The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion American democracy is in even worse shape than you think

Supporters of President Trump storm the U.S. Capitol. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
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Joe Biden so far has been an effective president, particularly in terms of managing the coronavirus vaccine rollout and making hard but necessary policy decisions such as moving to withdraw U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. But even with a terrible president out of office, America is still headed in a terrible direction — and at a much faster pace than I expected when Biden took over.

We have four huge problems. I don’t see solutions to any of them.

By far the biggest problem is the Republican Party. Presented with a clear chance to move on from Trumpism after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the GOP has instead continued its drift toward anti-democratic action and white grievance. The future looks scary. A Republican-controlled House could attempt to impeach Biden in 2023 and 2024 on basically any pretext, as payback for Trump’s two impeachments. If Republicans win the governorships of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin next year, taking total control in those key swing states, they could impose all kinds of electoral barriers for the next presidential election. The Republicans are laying the groundwork to refuse to certify a 2024 Democratic presidential victory should the GOP hold a House majority.

“The radicalization of the Republican Party has outpaced what even most critical observers imagined,” Georgetown University historian Thomas Zimmer told me. “We need to grapple with what that should mean for our expectations going forward and start thinking about real worst-case scenarios.”

More than a half dozen Republicans have refused to say whether President Biden won legitimately in the months since Biden’s inauguration. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Further, Republicans are poised to take a lot of undemocratic actions at the state level, where they already have total control in 23 states. Expect to see Republicans elsewhere gerrymander legislative districts the way they have in Wisconsin, where it is now virtually impossible for Democrats to win a majority in either house of the legislature. GOP-controlled state governments are both blocking cities from implementing new policies and reversing old ones, preventing the Democratic-leaning jurisdictions from determining how their communities are run. America won’t be much of a democracy, Zimmer said, if it has a federal system in which more than 20 states “resemble apartheid South Africa more than a functioning multiracial democracy.”

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And all indications are that another group of Republicans, the six GOP appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court, either embrace the party’s anti-democratic drift or aren’t going to do much to halt it.

The Republican path wouldn’t matter too much if it seemed like voters were going to punish them. But the GOP appears unlikely to suffer an electoral backlash because of our second, huge problem: America appears intractably polarized into Team Blue and Team Red.

Biden’s approval rating is about 53 percent, with his disapproval around 41 percent, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of recent polls. That’s better than Trump, who hovered around 42 percent approval for most of his presidency. But it can’t get too high, because more than 80 percent of Republicans disapprove of Biden. And Biden’s good approval ratings haven’t buoyed congressional Democrats. Generic ballot polls suggest that Democrats currently have a four to seven point advantage over Republicans — not the 12-point one implied by Biden’s numbers.

Those so-so numbers for congressional Democrats combine with three other factors working against them: the traditional midterm swing away from an incumbent president’s party, the Democrats’ thin House margin and the fact that Republicans have much greater control of the redistricting process than Democrats. The Republicans are the favorites to win the House next year and could also win the Senate, as well as key gubernatorial and secretary of state races, putting them in charge of the election process in Michigan and other states. So the Republicans look poised to have a lot of power in 2023 to execute the agenda I laid out above.

America could at least prepare for an anti-democratic GOP, but the past four months suggest our third huge problem: Our institutions aren’t up to it. Many news outlets, particularly at the local level, avoid honestly describing the Republican Party as increasingly at war with democracy. Businesses are backtracking from their initial decisions to stop donating money to Republicans who wouldn’t certify the 2020 election results, and social media companies are wary of acting to stop misinformation, which disproportionately comes from conservative sources. Nonpartisan institutions, faced with a choice of maintaining neutrality or upholding their core values, are often choosing the former.

Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the ban on former president Donald Trump, a test case of social media companies’ power to moderate inflammatory speech. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

And finally, moderate Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans either don’t appreciate the direness of the situation or don’t care. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) seem to value their reputations as being bipartisan more than protecting the voting rights of people who look like me. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s (Utah) response to a law clearly designed to make it harder for liberal-leaning people in Georgia to cast ballots was to criticize … the media for covering the law too harshly.

I hope I am overly alarmed about all of this. But I don’t think I am. Perhaps democracy dies faster in darkness. But it could also die slowly in the light, as all of us watched but didn’t do enough to save it.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: The sorry state of American democracy

Paul Waldman: This is how Donald Trump becomes president again

Donna F. Edwards: It’s time for the House to show Marjorie Taylor Greene the door

Greg Sargent: If Joe Manchin really believes this about the GOP, we’re in serious trouble

Jennifer Rubin: Kevin McCarthy proves Liz Cheney’s point

Max Boot: Why Republican opposition to a Jan. 6 commission could be a blessing in disguise