On September 28, 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a speech commemorating the late senator John McCain, addressing the state of democratic backsliding in America, and warning Americans of the role that the upcoming presidential election will play in helping to reverse or worsen it. Democratic backsliding in the U.S. has been steadily occurring for the better part of a decade, though it was exacerbated with a 6-point drop during the Trump Presidency alone, according to Freedom House. Factors that have eroded American democracy include partisan gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and most recently the 2020 election denial (Repucci, 2022).
Election Denialism and McCain as a Metaphor of Something Missing
Biden used the late senator John McCain as a case study in a fundamental piece of democracy that the United States has been lacking in recent years: civility across party lines. When constituents spoke mistruths or expressed baseless concerns about his opponents, McCain spoke honestly and even spoke highly of his Democratic rivals (Flashback, 2015). He delivered a thoughtful concession speech after losing the 2008 presidential election to Obama, remarking on the importance of the first election of a black president (NPR, 2008).
In contrast, the 2020 presidential election was the first contested election in 20 years, and the first contested election in over a century where the losing candidate did not eventually concede or accept the results (Magazine, 2008). Many sources, such as Freedom House and NPR, have identified the uptick in election denialism since the 2020 election as a key factor in the heightened backsliding of democracy in the United States. Many other sources, such as the 2023 Freedom House Report and Nancy Bermeo in the Journal of Democracy article On Democratic Backsliding – in which she discusses past and current trends in democratic erosion and how to combat them – agree that fair, competitive elections and peaceful transfers of power between democratically elected individuals are essential factors of democracy. The United States has been a leading example of (mostly) democratic, fair, and reliable elections (although there is not truly full franchise, even preceding rollbacks of voting rights in the last decade). As Biden stated in his speech, “The rest of the world is looking,” and “Regardless of party, that means respecting free and fair elections; accepting the outcome, win or lose” (President Biden, 2023). Being a model of what democracy looks like, we must consider what sort of precedent this failure of the United States has set.
Biden Connects Trump-Era Republicanism to Anti-Democracy
The Threat of “MAGA Republicanism”
Biden made several other key points in his speech regarding “MAGA Republicanism.” “MAGA Republicanism” describes the radical form of republicanism that Trump brought forth in government and society with his presidency. This political group espouses far-right, anti-democratic ideology – white American nationalism, restriction on expression of minority identities, complete reduction of federal support programs, and extreme party loyalty – to the MAGA movement specifically and Donald Trump himself (Volle, 2023). Biden addresses an important issue with this group: “Not every republican, not even a majority of Republicans, adhere to the MAGA extremist ideology…. But there is no question that today’s Republican Party is driven and intimidated by MAGA Republican extremists” (President Biden, 2023). Here, his argument mirrors an idea that is discussed thoroughly in Levistky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die: co-optation and tolerance of radical subdivisions allow for their growth and eventual overtaking of government through democratic channels. They refer to these “fateful choice” as “willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). President Biden’s speech underscores the dangers of such radicalization to democracy
Trump’s Brushes with Executive Aggrandizement: “I alone can fix it. (America?).”
Former President Trump himself has either committed, threatened to commit, or suggested he would commit several acts of “executive aggrandizement” (Bermeo, 2016), sometimes implying that that historic documents and means of governance entrenched in America’s democracy should be disregarded because they do not favor him.
In late 2022, Trump faced scrutiny and calls for his ousting after calling for a termination of the Constitution in response to his ongoing belief that the 2020 election was stolen from him (Yen, 2022). He has continuously attempted to discredit media. that criticizes him or takes a different political view, using his famous phrase, “fake news” (Intrabartola, 2021). He has also routinely criticized, attempted to delegitimize, and attempted to pressure the resignation of democratically elected judges, and even a few Supreme Court justices, when they issue opinions or dissents that do not align with his views or favor him (Sanders et al., 2023). In short, he has come for almost any institution or class that is essential to democracy when it does not work to his benefit. President Biden has touched on this matter, saying, “Democracy means rejecting and repudiating political violence. Regardless of party… and it must never be normalized to advance political power” (President Biden, 2023).
To conclude, it is always an alarming day when such strong accusations of anti-democratic behavior are placed upon one of the few parties citizens may elect to the highest role in the nation. However, in cases such as this, it seems as though they may not be unfounded. It is important for Americans to be aware and educated on the anti-democratic behavior and actions of both parties. This upcoming election, the first after historic election denial in the states, will be essential in beginning to repair or continuing to deteriorate our democracy.
Bermeo, N. (2016, January 27). On Democratic backsliding. Journal of Democracy. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/607612
Fisher, G. (2021). Donald Trump’s authoritarianism: The decline of democracy under trump. Scholarship @ Claremont. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cmc_theses/2845/?utm_source=scholarship.claremont.edu%2Fcmc_theses%2F2845&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages
Intrabartola, L. (2021). How trump shaped the media. Rutgers University. https://www.rutgers.edu/news/how-trump-shaped-media
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. First edition. New York, Crown.
Magazine, S. (2008, August 1). 1912 republican convention. Smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/1912-republican-convention-855607/
NPR. (2008, November 5). Transcript of John McCain’s concession speech. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2008/11/05/96631784/transcript-of-john-mccains-concession-speech
Report launch: Freedom in the world 2023. Freedom House. (n.d.). https://freedomhouse.org/event/report-launch-freedom-world-2023-marking-50-years
Repucci, S. (2022). Reversing the decline of democracy in the United States. Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule/reversing-decline-democracy-united-states
Sanders, R., Waldman, M., Kinsella, M., & Bannon, A. (2023, September 20). In his own words: The president’s attacks on the courts. Brennan Center for Justice. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/his-own-words-presidents-attacks-courts
Sundaresan, M., & Isackson, A. (2021, December 1). Democracy is declining in the U.S. but it’s not all bad news, a report finds. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/12/01/1059896434/united-states-backsliding-democracy-donald-trump-january-6-capitol-attack
The United States Government. (2023, September 29). Remarks by president Biden at a campaign reception. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/09/28/remarks-by-president-biden-at-a-campaign-reception-tempe-az/
Volle, A. (2023, September 28). Maga movement. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/MAGA-movement
Yen, H. (2022, December 4). Trump rebuked for call to “terminate” constitution over 2020 election results. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/trump-rebuked-for-call-to-terminate-constitution-over-2020-election-results
YouTube. (2015, February 19). Flashback: McCain tells supporter obama is ’a decent… YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIjenjANqAk YouTube. (2023, September 28). President Biden delivers remarks honoring the legacy of senator John McCain. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4hQ3k7wPOQ