as warfare” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). He portrayed his Democratic counterparts as corrupt and unpatriotic dictators seeking to destroy the U.S., a rhetoric entrenched in growing public discontent. The notion spread among Republicans nationwide and was imitated by other politicians within the party. This combative political style has continued until today and made it difficult to achieve bipartisanship when attempting to secure democracy.
The decrease in mutual toleration was apparent throughout the 2022 midterm campaigns. Candidates ruthlessly attacked one another, each claiming the other was perpetuating falsehoods and would destroy the country. Republicans incessantly asserted that Democrats sought to remove basic rights (such as the right to bear arms) and had concealed evidence proving Trump’s victory in the 2020 Presidential election. For example, Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, boasting an endorsement by Donald Trump, continually promised voters she would implement additional laws to prevent election fraud moving forward and fight the travesty that was Trump’s loss (Dale, 2022). On the other side, Democrats vehemently refuted these claims, arguing their opponent was perpetuating conspiracy theories and would destroy democracy with radical viewpoints reflected in proposed legislation (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2020). It is difficult to protect a democracy in a political arena of such polarization and hatred, as neither party would be willing to admit wrongdoing.
The second norm is forbearance, “not using the letter of the Constitution to undermine its spirit,” a concept also known as constitutional hardball (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). As forbearance diminished in the 1990s due to acute polarization surrounding President George H. W. Bush, checks and balances on power deteriorated and became dysfunctional. GOP congresspeople abandoned forbearance to protect their Republican president, weakening Congress’ ability to check the president’s power and neglecting their own institutional duty to defend democracy. The assault on basic democratic norms only worsened throughout Barack Obama’s presidency, particularly perpetuated by two claims: (1) Obama was a dictator and posed a threat to democracy, and (2) Obama was not a real American (a falsehood fueled by racism) (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Neither racism nor the assertion that Democrats are dictators is new, but the ideas deviated from typical political attacks in two ways: (1) they were widely accepted by Republican voters rather than confined to the fringes, and (2) they reached the upper ranks of the GOP, with leading national politicians devising the conspiracies (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). These ideas, disseminated by high-ranking politicians, were entrenched in the minds of their supporters, enduring for years due to the former’s reluctance to admit to spreading misinformation and consequently risk losing votes.
Norms have changed in a way that oftentimes appears irreversible. But unlike constitutional retrogression itself, the transformation is not invisible or unapparent. One need only observe the process of confirming the results of the 2020 presidential election within the congressional chamber to recognize the widespread mistrust and conspiracies that invade the political system. Rife with objections to election results due to claims of fraud, the GOP was determined to delay the inevitable confirmation of President Biden, a key element of the democratic process (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2020). Even the bipartisan agreement that Trump had incited the January 6 insurrection, a direct attack on democracy, was brief. Today, apart from a few members of the GOP such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Republicans accuse Democrats of attempting to scapegoat Trump and fabricating evidence during the January 6 hearings (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2020). In other words, “a [current or former] president with an aligned Congress is unlikely to face inquiries or demands for information” (Huq & Ginsburg, 2017). The issue of political parties’—especially the GOP’s—tendency to prioritize the wellbeing and reputation of the party over the continuation of democracy does not seem to be dissipating.
The Role of Political Parties
Democratic erosion should not be framed as inevitable. It is a preventable and reversible (albeit deleterious) flaw in the current system, largely perpetuated by politicians and their parties’ failure to perform their intended function. However, unlike many governmental issues, one party is not exclusively responsible. The concept that Republican and Democrats are both complicit often incites suggestions of nonpartisan solutions, but in this case, these may not be the most effective approach.
It is not feasible to guarantee the permanent commitment of either the Democratic or Republican party to securing democracy (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018). Party leaders and activities are continually evolving, often prioritizing policy ideals over the democratic system. Hence to claim that a commitment to essential democracy competition could eventually be overridden by the strength of partisan agendas is not far-fetched. Indeed, it is the responsibility of partisan allies (not opponents) to intervene and check a president’s power should he engage in activity reminiscent—or characteristic—of constitutional regression. This does not always occur, creating a dangerous political arena. As Levitsky and Ziblatt explained, “when established parties opportunistically invite extremists into their ranks, they imperil democracy” (2017)
Although it appears to those not directly involved in the political system that the country’s leader is orchestrating democratic erosion independently, this is not always the case. In the U.S., political party leaders have played a major role in constitutional regression’s rapid growth. A good way to measure the security of a democracy is whether political parties are willing to defend it when in peril (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). A previous method of protecting against demagogues was through gatekeepers; initially state delegates able to override the votes of the general public in the primaries and filter out potential authoritarian leaders (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). It was quite effective. However, with too much gatekeeping, there are party bosses, and with too little, there can be authoritarianism. Political actors have failed to exercise gatekeeping, or protect against demagogues who threaten democracy’s security, a concern that emerged in 1972 when the Presidential primaries began. With the primary system reflecting the will of the people, state delegates could no longer function as gatekeepers, yielding the power to elected officials and officeholders.
This does not mean that all gatekeepers were eliminated. “Invisible primaries,” in which candidates sought to gain support from “donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, and state level politicians,” replaced the delegates as gatekeepers (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). The selectivity of those endorsing the candidates successfully deterred authoritarians (and minority candidates) from running. The system was generally effective until 2015 upon the commencement of former President Donald Trump’s campaign (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Republicans were certain he would lose. His opponents were known career politicians with widespread support from influential members of their party. Trump had no experience in the political arena and was unpopular among party insiders. His ideals were considered extreme. Nevertheless, he did incredibly well in the invisible primaries, substituting the usual party endorsements and campaign spending with right-wing media endorsements and gaining $2 billion in free advertising from liberal news sources’ extensive reporting on his unusual comments and views (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Through his campaign alone, all gatekeepers of the invisible primary ceased.
