Have We Passed The Point Of No Return?

A couple of days ago I came across an article in The Atlantic that really gave me pause, made me step back and view our current situation in a bit of a different light … a chilling light.  Brian Klaas is a global-politics professor at University College London. He is the author of Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, so he knows of what he speaks here …


America’s Self-Obsession Is Killing Its Democracy

The U.S. still has a chance to fix itself before 2024. But when democracies start dying—as ours already has—they usually don’t recover.

By Brian Klaas

In 2009, a violent mob stormed the presidential palace in Madagascar, a deeply impoverished red-earthed island off the coast of East Africa. They had been incited to violence by opportunistic politicians and media personalities, successfully triggering a coup. A few years later, I traveled to the island, to meet the new government’s ringleaders, the same men who had unleashed the mob.

As we sipped our coffees and I asked them questions, one of the generals I was interviewing interrupted me.

“How can you Americans lecture us on democracy?” he asked. “Sometimes, the president who ends up in your White House isn’t even the person who got the most votes.”

“Our election system isn’t perfect,” I replied then. “But, with all due respect, our politicians don’t incite violent mobs to take over the government when they haven’t won an election.”

For decades, the United States has proclaimed itself a “shining city upon a hill,” a beacon of democracy that can lead broken nations out of their despotic darkness. That overconfidence has been instilled into its citizens, leading me a decade ago to the mistaken, naive belief that countries such as Madagascar have something to learn from the U.S. rather than also having wisdom to teach us.

During the Donald Trump presidency, the news covered a relentless barrage of “unprecedented” attacks on the norms and institutions of American democracy. But they weren’t unprecedented. Similar authoritarian attacks had happened plenty of times before. They were only unprecedented to us.

I’ve spent the past 12 years studying the breakdown of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism around the world, in places such as Thailand, Tunisia, Belarus, and Zambia. I’ve shaken hands with many of the world’s democracy killers.

My studies and experiences have taught me that democracies can die in many ways. In the past, most ended in a quick death. Assassinations can snuff out democracy in a split second, coups in an hour or two, and revolutions in a day. But in the 21st century, most democracies die like a chronic but terminal patient. The system weakens as the disease spreads. The agony persists over years. Early intervention increases the rate of survival, but the longer the disease festers, the more that miracles become the only hope.

American democracy is dying. There are plenty of medicines that would cure it. Unfortunately, our political dysfunction means we’re choosing not to use them, and as time passes, fewer treatments become available to us, even though the disease is becoming terminal. No major prodemocracy reforms have passed Congress. No key political figures who tried to overturn an American election have faced real accountability. The president who orchestrated the greatest threat to our democracy in modern times is free to run for reelection, and may well return to office.

Our current situation started with a botched diagnosis. When Trump first rose to political prominence, much of the American political class reacted with amusement, seeing him as a sideshow. Even if he won, they thought, he’d tweet like a populist firebrand while governing like a Romney Republican, constrained by the system. But for those who had watched Trump-like authoritarian strongmen rise in Turkey, India, Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Venezuela, Trump was never entertaining. He was ominously familiar.

At issue was a classic frame-of-reference problem. America’s political culture is astonishingly insular. Turn on cable news and it’s all America, all the time. Other countries occasionally make cameos, but the story is still about us. (Poland is discussed if Air Force One goes to Warsaw; Iran flits into view only in relation to Washington’s nuclear diplomacy; Madagascar appears only in cartoon form, mostly featuring talking animals that don’t actually live there.) Our self-obsession means that whenever authoritarianism rises abroad, it’s mentioned briefly, if at all. Have you ever spotted a breathless octobox of talking heads on CNN or Fox News debating the death of democracy in Turkey, Sri Lanka, or the Philippines?

That’s why most American pundits and journalists used an “outsider comes to Washington” framework to process Trump’s campaign and his presidency, when they should have been fitting every fresh fact into an “authoritarian populist” framework or a “democratic death spiral” framework. While debates raged over tax cuts and offensive tweets, the biggest story was often obscured: The system itself was at risk.

Even today, too many think of Trump more as Sarah Palin in 2012 rather than Viktor Orbán in 2022. They wrongly believe that the authoritarian threat is over and that January 6 was an isolated event from our past, rather than a mild preview of our future. That misreading is provoking an underreaction from the political establishment. And the worst may be yet to come.

