First, the Republican Party felt no need to change course. In terms of following democratic norms and values, Donald Trump was one of the worst presidents ever, and the Republican Party defended him all along the way. Trump lost in 2020, but he received 11 million more votes than he had in 2016, including a higher percentage of the Latino vote. The narrow margin in a handful of swing states suggested that Trump would actually have prevailed if not for covid-19.
It’s easy to see what message the GOP took from that. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters may have embarrassed some Republicans, but it didn’t shift their political calculus. In fact, Republicans have gotten more radical since, having passed laws making it harder to vote while falsely arguing that Biden didn’t win the election fairly. They have tried to stop an investigation of the Jan 6 insurrection, defended GOP lawmakers who threaten colleagues and banned books that focus on racism. The Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court, who often take actions that support the party’s goals, also haven’t changed direction, issuing an opinion limiting the Voting Rights Act that all but invites GOP officials to enact more restrictions.
Second, maintaining control at the state level has allowed Republicans to lock in their power for years and perhaps decades, something that isn’t supposed to happen in democracies. In North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and other states, Republicans have adopted highly aggressive gerrymanders that make it almost impossible for Democrats to win control of those legislatures. This is one of the clearest signs of the decline of American democracy — because of gerrymandering, Democrats have basically no chance of winning the legislature in Wisconsin, a state Biden won in 2020. “Wherever Republicans are in charge, they are fully committed to erecting one-party-rule systems,” Georgetown University historian Thomas Zimmer told me.
The Republicans are gerrymandering U.S. House districts just as aggressively, easing their path to the majority. Voting restrictions and measures allowing state-level Republicans to take over local election boards could help tip U.S. Senate and gubernatorial contests to the GOP. And some GOP officials are embracing the radical theory that legislatures have final say in determining the presidential results in a state.
Third, Democrats didn’t win enough power in 2020 to counteract the GOP’s anti-democratic shift. Everyone knew that Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were somewhat conservative and eager to work with Republican colleagues on bipartisan bills, and thus unlikely to embrace far-reaching, party-line Democratic bills. But when Democrats only won 50 seats, their entire agenda became dependent on those two. It’s unsurprising, if disappointing, that Manchin and Sinema have so far opposed ending the filibuster to pass bills aimed at shoring up democracy. Supreme Court reform is also off the table with this tiny Democratic Senate majority.
All that explains why the erosion of democracy is continuing even with Biden in the White House. There are many, easily foreseeable ways that erosion could accelerate (Republicans getting control of Congress in 2022 and making more gains in the states; Trump or a Trump-like figure winning the presidency in 2024). The erosion could be stopped or reversed, too, but at least right now, those paths seem much less clear. There is little indication that a mass pro-democracy or anti-Republican movement is building, that the GOP is reconsidering its radicalism, or that the Democratic Party will coalesce around an effective counter-response. “I’m worried it is already too late,” said Susan Hyde, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who studies the status of democracy in countries around the world.
To be sure, American democracy is eroding more slowly than it would have if Trump won in 2020. But the 2020 elections may have nonetheless allowed the United States to gradually transform into a place where elections are increasingly meaningless and democratic values are more an ideal than reality.