Last week I took part in an American TV chat show with Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli professor and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. During the conversation the host, Bill Maher, lamented that a “slate of election deniers” are running for seats in next week’s US midterms. Harari winced, and solemnly suggested that American democracy is now so troubled that “the next presidential election could be the last democratic election in US history”. He added: “It is not a high chance, but it could be the case.”
Maher let the comment slide. So did I. But as I left the set later that night, I felt shocked. A few short years ago, it would have been hard to imagine someone suggesting on mainstream television that America’s electoral system might be doomed.
Harari is no firebrand. He is an erudite and thoughtful historian. The most startling aspect of the moment was that it did not seem so shocking at all. Predicting the death of American democracy has become almost normal.
The primary reason, of course, is that a former US president, Donald Trump, continues to lie about the 2020 election. In doing so, he has refused to accept the foundation of a functioning democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. If he were the only one uttering conspiracy theories, their reach might be limited. But they have been adopted by other Republicans, repeated ad nauseam on social media and parroted by his superfans at rallies. Some election deniers in local government are even changing laws to exercise more control over future polls.
The violent uprising on January 6 2021 was in many ways the natural consequence of Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric. Armed insurrectionists entered the US Capitol and attempted to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Thankfully, the attempts to subvert democracy failed. But many now believe that Trump “is absolutely going to get the Republican nomination next time”, as Maher says. If so, he could win in 2024.
Members of Trump’s circle tell me that, if they return to office, they will not only try to take revenge against the officials conducting the inquiry into the events of January 6, but they also plan to use a little-known legal clause known as “Schedule F” to oust their opponents from the civil service. This second point matters deeply, given that some bureaucrats worked to stymie the worst excesses of the Trump administration, as spelt out in a fascinating new book by David Rothkopf, American Resistance. What may loom in 2024, if not before, is revenge politics.
This explains why Democrats are fretting about the death of democracy. But what is equally striking is that Republicans are expressing alarm too. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that 69 per cent of Republicans think that democracy is under threat – exactly the same proportion as among Democrats. Republicans do not blame Trump for this. They either agree with Trump’s lie that the 2020 election result was false, or they say that “radical extremism” among Democrats is undermining American values.
Voters are losing faith in the idea that different views can be mediated in a credible electoral way or through regular forums for debate. As misinformation spreads, some individuals are becoming radicalised. The horrific attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband has stoked concerns of further violence. A recent Reuters/Ipsos survey suggests that 40 per cent of voters are now worried about voter intimidation during elections.
I suspect that the other issue is that political differences are becoming increasingly defined by personal allegiances and hatreds, rather than ideas. A Pew survey in August showed that 72 per cent of Republicans view Democrats as immoral and dishonest people, up from a 47 per cent level seen in 2016. Almost as many Democrats see Republicans in this light too, with a similar dramatic increase in the past six years. This is tribalism.
Does this mean that Harari’s prediction about the possible demise of democracy is correct? Personally, I still find it hard to believe. After all, polarisation and political violence have been a feature of American democracy since the very beginning, with periodic eras of significant progress. I still hope we are nearing another one.
But this may not be soon: another telling recent survey showed that, while 71 per cent of Americans now think that democracy is threatened, just 7 per cent consider fixing this to be a national priority. The sense of crisis, in other words, might have to deepen further before there is a counter-reaction. Which, of course, is why we need voices like Harari to shout out and for everyone else to remember to feel shocked.
Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at [email protected]
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