The basic problem is that one of the two major parties in the U.S.—the Trumpified Republican Party—has become authoritarian to its core. Consequently, there are two main ways to protect American democracy. The first is to reform the GOP, so that it’s again a conservative, but not authoritarian, party (à la John McCain’s or Mitt Romney’s Republican Party). The second is to perpetually block authoritarian Republicans from wielding power. But to do that, Democrats need to win every election. When you’re facing off against an authoritarian political movement, each election is an existential threat to democracy. Eventually, the authoritarian party will win.

Erica Frantz, a political scientist and expert on authoritarianism at Michigan State University, told me she shares that concern: With Republicans out of the White House and in the congressional minority, “democratic deterioration in the U.S. has simply been put on pause.”

Frantz was more sanguine during much of the Trump era. “When Trump won office, I pushed back against forecasts that democracy in the U.S. was doomed,” she explained. After all, America has much more robust democratic institutions than Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, or Turkey. “Though the risk of democratic collapse was higher than it had been in recent memory,” Frantz said, “it still remained low, comparatively speaking.”

When democracies start to die, they usually don’t recover. Instead, they end up as authoritarian states with zombified democratic institutions: rigged elections in place of legitimate ones, corrupt courts rather than independent judges, and propagandists replacing the press.

There are exceptions. Frantz pointed to Ecuador, Slovenia, and South Korea as recent examples. In all three cases, a political shock acted as a wake-up call, in which the would-be autocrat was removed and their political movement either destroyed or reformed. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye was ousted from office and sent to prison. But more important, Frantz explained, “there was a cleaning of the house after Park’s impeachment, with the new administration aggressively getting rid of those who had been complicit in the country’s slide to authoritarianism.”

Those examples once signaled a hopeful possibility for the United States. At some point, Trump’s spell over the country and his party could break. He would go too far, or there would be a national calamity, and we’d all come to our democratic senses.

By early 2021, Trump had gone too far and there had been a national calamity. That’s why, on January 6, 2021, as zealots and extremists attacked the Capitol, I felt an unusual emotion mixed in with the horror and sadness: a dark sense that there was a silver lining.

Finally, the symptoms were undeniable. After Trump stoked a bona fide insurrection, the threat to democracy would be impossible to ignore. As Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell denounced Trump on the Senate floor, it looked like Republicans might follow the South Korean path and America could finally take its medicine.

In reality, the denunciations were few and temporary. According to a new poll from the University of Monmouth, six in 10 Republican voters now believe that the attack on the Capitol was a form of “legitimate protest.” Only one in 10 would use the word insurrection to describe January 6. And rather than cleaning house, the Republicans who dared to condemn Trump are now the party’s biggest pariahs, while the January 6 apologists are rising stars.

The past 18 months portend a post-Trump GOP future that remains authoritarian: Trumpism without Trump.

“Democracies can’t depend on one of two major parties never holding power,” argues Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College and a co-founder of Bright Line Watch, a group that monitors the erosion of American democracy. But that may be the necessary treatment for now, because Republican leaders “are defining a vision of a Trumpist GOP that could prove more durable than the man himself.”

Frantz concurred: “What did surprise me and change my assessment was the Republican Party’s decision to continue to embrace Trump and stand by him. The period following the Capitol riots was a critical one, and the party’s response was a turning point.”

That leaves American democracy with a bleak prognosis. Barring an electoral wipeout of Republicans in 2022 (which looks extremely unlikely), the idea that the party will suddenly abandon its anti-democracy positioning is a delusion.

Prodemocracy voters now have only one way forward: Block the authoritarian party from power, elect prodemocracy politicians in sufficient numbers, and then insist that they produce lasting democratic reforms.

The wish list from several democracy experts I spoke with is long, and includes passing the Electoral Count Act, creating a constitutional right to vote, reforming districting so more elections are competitive, establishing a nonpartisan national election-management body, electing the president via popular vote, reducing the gap in representation between states like California and Wyoming, introducing some level of proportional representation or multimember districts, aggressively regulating campaign spending and the role of money in politics, and enforcing an upper age limit for Supreme Court justices. But virtually all of those ideas are currently political fantasies.

The American system isn’t just dysfunctional. It’s dying. Nyhan believes there is now a “significant risk” that the 2024 election outcome will be illegitimate. Even Frantz, who has been more optimistic about America’s democratic resilience in the past, doesn’t have a particularly reassuring retort to the doom-mongers: “I don’t think U.S. democracy will collapse, but just hover in a flawed manner for a while, as in Poland.”

We may not be doomed. But we should be honest: The optimistic assessment from experts who study authoritarianism globally is that the United States will most likely settle into a dysfunctional equilibrium that mirrors a deep democratic breakdown. It’s not yet too late to avoid that. But the longer we wait, the more the cancer of authoritarianism will spread. We don’t have long before it’s inoperable.

