Despite once being hailed as a pillar of democracy and freedom, democracy in the United States has been under threat for a while. Political circumstances threaten American democracy because of three intersecting forces: Polarized two-party presidentialism, fundamental divisions over membership and status in the political community, colored by race and economic inequality and the erosion of democratic norms among elites and the masses. Nothing exemplifies these cracks in American Democracy more than the recent removal of House Speaker Kevin Mcarthy, who became the first speaker of the House in history to be ousted by a vote of the chamber.
The removal of McCarthy was led by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and a small group of hard-right Republicans who disliked how the speaker worked with the Democrats too often. In recent decades the deepening polarization of the political system has caused huge divides between Democrats and Republicans. The 216-210 vote not only highlighted the divisions within the republican party itself and also showed that the party’s right wing will not tolerate leaders who compromise with President Biden and his allies. It also showed the divide between Republicans and Democrats with the latter being instructed by New York representative Hakeem Jeffries to not help McCarthy citing Republicans “unwillingness to break from MAGA extremism.” Proving the dramatic increase in ideological and partisan polarization and its effects towards Democracy. As a consequence, a minority of the population, such a small group of far-right extremists, can exercise influence on policies and leadership. This only adds to the feeling many Americans have, that their government does not represent them, undermining their legitimacy.
The removal of McCarthy also provides evidence towards the continued erosion of democratic norms among elites and the masses. Erosion of democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s, while this speaks to democratic erosion often being slow and incremental, it has dramatically increased following Donald Trump’s presidency and the rise of Trumpism. Norms of toleration and restraint have served as the “soft guardrails” of American democracy, helping it avoid “partisan fight to the death” that has destroyed democracies elsewhere. Similarly, congressional behavior long emphasized comity and mutual respect across party lines. However, during and after his presidency, Trump’s style of politics was to instigate rather than peacemake. His anti-elite and use of extreme rhetoric on social media has led to an increase in populism, particularly within the far right, which provided the inspiration the far right rebels who took down McCarthy needed. Furthermore, Trump’s style of politics undermines another key democratic norm of mutual tolerance which is “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.” Arguably, by refusing to accept an election that they lost and by tolerating if not encouraging political violence, Trump attacked the foundation of the democratic system. He has continuously attacked democrats and republicans who refuse to support him, deepening the distrust between Democrats and Republicans which eventually has led to this unprecedented ousting.
Linz and Stepan argue that Democratic breakdown can occur when the problems the government is supposed to solve become “unsolvable”, and it loses legitimacy as a result. Legitimacy in this case is defined as: the belief that the existing political institutions are better than any others, that no other type of regime could assure a more successful pursuit of collective goals. However, A recent survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 49 percent of Americans believe democracy is not working well in the United States, compared with 40 percent who say it is working only somewhat well and just 10 percent who believe it is working very or extremely well. It is clear the American public, on both sides, is unhappy with the current state of the government. Threatening its ability to operate effectively and undermines its legitimacy. Furthermore, the removal of McCarthy is just further evidence for the public to see the U.S government is in complete disarray. The unwillingness of both sides could also suggest that it may soon be impossible for the government to solve any of the issues they need to solve.
Overall, The United States faces many threats to democracy. While these threats have been building for a long time, these recent events show the issues are more prevalent than ever. American citizens’ continued dissatisfaction with the government just proves the time of the U.S being seen as a model of a stable, predictable democracy is long gone. While there are many factors contributing to the deepening polarization between parties, extremist views continue to be rewarded which allows situations such as the removal of McCarthy to happen. There are no clear next steps for either side, the GOP is now in chaos as the House remains essentially paralyzed for the coming weeks. It is clear that Democracy in America has reached a breaking point and may be past the point of return.