Three Thoughts on Democracy

The following are three musings on what might undermine and end American democracy, in the hopes such things can be countered.

Did the Electoral College prime Americans to reject democracy? The current declining trust in democracy and rising support for authoritarianism could perhaps be partly explained by preexisting anti-democratic norms. Supporters of the Electoral College, or those apathetic, were already comfortable with something disturbing: the candidate with fewer votes winning an election. How great a leap is it from there to tolerating (or celebrating) a candidate with fewer votes taking the White House due to some other reason? Trump and his supporters’ attempts to overturn a fair election may not be the best example here, as many of them believed Trump in fact won the most votes and was the proper victor, but one can fill in the blank with a clearer hypothetical. Imagine a violent coup takes place without anyone bothering to pretend an election was stolen; the loser simply uses force to seize power. Would a citizenry long agreeable to someone with fewer votes taking power be more complacent when a coup allows for the same? (Now imagine half the country wanted the coup leader to win the election — and this same half historically favored the Electoral College! Fertile soil for complacency.)

Does a two-party system make authoritarianism inevitable? No matter how terrible a presidential candidate is, he or she is better than the other party’s nominee. That is the mindset, and it helped secure Trump’s 2016 victory — the 62.9 million who voted for him were not all cultish true believers; many just regarded Democrats as the true enemy. Same for the 74.2 million who voted for him in 2020. Trump was a duncical demagogue with authoritarian tendencies who tried to deal a fatal blow to our democracy to stay in power. Future candidates will act in similar fashion. None of that matters in a nation with extreme political polarization. Authoritarians will earn votes, and possibly win, simply because they are not with the other party. The two-party trap could exterminate democracy.

We forget that authoritarians are popular. The Netflix docuseries How to Become a Tyrant offers many important warnings to those who care about preserving democracy. Perhaps its most crucial reminder is that authoritarians are popular. (Another: democracy is usually ended slowly, chipped away at.) Many are elected by majorities; even long after coming to power — with democracy replaced by reigns of terror — strongmen can have broad support, even devotion. This should not be so surprising. As noted above, one can see that authoritarianism as an ideology can grow favorable, as can candidates and politicians with authoritarian sentiments. (Research suggests the strongest predictor of whether someone is a Trump supporter is whether he or she has authoritarian views. Trump likely understood and used this.) Yet for those raised in free societies, this can be confounding. Could Americans really vote away democracy, could they be so blind? I would never do that. The answer is yes, and the question is: are you sure?

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