36 thoughts on “Have We Passed The Point Of No Return?

  1. Thank you for sharing!!.. unlike in the past, technology has made it possible for more people to become aware of what is transpiring and better able to communicate and work with others… also there are many Republicans who are not happy with their party at the moment and are making changes (for example, the Kansas abortion vote)… there are a lot of folks making assumptions based on the “old normal” that no longer exists…. the key is not to over react and create more issues…. the pen over the sword… 🙂

    Until we meet again….
    May love and laughter light your days,
    and warm your heart and home.
    May good and faithful friends be yours,
    wherever you may roam.
    May peace and plenty bless your world
    with joy that long endures.
    May all life’s passing seasons
    bring the best to you and yours!
    (Irish Saying)

    Like

  2. The dispassionate Realpolitik answer is….No….
    But when the logical question follows ‘But How?’
    Then there are some very tough choices down the road. There are two last chances to do this the ‘nice way’. Mid-Terms 2022 and US Presidential Primaries 2024, after that it’s most likely either:
    1. Divorce
    2. Hard Ball.
    Personally I would love to live to be proven wrong.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Jill, what should not have been a surprise, was indeed one, as voters in a very red Kansas state squashed an anti-abortion referendum by 20 percentage points. This differential tracked with what polls have been saying and, in a more blue state, the results would have been wider.

    What Republicans failed to realize is people have long ago moved forward on this issue and it is only because of the evangelical portion of the MAGA contingent has the GOP used this as a wedge issue. They are now learning it was a poor choice.

    I saw where Senator Susan Collins is trying to restart a bipartisan bill to continue some semblance of Roe v Wade. It almost passed in the spring, but needs more votes to get over the hump. I think the votes are there.

    I was also glad to see the “unamended” PACT act get passed in the Senate 86 to 11. Votes were held on proposed amendments and none passed. So, the GOP Senators who screwed over the Vets and were vilified for it, voted the way they did the first time. There is nothing like a very credible person like Jon Stewart going on your favorite pseudo news channel telling your audience that you screwed our military. He was right.

    The best thing that can happen to save our Democracy is for things to get done in a positive way and people vote against regressive type votes. As an independent and former Republican, most Americans have passed the GOP by, but they have not fully realized it yet. Voters need to remind them of that.

    Keith

    Liked by 3 people

    • Agreed … the results out of Kansas were pleasantly surprising and encouraging, and I hope it is only the beginning or a wave of opposition to those who would take away women’s rights!

      Yes, and the evangelical portion of the maga movement seems to have the loudest voices, drowning out all the rest. I wonder, though, if the GOP takes its lead from the evangelicals, or vice versa? Either way, bigotry is at the core of their agenda … bigotry in all its forms from racism to misogyny to Islamophobia.

      I wish it were almost anybody but Susan Collins, for in my mind she has lost all credibility. I’ll take what I can get, but I have a feeling Ms. Collins efforts will come to naught.

      Oh yes! I, too, was thrilled to see the PACT Act passed! And I wonder … I think perhaps Jon Stewart’s tirade a few days ago may have turned the tides! It amazes me to hear the Republicans talk about how they love our veterans … it reminds me of a former friend who claimed she loved her dog, a beautiful, loving St. Bernard, but then she had him put to sleep because she said he was too much trouble, costing her too much. Some kind of love, huh?

      I think the thing that isn’t often well-understood, or perhaps just not thought about, is that today’s GOP is not the one we remember from the 1970s, from the time of Richard Nixon when the party made it clear they would not tolerate his corruption. Back then, they had a conscience, but today they have none. In my book, their headline speaker at CPAC this week tells me all I need to know about their plans for the future if they are given the chance.

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      • Jill, on your last point, Nixon would likely survive today with the tailored pseudo news outlets. Nixon did something crooked and tried to cover it up, but he at least did not betray his country and purposefully divide us further like the last president did and does.

        There was an interesting editorial in The Charlotte Observer today daring North Carolina Republicans to let the people decide on protecting access to abortion under the current rules. After Kansas, that will likely not happen. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, he certainly would survive today … his crimes were misdemeanors as compared to those of the former guy. Perhaps I’m wrong … and we’ll never know for sure … but I don’t believe that Nixon would have sold out this country for his own gain, as Trump attempted to do.

