Is Democracy Really in Danger in the US?

Michael Forster Rothbart/ZUMA

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How is democracy faring these days? The conventional wisdom is that it’s doing pretty poorly, and not just in the US. Look at Hungary and Poland. Or Brazil. On the flip side, there’s the ascendancy and relative success of China.

I don’t want to take on the whole world today, but as far as the US is concerned I would like to persuade you that democracy is doing better than people think. Or, at the very least, give you something to mull over. Let’s take a look at the evidence:

  1. First, an acknowledgment: what Donald Trump did over the last two months of his presidency was beyond the pale. Way beyond it. No American president has ever tried to overturn the results of a clearly decided election before. He deserves to be impeached and banned from ever holding office again.
  2. That said, consider who supported the “Stop the Steal” movement. It’s true that a lot of big-name Republicans supported it, and that’s obviously disturbing. At the same time, without exception, the supporters were loudmouths who had no authority or influence over the official results. These are people for whom talk is cheap. Of the people who did have authority over the official results, every single one—governors, attorneys general, county clerks—acted normally and honorably. That goes for both Republican and Democratic officials.
  3. Trump lost every single one of the dozens of lawsuits his campaign attempted.¹ He lost them before Republican judges and Democratic judges. He lost them before judges he himself had appointed. In many cases, his losses were accompanied by scathing opinions.
  4. The insurrection of 1/6 was appalling. Nevertheless, even if I grant the worst case scenario—the taking of hostages, the assassination of Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, whatever horror you can imagine—there was never the slightest chance of the Senate refusing to confirm Joe Biden’s victory. The insurrection would have been put down and eventually the Senate would have voted. At most, a few grandstanders would have voted against confirmation, but only because they had the luxury of knowing that it was a freebie. It’s something that gets them attention among the swamp dwellers without risking any chance of the vote actually being overturned.
  5. What other evidence is there of democracy declining in the US? Not much. Republican efforts to suppress the vote have been going on forever, picking up steam following the 2000 election. There’s nothing especially new about bogus Republican claims of massive election fraud, and Democratic efforts to fight back have mostly kept Republicans at bay. More generally, thousands of elections are held every year without incident. Voter turnout is normal. Black turnout rates have increased over the past decade.² Incumbent reelection rates are down slightly, a good sign for democracy. The share of women and of nonwhite members serving in Congress have both doubled since 2000, another good sign for democracy.
  6. Thanks largely to Citizens United, campaign spending has skyrocketed over the past decade. But high spending by itself says little either way about the health of democracy, and Democrats have had little trouble keeping up. In 2020 they outspent Republicans by nearly 2 to 1.

What am I missing here? Anything truly important? My main point here is not to pretend we have no problems. It’s to prevent the hideous events of 1/6 from taking up more of your mindshare than they deserve simply because they’re fresh in our memories. As awful as it was, the insurrection was a one-off event led by a one-off president—and involving a smallish number of people. Fox News deserves all the condemnation in the world for promoting Trump’s conspiracy theories, and I wouldn’t mourn more than a few minutes if an earthquake swallowed up 1211 Sixth Avenue. But that’s a whole different problem.

¹Trump won one case, but the ruling was eventually overturned.

²With the single exception of 2016, for obvious reasons.

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"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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