In such circumstances, it is the responsibility of mainstream politicians to intervene and prevent demagogues from acquiring power, even if via means considered uncharacteristic of the party (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Here, Republicans would be compelled to support Hillary Clinton. Identifying politicians from the party with reservations about Trump would not be difficult given his unpopularity among many. However, these politicians would have to eliminate the long-standing red versus blue dynamic that had infiltrated politics for decades and inform Republican voters of the threat Trump posed to democracy, an action that would inevitably have divided the party (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Republican politicians refrained from doing so. On the contrary, they opted to construct the image of a party unified in their support of Trump and, by not communicating the danger facing basic rights, empowered him to win the primary. The “win by any means necessary” rhetoric prevailed and Trump became President (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017).
The Role of Legal Institutions
Although the U.S. Constitution is often considered an indestructible protector of democracy able to withstand even the vilest of attacks on its principles, this is not the case. It is merely a document to be interpreted and followed by elites and citizens and supposedly protected by “political parties,…organized citizens, [and especially the aforementioned] democratic norms.” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). However, the same institutions intended to protect the Constitution are often the ones undermining it. A main perpetrator of this is the judicial branch, including federal courts and the Supreme Court, both expected to be nonpartisan (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). It would be naïve to consider these institutions neutral or defenders of the Constitution in practice. Should a president nominate a SCOTUS justice, the latter will inevitably reflect the views of the former, leading to a conservative majority in the Court as of September 2020 when Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2020).
The conservative majority can rapidly eliminate certain vital elements of the democratic system, such as voting rights. The Constitution is open to a wide variety of interpretations, as has been proven in numerous SCOTUS cases throughout history. For instance, in 2022, the case of Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee (DNC) was argued before the Supreme Court. The plaintiff (DNC) argued that an Arizona law prohibiting third parties from dropping off early voters’ filled-out ballots—a method minority groups often use—violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment (Brnovich, n.d.). This was purportedly because the legislation restricted voting access for people of color. In a vote of 6 to 3 (conservative and liberal justices respectively), the Court ruled that the law did not violate the Fifteenth Amendment (Brnovich, n.d.). Here SCOTUS, solely expected to implement Constitutional rights, undermined a key element of democracy and contributed to a major part of constitutional regression: a deterioration in the quality of elections.
Federal courts played a role as well. Bearing great indifference to the presidential agenda and lacking incentives or confidence, federal courts seldom intervene in an authoritarian leader’s actions in more than incremental ways (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018). Additionally, the Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service were subject to aggressive politicization by an illiberal administration (Huq & Ginsburg, 2018). The combination of these changes to the judiciary ultimately resulted in a system that further contributed to constitutional retrogression, rather than implementing checks and balances on the executive’s power as the judiciary is intended to do. The judiciary is highly vulnerable to politicization, a risk that must not be ignored.
Economic Factors, and Identity and Affective Polarization
In contrast to the major role of political parties, norms, and legal institutions in democratic erosion, other explanations such as economic factors, and identity and affective polarization seem less significant. Economic factors are certainly important in democratic erosion. The systems meant and promising to prevent democratic erosion have failed and given way to the issue of economic inequality. In other words, economic inequality is a symptom, not a cause.
Identity and affective polarization are inherent elements of political parties. However, these factors fail to account for the institutional errors within the democratic system that have permitted democratic erosion to occur. For example, the absence of gatekeeping is a major contributor to constitutional retrogression, an issue driven less by emotion or hatred of the opposing party than by the will of the people (Dias & Lelkes, 2022). Additionally, the concept of affective polarization does not account for the role of party leaders and others producing the ideas that engender dislike of the social out-group (Dias & Lelkes, 2022). The issue of polarization cannot be approached without understanding its cause, information that parties, norms, and legal institutions can offer.
A growing, insidious threat to U.S. democracy, constitutional retrogression is gradually and perceptibly eliminating vital elements of the long-standing liberal democracy that has managed to endure for centuries. Today, U.S. democracy is in greater peril than just 25 years ago, with changing political norms, politicians and their parties who prioritize loyalty over democracy, and legal institutions that fail to offer the protection they are designed to provide (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017). Fortunately, this is not an inevitable or permanent fate. It will be necessary to slowly remind political actors of the importance of democracy and the actions required to maintain it and reverse the damage done. But perhaps the most important task will be to educate the public on democracy and how and why citizens must use the rights they retain to protect it.
Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. (n.d.). Oyez. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2020/19-1257
Dale, D. (2022, September 9). More than half of GOP governor nominees have questioned ordenied the legitimacy of the 2020 election. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/11/politics/fact-check-republican-governor-nominees-2020-election/index.html
Dias, N., and Lelkes, Y. (2022). The Nature of Affective Polarization: Disentangling Policy Disagreement from Party Identity. American Journal of Political Science, 66(3), 775-790.
Huq, A., and Ginsburg, T. (2018). How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy. Chicago Unbound, 65(1), 1-35.
Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, L. (2020, October 23). End Minority Rule. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/23/opinion/sunday/disenfranchisement-democracy-minority-rule.html
Levitsky, S., and Ziblatt, D. (2017, December 7). How a Democracy Dies. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/145916/democracy-dies-donald-trump-contempt-for-american-political-institutions
Wilder, W., and Baum, S. (2022, January 30). 5 Egregious Voter Suppression Laws from 2021. Brennan Center. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/5-egregious-voter-suppression-laws-2021