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Democracy is at stake in the 2024 US election

How Republican and Democrat opponents tackle the Trumpist radicalized right will determine whether democratic norms survive, writes Leslie Vinjamuri.

Dr Leslie Vinjamuri

Director, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

Uncertainty looms large over the 2024 American presidential election. As the list of international crises grows, partisan battles in Congress over foreign policy priorities are heating up, suggesting that fears about America’s future commitments are warranted.

The war between Israel and Hamas is being used by Trump-supporting Republicans to limit United States’ support for Ukraine. Republicans have blasted President Joe Biden for his decision to meet Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, during his trip to the APEC summit of Asian and Pacific states in California in November. Donald Trump’s threat to withdraw the US from Nato, if re-elected, risks further instability across Europe.

An existential problem

US foreign policy choices will shape the prospect for peace in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. America’s global role has been both anchored and amplified by the strength of its own democracy, so the US election poses a more existential problem. And that is for democracy itself − both within and beyond its borders.

The starting point for the 2024 elections is already a troubled one. The norms and institutions that are the building blocks of democracy are contested by a vocal minority.

The prospects are bleak for bringing radical Republican forces back into a shared conversation.

The most fundamental of these norms is the acceptance of a peaceful transition of power following a free and fair election. But today, two-thirds of Republicans subscribe to a version of the so-called ‘Big Lie’ and continue to see the 2020 presidential election as illegitimate. The fact that state courts confirmed the electoral results after numerous legal challenges has not mattered.

The prospects for overcoming partisan differences and bringing radical Republican forces back into a shared conversation look bleak. One avenue for this, forging a consensus around even a minimalist basket of policies, is increasingly out of reach. On virtually all major social and economic issues, not least on abortion rights, education, healthcare, climate change and the economy, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are divided.

The midterm elections brought a Republican majority to the US House of Representatives and empowered a small but vocal number of MAGA − Make America Great Again −Republicans. The bipartisanship that made for Biden’s success in passing an infrastructure bill two years ago is rapidly becoming a historic relic.

Today, policy debate is too often marked by a rejection of the very legitimacy of the values held by members of the opposing party. This creates a political context in which the scope to forge cross-party coalitions and broker compromises, a bedrock of democratic practice, is shrinking. Under these conditions, elections take on even greater significance, creating the prospect not only for major shifts across key policy domains that affect daily life in the US, but for significant parts of the population to feel left behind.

Basic norms under attack

Democracy’s demise may be one of death by a thousand cuts. But the four years of Trump’s presidency saw blatant attacks on democratic norms become a regular feature of political life.

As early as 2017, shortly after Trump was inaugurated, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded America’s rank from a ‘full’ democracy to a ‘flawed’ one. In 2021, Freedom House said that due to factors including misinformation around the pandemic and attempts to overturn the 2020 election, it had downgraded America’s democracy score by 3 points, an unsurprising result after weeks of a contested election that culminated in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol that year.

The underlying sources of democratic erosion in the US are undeniable. Trump, and now Trumpism, has been sustained by a domestic base whose majority is made up of working-class males left behind to suffer the impact of unfettered globalization and especially the loss of manufacturing jobs in America. Cultural dislocation wrapped up in the changing nature of US society and progressive politics has added to this insecurity.

The argument that Trump is a symptom and not a cause misses a crucial point.

Efforts to reduce income inequality have so far failed, and recent data in the swing states suggests that this is worse than ever, according to the Federal Reserve’s recent Survey of Consumer Finances. Cultural dislocation wrapped up in the changing nature of US society and progressive politics has added to this insecurity.

But the argument that Trump is a symptom of discontent, division and democratic decline and not a cause of this, misses a crucial point. Economic and cultural insecurity do not automatically translate into social division, radical partisan polarization and electoral violence.

Leadership matters, and Trump has been one of the most powerful leaders in recent US history. He has used divisive tactics to solidify and mobilize his base. He has blamed immigrants, wealthy elites and China for the plight of white working-class Americans. Today, his base is vocal and angry, and it has disproportionately powerful, radicalized and highly mobilized representation in the US Congress.

A toxic environment for democracy

Trump also adopted tactics that deepened racial divides, mobilized attacks on his enemies, radicalized a core group of Republicans, and exacerbated antagonisms between America’s two parties. By 2020, the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who viewed members of the other party as a threat to the values of the country approached 80 per cent, according to the Pew Research Centre. In 2014, it was below 40 per cent. Polarization and Republican radicalization, combined with a growing distrust in institutions and a turn towards identity politics created a toxic environment for 
democracy in the US.

Democratic deliberation, but also compromise and coalition-building have become more difficult. Efforts to reduce income inequality have so far failed, and data in the swing states suggests this is worse than ever, according to the Federal Reserve’s recent Survey of Consumer Finances. This is the context in which the 2024 elections are unfolding.

