Last week I appeared on an American TV chat show with Israeli professor and author Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. During the conversation, the host, Bill Maher, lamented that a “slate of election naysayers” was running for next week’s US midterm meetings. Harari won, and gravely suggested that American democracy was now in such trouble that “the next presidential election may be the last democratic election in US history”. He added: “It’s not a high chance, but it could be the case.”
Let meher comment slide. I did the same. But when I left the set that night, I was shocked. Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone suggesting on mainstream television that America’s electoral system might be doomed.
Harari is no firebrand. He is a learned and thoughtful historian. The most shocking aspect of this moment was that it didn’t seem all that shocking. Predicting the death of American democracy has become almost commonplace.
The primary reason, of course, is that the former US president, Donald Trump, continues to lie about the 2020 election. In doing so, they have refused to accept the foundation of a functioning democracy, the peaceful transfer of power. If he were only spouting conspiracy theories, his reach might be limited. But he has been embraced by other Republicans, frequently touted on social media and parroted by his superfans at rallies. Some election deniers in local government are also changing laws to exercise more control over future elections.
The violent uprising on 6 January 2021 was in many ways a natural consequence of Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric. Armed rebels entered the US Capitol and attempted to block Joe Biden’s certificate of victory. Fortunately, the attempt to subvert democracy failed. But many now believe Trump will “get the Republican nomination next time,” as Maher puts it. If so, he may win in 2024.
Members of Trump’s circle tell me that, if he returns to office, he will not only seek to retaliate against officials investigating the events of January 6, but also plans to use a little-known legal clause known as “his Schedule F” to expel dissenters from civil service. This second point is deeply important, however, as some bureaucrats have worked to curb the Trump administration’s worst excesses, as spelled out in a fascinating new book by David Rothkopf. American resistance. What could happen in 2024, if not before, is revenge politics.
This explains why Democrats worry about the death of democracy. But equally surprising is that Republicans are also expressing alarm. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that 69 percent of Republicans believe democracy is in danger—exactly the same proportion among Democrats. Republicans don’t blame Trump for this. They either agree with Trump’s lie that the 2020 election results were wrong, or they say that “radical extremism” among Democrats is undermining American values.
Voters are losing faith in the idea that differing views can be mediated through credible electoral pathways or regular forums for debate. As misinformation spreads, some individuals are becoming radicalized. The horrific attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband has raised fears of more violence. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests 40 percent of voters are now worried about voter intimidation during elections.
Another issue, I suspect, is that political differences are increasingly defined by personal allegiances and hatreds rather than ideas. A Pew survey in August showed that 72 percent of Republicans view Democrats as unethical and dishonest, up from 47 percent in 2016. Almost as many Democrats view Republicans in this light as well, with equally dramatic growth in the past six years. This is tribalism.
Does this mean that Harari’s predictions about the possible death of democracy are correct? Personally, I still find it hard to believe. After all, polarization and political violence have been a feature of American democracy since its inception, interspersed with eras of significant progress. I still hope we are close to another one.
But this won’t happen anytime soon: Another recent survey showed that, while 71 percent of Americans now believe democracy is under threat, only 7 percent consider it a national priority. In other words, the sense of crisis may deepen before a counter-reaction occurs. Which, of course, is why we need voices like Harari’s to shout and remind everyone else to feel the shock.
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