Andrew J. Bjelland: Will American democracy pass its current stress test?

We have weakened democratic institutions and effective authoritarian practices

In 1780, John Adams expressed grave apprehension: “There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each [promoting] Measures in opposition to [the] other. This…is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil…”

Is Adams’s apprehension now a prophecy fulfilled?

American governance is increasingly a hybrid of weakened democratic institutions and effective authoritarian practices. The trappings of democracy remain in place, but opposing parties seldom negotiate in good faith, engage in compromise or educate voters concerning the merits of their respective agendas.

Both Republicans and Democrats ensure the system favors the reelection of incumbents and renders third-party challenges ineffectual. Mendacious propaganda is commonplace. Televised debates are virtually devoid of substance. The specter of violence haunts public protests. Civility is little more than a dim memory. The judiciary is highly politicized.

American power politics is warfare without the bloodletting. Even the COVID-19 pandemic — a common foe which should have united the people — has engendered partisan division. The bloodletting may not be evident, but this battle has resulted in over 600,000 deaths.

Due to the outsized role of money in U.S. politics, America’s elected officials frequently ignore the considered preferences of the moderate majority. They instead enact the policies favored by their mega-donors and base loyalists—a practice that alienates many. Low midterm election turnouts evidence voter apathy. A 2020 Pew Research poll indicated 70% of respondents believed current political arrangements unfairly advantage the rich and powerful.

In a 2021 American Enterprise Institute poll, 36% of respondents condoned the “use of force” to combat the decline of America’s traditional way of life.

Both major parties engage in power politics, but the Republicans alone have declared war on representative democracy. To combat increased voter turnout, Republicans employ gerrymandering, voter suppression, polling-place closures, judicial gutting of the Voting Rights Act and other anti-democratic tactics.

As of June 21, Republican legislators in 17 states had passed 28 new laws restricting access to the polls.

Hundreds of such bills pack the legislative hoppers in 40 other states. Some of them authorize overturning the popular vote on the basis of alleged fraud. These allegations need not be grounded in legally compelling evidence.

Polls indicate the majority of citizens favor election reform, a wealth tax, reasonable gun controls, more affordable health care and other socially beneficial programs. Republicans are well aware the majority of voters disapprove of their opposition to such measures.

Due to demographic shifts, many Republican candidates face major electoral challenges. GOP leaders, however, do little to expand their base. They instead focus on retaining the support of loyalists. They do so by offering partisan resolutions to hot-button moral-religious issues and by appointing judges whose views jibe with those of their base. The GOP’s media enablers support these efforts by feeding their audiences a steady diet of red meat—a diet of emotionally charged disinformation and conspiracy theories.

During his 2020 election campaign, President Trump falsely asserted Joe Biden could win only if the election were rigged. Subsequently Trump invoked his Big Lie to foment the Jan. 6 insurrection. Upon the restoration of order, eight Republican senators and 139 representatives persisted in efforts to challenge the election results. To this day Trump and many GOP officials promulgate the Big Lie and support efforts to overturn election outcomes in key states.

The majority of Republican voters still credit the Big Lie. Trump’s populists still retain veto power in GOP primaries. Hence fearful Republican officials dare not call out Trump’s Big Lie. They dare not support nonpartisan investigations of the January 6th insurrection. They dare not forcefully condemn the desecration of our democracy’s major shrine. They dare not disavow those within their ranks who incited a violent assault on the nation’s Capitol. They instead censure those “RINOS” who dare speak the truth.

A few courageous Republican legislators have steadfastly acknowledged a basic fact: Trump, unlike any other president in American history, encouraged sedition and refused to facilitate a peaceful transition of executive authority to his legitimate successor. None, however, highlight another of Trump’s major offenses. The defeated president pressured state election officials to transfer votes into his column.

And so it goes. Trumpism lives on. America’s representative democracy is hanging on the ropes. Republicans are positioning themselves to deliver knockout blows in 2022 and 2024.

Is it too late to make America safe for democracy?

Andrew G. Bjelland

Andrew G. Bjelland, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus, philosophy department, Seattle University and resides in Salt Lake City.

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