Those fighting to expose disinformation are coming under political pressure from Trump’s Republican followers.

The impact of the 2024 elections can be felt already. In the months ahead, Democrats and Republicans will be confronted by a choice. They can play by the rules and call out Trump and his Republican followers pushing the Big Lie while working through domestic courts to call out violations of electoral abuses. Or they can adopt emotive, fire-fighting tactics that may be effective in the short-run but may suffer a lack of legitimacy.

Laura Gamboa, a political scientist, found in her book Resisting Backsliding: Opposition Strategies Against the Erosion of Democracy that the best strategy for members of the liberal opposition is to play by the rules. When they don’t, they accelerate the collapse of democracy.

Tackling the problem of disinformation will be essential. The 2020 US elections suffered from domestic sources of misinformation and disinformation, even more than from foreign interference. Today, those fighting to expose these distortions are coming under political pressure from Trump’s Republican followers who label these efforts an elite-backed ‘censorship-industrial complex’ designed to attack free speech.

Project 2025

Today, tactics that form an almost daily assault on democracy are fully engrained in parts of US society and are a feature, not a bug, of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. This includes a rejection of facts, evidence and ultimately of science as a basis for making policy. This is most obvious on climate change policies, and these would surely suffer a grave setback.

In the first Republican debate, one candidate for the nomination, Vivek Ramaswamy, called the ‘climate change agenda’ a hoax, and said that he regrets getting the Covid vaccine. Indeed, Trump’s willingness to spread disinformation was most stark around the pandemic.

However strong Trump’s Republican movement has become, though, leaders matter and elections matter. It is hard to deny the unique ability and determination of Trump to rally support for his divisive politics. Already, he has begun to release details of his plans to counter immigration.

Project 2025 envisages a dangerous future in which enemies of Trump are locked up.

These include adopting a potentially harsher version of his original ‘Muslim ban’. It would redirect parts of the military budget to rounding up undocumented people and detaining them in large camps. The upshot of these policies is to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment and create further division.

Civil service would also take a blow. In the first years of the Trump administration, many people took comfort in the theory that regardless of leadership at the top, there were still many ‘adults in the room’. In a second Trump administration, loyalty to the president is likely to be the deciding factor in cabinet-level appointments.

Details of Project 2025, a plan devised by Trump supporters at think tanks in Washington, threaten a future in which enemies of Trump are locked up, the independence of the Justice Department is circumscribed and the Insurrection Act is weaponized as a tool of policy. 

Reason to be cautiously confident

Despite warranted concern, there is reason to be cautiously confident in the future of US democracy. Civil society has shown its determination and its capacity to push back against policies that undercut liberal democratic norms, even by those in the most senior government positions.

In the four years of Trump’s presidency, the American Civil Liberties Union saw donations increase sixfold. These were used to fight legal battles across a number of states to counter restrictions on civil liberties and other violations of the constitution.

The reversal of Roe vs Wade and the ensuing liberal backlash against restrictions on abortion helped score a victory for democracy.

The attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, was the most obvious and shocking attack on democracy, yet Congress returned to the floor and certified the results of the 2020 elections that saw President Joe Biden win. The January 6 hearings carried on and published a final report, and Trump faces numerous charges related to his attempt to overturn the presidential elections.

Elections also appear, at least for now, to have returned to normal. The reversal of Roe v Wade and the ensuing liberal backlash against restrictions on abortion helped score a victory for democracy. The US midterm elections of November 2022 were a case of the ‘dog that did not bark’. In the lead up to election day, commentators forecast voter suppression, contested elections and the elevation of election deniers to high office.

Fears of electoral violence were also pervasive. Instead, election deniers in swing states lost their races; the Democrats managed to hold on to the Senate; and the elections passed with little fanfare.The World TodayRELATED CONTENTJustine Greening: ‘Foreign policy isn’t just defence, it’s development’

One year on, in November 2023, American voters turned out to protect abortion rights in states from Virginia to Pennsylvania. In Ohio, voters ensured that the right to abortion will be enshrined in the constitution. And the battle to ensure abortion rights helped Andy Beshear, a Democratic governor in the red state of Kentucky, hold on to his seat. Election day once again passed with no sign of violence.

And despite Trump’s attacks on the environment and climate policy, governors, corporations and university presidents rallied around the Paris Agreement targets and worked hard to push a climate agenda forward.

Biden’s flagship climate policy, the Inflation Reduction Act, provides $369 billion in green subsidies that are also expected to be sustained regardless of the results of next year’s elections. Republicans opposed the legislation but have now changed course, since districts they hold have so far reaped more investment and subsidies than districts held by Democrats.

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