OP-ED: This is how modern democracies have died

Oren Jacobson
The Fulcrum (TNS)
President Donald Trump addresses supporters during his Make America Great Again Victory Rally at AV Flight at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Michigan on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Todd McInturf/The Detroit News/TNS)

The world has witnessed a shift from democracy toward autocratic rule over the last 30 years. As Donald Trump's presidency has rolled on, observers inside and outside the United States have wondered: Is America next?

Addressing this summer's Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama explicitly cautioned Americans that democracy was on the line in 2020. Despite his warning, awakening the nation to this threat has proved difficult because most misperceive how modern democracies die. In our collective imagination, the end comes through a high-profile singular moment, like a military coup. In reality, modern democracies die slowly.

The phenomenon is called "democratic backsliding." It's a process by which the incumbent party successfully consolidates power through intentional actions often legitimated within democratic institutions. These efforts curtail basic rights like voting and attack free speech, free press and the right to assemble. The goal is to substantially undermine opposition so the regime can maintain power.

Elections still happen, but the party in power is incredibly difficult to defeat because it controls the rules of engagement. A thin veneer of democratic legitimacy remains, but the result is what political scientists call an illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarianism.

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So are we at risk? To answer that, we have to understand how other democratic countries have slid into autocracy. Functionally, the ruling party has done three things to shift the balance of power and ensure control: Alter the rules of elections to make it harder for the opposition to vote, attempt to silence and weaken dissenting voices, and impair the independence of the judicial system.

There's strong evidence of all three occurring here now.

Examples: Republicans have aggressively purged voter rolls, changed registration rules, limited voting locations, redrawn election districts to their liking and added new burdens on elections, like attacking the Postal Service during the pandemic. These are all examples of suppression and manipulation designed to shrink the numbers who can vote.

What about silencing dissent? Overseas, perhaps the most aggressive form is the jailing of opposition leaders. This is what makes the "Lock her up!" chants Trump encourages at campaign rallies so dangerous, and his encouraging Justice Department prosecution of his political opponents. At worst, he wants to be taken literally. At best, he's having a chilling effect on some critics.

Dissent can also be silenced by tough libel or defamation laws, which Trump has advocated. And when he calls the press "the enemy of the people," he may be laying the ground for such efforts or simply working to negate contrary voices.

Dissent can also be stamped out from within a party when the leader aggressively attacks internal critics, like Trump has done so often — including taking on John McCain and Mitt Romney, his most recent predecessors as GOP national standard-bearer.

Audience of one: In democratic societies, politicians vie for the support of voters. In an autocratic society, politicians perform for the leader. When this happens, a major check on executive power is broken because the political cost for speaking out against the leader is too high. Increasingly, the GOP's political class is behaving like an autocratic party — lavishing praise on Trump, propagating his lies, refusing oversight and defending his autocratic impulses.

What about judicial independence of the judiciary? Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has spent the past four years packing federal appeals courts with Trump loyalists — capped by the vote, one week before Election Day, to shift the Supreme Court even more decisively to the right with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

We should also consider the prosecutor's office. Regimes install prosecutors to ignore wrongdoings by individuals close to the regime. And Attorney General Barr fired the prosecutor in New York who was overseeing investigations into Trump and his family. Trump's assault on inspectors general is yet another example meant to weaken independent oversight.

In countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, society splits into three basic groups. One backs the party in power. Another resists. Members of the third group are the most critical. They may be politically moderate and independent. They may be politically aligned with either group, but have distrust of political institutions or leaders. Or they may be disaffected or disengaged, simply refusing to participate.

Here's how democratic backsliding unfolds. The process is catalyzed when the incumbent power pursues a nationalist agenda activating the loyalists — generally members of the country's dominant racial or ethnic group. Such ethnic nationalism, though, limits the ability to expand support beyond the base, driving the party toward anti-democratic strategies. A nationalist appeal creates an "us versus them" framework, with the out-group defined as a threat to those in the "real" nation. To protect their way of life from the perceived attack, the in-group is willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior.

When the resistance rallies to oppose the regime, it risks sounding hyperbolic to those less engaged. The warnings, while accurate, are too dire for many to grasp. So, as the nationalistic attacks increase, the resistance's reactions escalate, affirming the fears of party in power. This self-fulfilling prophecy polarizes the groups even further.

The hour is late: How the middle responds determines the fate of democracy. When the economy is strong, history shows the incumbent party tends to get rewarded, enabling its leader to pursue autocratic power consolidation. When it's weak, the fear and voter suppression are the best options he has left. If his party holds power with this strategy, democratic backsliding unfolds as the barriers to consolidation of power are removed.

This is where America finds itself days from the election. The Republican Party and Trump, who exhibits unprecedented autocratic tendencies among American presidents, have pursued all three strategies necessary to consolidate power. The only question now is what happens at the ballot box.

Our institutions have been badly damaged. The guardrails are almost gone. Democracy is fragile, and the hour is late. No country that has switched to an illiberal democracy has yet broken free of its authoritarian leaders. America could be next.

— Oren Jacobson is the founder of Men4Choice, an Illinois abortion rights advocacy group, an independent business consultant and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank. The Fulcrum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news platform covering efforts to fix our governing systems. It is a project of, but editorially independent from, Issue One.