          I gather a number of states are trying for that option now, but like you said, after seeing how the majority, even in a red state, support the right of a woman to choose for herself, I doubt most will be successful. I’m at least equally concerned about marriage rights, given the fact that we already know the Supreme Court is considering overturning Obergefell v Hodges, and the Republican base is getting quite excited about it. WHAT is wrong with the people in this country??? Have they all smoked something we don’t know about? Sigh.

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      • I’m not persuaded there is an actual point of no return, but the more a nation moves away from democracy, the more difficult it is to reverse the trend. And in the US the trend is very disheartening. If you look at the Democracy Index chart by country on Wikipedia, you’ll see how the US has been on a steady decline since the index was first compiled in 2006. The Trump years didn’t significantly alter the rate of decline, And even under Biden, the downward trend continues, no doubt in part due to recent decisions by SCOTUS and by voting restrictions at the state level.

        Since 2006, the US democracy score has declined from 8.22 (17th) to 7.85 (26th) in 2021, while over the same period NZ rose from 9.01 (11th) to 9.37 (2nd).

        The US is far from being unique in this regard. In fact the trend over the past 15 years has been downward across the world and in every region apart from the Asia and Australasia region.

        Of the twelve nations that scored 9 or higher on the index in 2006, only six still remain. No new nations have been added to that grouping. Of the twenty-six nations that were classified as a full democracy in 2006, eight (including the US) are now classified as a flawed democracy, while only two other nations (South Korea and Taiwan) have moved up to the status of being a full democracy. Now that is disheartening trend.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I suppose the point of no return, if such exists, comes when there is an authoritarian ruler who makes his own rules. We nearly came to that during the Trump administration, and that is my greatest fear for the future … that he or one like him will succeed in quashing future elections, removing the rights of citizens to make their own choices. Yes, we have sunk to an all-time (for this nation) low, and I still believe it is reversible, but … BUT … not as long as people continue to wear their rose-coloured glasses, to hang on to their willful ignorance and support those with autocratic policies. On Thursday, Viktor Orbàn spoke to the Conservative Political Action Committee, essentially the Republican Party, and received a standing ovation! That, to me, speaks volumes about where they would take this nation.

          Congratulations, by the way, on the progress and rating of NZ!!!! You guys … can I just move there?

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      • I would say around Reagan …that’s when the religious right first got their hooks in the party. Remember James Watt? Then the Fairness in Broadcasting Act 1993 and when corporations became people..the writing has been on the wall ever since..it’s just that with trump, it got on steroids big time…

        Liked by 1 person

        • While it is true that this was the time when the religious right began their descent into what they are today, but I don’t see that as being the point of no return. Personally, I don’t think we’re there quite yet, but ask me again after the November elections … that, to me, might signal the beginning of the end.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well that’s correct. I guess the real point of no return for me began in 2016 and trump..mainly because it showed a populace I had no idea existed, in the numbers they do, who could be so easily conned and who have such latent bigotry, racism, hate and anger within them. I’m sure they were there before trump, but he opened the flood gates and gave them recognition and they are, I believe, growing and that it is perhaps truly at the point of now return now.

            Liked by 1 person

            • You are spot on with that, my friend. Trump brought attitudes and people slithering out from under rocks that we never knew existed! I learned that people I had known, including some relatives, for decades were racists where I had no idea in the pre-Trump days! People I thought were good people began showing the true colours they had kept hidden for so long, because Trump told them it’s okay. And once out from under those rocks, it’s going to take a lot of hard word and a long time to shove them back under again, if it’s even possible.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Totally agree, from an outsider point of view. But Americans have an opportunity in 2022 they may never have again — CRUSH THE REPUBLICAN PARTY not just nationally (as far as is possible in a 1/3 Senate vote), but in as many states as it is possible to take. Oust every Republican politician who is running anywhere. The voters MUST MAKE A BOLD STATEMENT!
    You (the citizens of America) must tell the GOP you are not willing to accept authoritarian rule EVER! Because if you don’t, you are going to lose the America you believe you still have, but do not.

    Liked by 2 people

      • It is up to the American voters. Kansas succeeded in CRUSHING THE ANTI-ABORTION assholes (though I wish the numbers had been even higher), so maybe there is hope yet. I will keep trying to help good people everywhere I can, but ultimately I have no part in what happens. It is all up to Americans to tell the government what they really want, and if they do not speak up…

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, the news from Kansas was encouraging, but again, it’s one state … we still have a long ways to go. As I told Roger in another comment, there seems to be a sort of ennui settling in here, which doesn’t bode well for November.

          Liked by 1 person

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