Disclaimer: Hannah Cox is a staff writer at The Daily. Cox was not involved in writing or editing this article.
Democracy is a concept that Americans have been used to since the founding of the nation. For many, democracy is an unquestionably robust form of governance that establishes fair representation for all and resists internal political fissures. For some Americans, democracy could not fall, let alone retreat.
Such optimism about democracy may be hard to come by in 2022. More than a year after the Jan. 6 insurrection that jeopardized the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden’s democratically elected government, many Americans increasingly worried about the state of American democracy. . A recent Associated Press poll indicates that 52% of Americans believe that democracy does not work in the United States.
Academics and politicians are also sounding the alarm. A study conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace establishes that the United States is experiencing a phenomenon known as “democratic backsliding”. Such backsliding is, in part, fueled by extreme political radicalization manifested in violence and the questioning of free and fair elections.
Biden also warned of American Democratic backsliding in his Nov. 2 speech, citing Holocaust deniers running for various offices in the midterm elections and the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Understanding the history of democratic backsliding in America has become essential to determining the causes of current threats to American democracy. For Nimah Mazaheri, chair of the Department of Political Science and associate professor, this is not the first time America has seen a display of democratic backsliding.
“We can certainly look through American history and find many instances where you didn’t have any of these things we call democracy for all segments of the population,” Mazaheri said. “Things like the growing role of special interest groups in our political system…the rise of gerrymandering, the growing repression of people’s ability to engage in free protests against the government, disenfranchisement voters, … all of these things were surfacing before Donald Trump was elected.”
Echoing Mazaheri’s sentiments, sociology professor Utku Balaban said the seeds of America’s current democratic backsliding were planted before the 21st century. For Balaban, this backsliding results from a decline in Americans’ sense of belonging to a community and a simultaneous increase in social isolation.
“I don’t think this tension on issues related to democracy only started in the last decade. … [The] historical process…basically started in the early 1980s,” Balaban said. “Essentially since the 1970s, unionization rates in the United States have been declining. It was…a strong signal from the government to civil society about a new mindset. … We have just witnessed a decline in interest in public and civic organizations across the country.
From Balaban’s point of view, this democratic backsliding is rooted in the conception of American individualism.
Hannah Cox, junior and social media manager for Tufts Cooperation and Innovation in Citizenship, explained how social media fuels extremism.
“It can be very difficult to be like, ‘Wait, I’m falling down this rabbit hole, I have to go see something on the opposing side and find my own perspective,'” Cox said. “[Social media] just makes it so much… harder to have a political speech and disagree with others.
For Aidan Connors, a freshman, social media played a significant role in fueling political radicalization at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020.
“I think a lot of people have really been hooked on their phones during the pandemic, because… [we were] all stuck at home,” Connors said. “The thing about social media is they glorify bullying, especially in the political sense. You get praised, you get lots of comments, you get lots of likes, you get lots of positive comments just by saying things. really mean things about people who have different ideas.
In the modern age, social media has become a new medium for people to express their politically motivated aggression. Historically, political violence has been endemic throughout American history, whether during the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s or the reactionary reaction to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
However, the prevalence of political violence in contemporary America has shocked many policymakers. According to TIME Magazine, more than 9,600 recorded threats were made against members of Congress in 2021, which is a more than tenfold increase since 2016.
Many of these threats are perpetuated by far-right extremists, some of whom are associated with groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. It’s a trend that Cox sees as part of the regression process.
“I wouldn’t say that [the Jan. 6 insurrection was] necessarily the outcome, but I think [it was] a step towards democratic backsliding,” Cox said.. “We are a symbol of democracy and how great democracy can be, but also [a symbol of] what threats there are to democracy when we allow people to threaten our democracy, and people in the most powerful position in the land to threaten our democracy in violent ways, nonetheless.
Some scholars see this growing political radicalization as a stepping stone to a type of authoritarianism unique to America. It’s still unclear what authoritarianism might look like in America, and whether it would ever prevail, but Mazaheri described what an American democracy with authoritarian qualities would look like if it hypothetically emerged.
“I guess we would still have the electoral system, but you would have a situation where elections are seriously contested, where the losers declare themselves winners,” Mazaheri said. “You have things like political violence emerging from supporters of losers and this kind of fear of unrest emerging. You [could also] have more of this partisan influence on the main levers of politics: a party that can [stack] the courts or to place their supporters in influential positions with regard to policy-making.
As Balaban notes, the causes of these challenges to American democracy can be observed in other countries. Although distinct in many ways, Turkey’s gradual descent into authoritarianism may provide a good example.
“What we saw in Turkey was basically very similar to [America] In the 1980s. For example, like the United States, Turkey undertook extensive market-friendly reform…then, gradually, we see the expansion of export-oriented global industrial relations to Turkey,” said Balaban. “Because Turkey is a smaller country, … the political effects of these developments … became visible much earlier than what we see in the United States. … Just looking at the Turkish experience, we see similar developments in the United States [with] growing political polarization, more income inequality and a… growing form of nationalism [and] anti-immigrant sentiments.
The midterm election result comes as pessimism persists about the future of democracy. The question remains as to what policies should be implemented to counter democratic backsliding.
In this context, a sense of urgency around the severity of this setback is a start, according to Mazaheri.
“I’m very nervous. … In some ways there are reasons to be optimistic, but there are many reasons to be pessimistic [about the future of American democracy]Mazahéri said. “A lot of people in this country have taken [democracy] for granted, but I don’t think they do now. It is something to be vigilant about in order to preserve [democracy].”
Cox not only expressed a similar urgency, but encouraged Tufts students to become more involved in politics.
“I think everyone, no matter what [they] believe, is afraid that what we believe is no longer reflected in our country,” Cox said. “I think our democracy is less and less representative of what the people want and more and more divided politically. And I think that’s scary… [but] I don’t think people are doing enough to fight this.
For Connors, Tufts students may be engaged in a variety of political activities, although not necessarily global.
“I’m not even saying you have to run your own organizing campaign, [but] if you vote in your home country, sign up for a phone bank for the person you support,” Connors said. “We live near fairly poor areas [where] lots of groups do a lot of important political and community work that you can easily get involved in. I just think there’s some money [to put] where is your mouth.