Where the crisis in American democracy might be headed.
Americans have long believed our country to be exceptional. That is true today in perhaps the worst possible sense: No other established Western democracy is at such risk of democratic collapse.
January 6, 2021, should have been a pivot point. The Capitol riot was the violent culmination of President Donald Trump and his Republican allies’ war on the legitimacy of American elections — but also a glimpse into the abyss that could have prompted the rest of the party to step away.
Yet the GOP’s fever didn’t break that day. Large majorities of Republicans continue to believe the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and elected Republicans around the country are acting on this conspiracy theory — attempting to lock Democrats out of power by seizing partisan control of America’s electoral systems. Democrats observe all this and gird for battle, with many wondering if the 2024 elections will be held on the level.
These divisions over the fairness of our elections are rooted in an extreme level of political polarization that has divided our society into mutually distrustful “us versus them” camps. Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University, has a term for this: “pernicious polarization.”
In a draft paper, McCoy and co-author Ben Press examine every democracy since 1950 to identify instances where this mindset had taken root. One of their most eye-popping findings: None of America’s peer democracies have experienced levels of pernicious polarization as high for as long as the contemporary United States.
“Democracies have a hard time depolarizing once they’ve reached this level,” McCoy tells me. “I am extremely worried.”
But worried about what, exactly? This is the biggest question in American politics: Where does our deeply fractured country go from here?
A deep dive into the academic research on democracy, polarization, and civil conflict is sobering. Virtually all of the experts I spoke with agreed that, in the near term, we are in for a period of heightened struggle. Among the dire forecasts: hotly contested elections whose legitimacy is doubted by the losing side, massive street demonstrations, a paralyzed Congress, and even lethal violence among partisans.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images Trump supporters gather for the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election.
Lilliana Mason, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist who studies polarization and political violence in America, warned of a coming conflagration “like the summer of 2020, but 10 times bigger.”
In the longer term, some foresaw one-party Republican rule — the transformation of America into something like contemporary Hungary, an authoritarian system in all but name. Some looked to countries in Latin America, where some political systems partly modeled on the United States have seen their presidencies become elected dictatorships.
“The night that Trump got elected, one of my Peruvian students writing about populism in the Andes [called me] and said, ‘Jesus Christ, what’s happening now is what we’ve been talking about for years,’” says Edward Gibson, a scholar of democracy in Latin America at Northwestern University. “These are patterns that repeat themselves in different ways. And the US is not an exception.”
Others warned of a retreat to America’s Cold War past, where Democrats stoke conflict with a great power — this time, China — and abandon their commitment to multiracial democracy to appeal to racially resentful whites.
“The losers in the resolution of past democratic crises in the United States have, more often than not, been Black Americans,” says Rob Lieberman, an expert on American political history at Johns Hopkins.
America’s dysfunction stems, in large part, from an outdated political system that creates incentives for intense partisan conflict and legislative gridlock. That system may well be near the point of collapse.
Reform is certainly a possibility. But the most meaningful changes to our system have been won only after bloodshed and struggle, on the fields of Gettysburg and in the streets of Birmingham. It is possible, maybe even likely, that America will not be able to veer from its dangerous path absent more eruptions and upheavals — that things will get worse before they get better.
Part I: Conflict
Barbara Walter is one of the world’s leading experts on civil wars. A professor at the University of California San Diego, she has done field research in places ranging from Zimbabwe to the Golan Heights, and has analyzed which countries are most likely to break down into violent conflict.
Her forthcoming book, How Civil Wars Start, summarizes the voluminous research on the question and applies it to the contemporary United States. Its conclusions are alarming.
“The warning signs of instability that we have identified in other places are the same signs that, over the past decade, I’ve begun to see on our own soil,” Walter writes. “I’ve seen how civil wars start, and I know the signs that people miss. And I can see those signs emerging here at a surprisingly fast rate.”
Walter uses the term “civil war” broadly, encompassing everything from the American Civil War to lower-intensity insurgencies like the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Something like the latter, in her view, is more likely in the United States: One of the book’s chapters envisions a scenario in which a wave of bombings in state capitols, perpetrated by white nationalists, escalates to tit-for-tat violence committed by armed factions on both the right and the left.
Seth Herald/Getty Images The Boogaloo Boys hold a rally at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on October 17, 2020. Some of the men arrested in the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reportedly subscribed to the ideology of the anti-government “Boogaloo” movement.
Countries are most likely to collapse into civil war, Walter explains, under a few circumstances: when they are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic; when the leading political parties are sharply divided along multiple identity lines; when a once-dominant social group is losing its privileged status; and when citizens lose faith in the political system’s capacity to change.
Under these conditions, large swaths of the population come to see members of opposing groups as existential threats and believe that the government neither represents nor protects them. In such an insecure environment, people conclude that taking up arms is the only recourse to protect their community. The collapse of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s — leading to conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo — is a textbook example.
Worryingly, all four warning signs Walter identifies are present, at least to some degree, in the United States today.
Several leading scholarly measures of democracy have found recent signs of erosion in America. Our political parties are increasingly split along lines of race, religion, and geography. The GOP is dominated by rural white Christians — a group panicked about the loss of its hegemonic place in American cultural and political life. Republican distrust and anger toward state institutions, ranging from state election boards to public health agencies to the FBI, have intensified.
Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images Supporters of former President Donald Trump protest outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, Arizona, where a recount of ballots from the 2020 general election was underway on May 1, 2021. The Maricopa County ballot recount came after two election audits found no evidence of widespread fraud in Arizona.
Walter doesn’t think that a rerun of the American Civil War is in the cards. What she does worry about, and believes to be in the realm of the possible, is a different kind of conflict. “The next war is going to be more decentralized, fought by small groups and individuals using terrorism and guerrilla warfare to destabilize the country,” Walter tells me. “We are closer to that type of civil war than most people realize.”
How close is hard to say. There are important differences not only between the United States of today and 1861, but also between contemporary America and Northern Ireland in 1972. Perhaps most significantly, the war on terror and the rise of the internet have given law enforcement agencies unparalleled capacities to disrupt organized terrorist plots and would-be domestic insurgent groups.
But violence can still spiral absent a nationwide bombing campaign or a full-blown war — think lone-wolf terrorism, mob assaults on government buildings, rioting, street brawling.
Historical examples abound, some even in advanced democracies in the not-so-distant past. For about a decade and a half beginning in 1969, Italy suffered through a spree of bombings and assassinations perpetrated by far-right and far-left extremists that killed hundreds — the “Years of Lead.” Walter and other observers have pointed to this as a possible glimpse into America’s future: not quite a civil war, but still significant political violence that terrified civilians and threatened the democratic system.
Since Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, America has seen a surge in membership in far-right militias. During the Trump era, some prominent militias directly aligned themselves with his presidency — with some groups, like the heavily armed Oathkeepers and street-brawling Proud Boys, participating in the attack on the Capitol. In May, the attorney general and the secretary of homeland security both testified before Congress that white supremacist terrorism is the greatest domestic threat to America today.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images Trump supporters breached security and entered the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, disrupting Electoral College proceedings.
Fears of white displacement — the anxieties that Walter and other scholars pinpoint as root causes of political violence — have already fueled horrific mass shootings. In 2018, a gunman who believed that Jews were responsible for mass nonwhite immigration opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11. The next year, a shooter who claimed Latinos were “replacing” whites in America murdered 23 shoppers at an El Paso Walmart that has a heavily Latino clientele.
Other forms of political conflict, like the 2021 Capitol riot, may not be as deadly but can be just as destabilizing. In 1968, a wave of demonstrations, strikes, and riots initiated by left-wing students ground France to a halt and nearly toppled its government. During the height of the unrest in late May, President Charles de Gaulle briefly decamped to Germany.
In the coming years, the United States is likely to experience some amalgam of these various upheavals: isolated acts of mass killing, street fighting among partisans, protests that break out into violence, major political and social disruption like on January 6, 2021, or in May 1968.
AP Anti-riot police charge through the streets of Paris, France, during student demonstrations that turned violent on May 6, 1968.
The most likely flashpoint is a presidential election.
Our toxic cocktail of partisanship, identity conflict, and an outmoded political structure has made the stakes of elections feel existential. The erosion of faith in institutions and growing distrust of the other side makes it more and more likely that neither party will view a victory by the other as legitimate.
After the November 2020 contest, Republicans widely accepted Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election. With the January 6 riot and its aftermath, we now have an example of what happens when a Trumpist Republican Party loses an election — and every reason to think something like it could happen again.
An October poll from Grinnell-Selzer found that 60 percent of Republicans are not confident that votes will be counted properly in the 2022 midterms. Election officials have been inundated with an unprecedented wave of violent threats, almost exclusively from Trump supporters who believe the 2020 election was fraudulent.
And Republican elites are tossing fuel on the fire. With Trump describing slain rioter Ashli Babbitt as a martyr, Tucker Carlson producing a pro-insurrection documentary called Patriot Purge, and GOP members of Congress doing their best to obstruct the House probe into the attack’s origins, party leaders and their media allies are legitimizing political violence in the face of electoral defeat.
The behavior by Republican leaders is all the more worrisome because elites can play a major role in either inciting or containing violent eruptions. In their forthcoming book Radical American Partisanship, Mason and co-author Nathan Kalmoe ran an experiment testing the effect of elite rhetoric on Americans’ willingness to engage in violence. They found that if you show Republican partisans a message attributed to Trump denouncing political violence, their willingness to endorse it goes down substantially.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images Then-President Donald Trump speaks at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, DC, on January 6, in an hour-long speech during which he encouraged his supporters to march to the Capitol to protest Electoral College proceedings.
“Our results suggest loud and clear that antiviolence messages from Donald Trump could have made a difference in reducing violent partisan views among Republicans in the public— and perhaps in pacifying some of his followers bent on violence,” they write. “Instead, Trump’s lies about the election incited that violence” on January 6, 2021.
Doubts about the legitimacy of election results can also run the other way. Imagine an extremely narrow Trump victory in 2024: an election decided by Georgia, where an election law inspired by Trump’s lie gives the Republican legislature the power to seize control over the vote-counting process at the county level. If Republicans use this power and attempt to influence the tally in, say, Fulton County — a heavily Democratic area including Atlanta — Democrats would cry foul. There would likely be massive protests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and many other American cities.
One can then imagine how that could spiral. Armed pro-Trump militias like the Oathkeepers and Proud Boys show up to counterprotest or “restore order”; antifa marchers square off against them. The kind of street fighting that we’ve seen in Portland, Oregon, and Charlottesville, Virginia, erupts in several cities. This is Mason’s “summer of 2020, but 10 times bigger” scenario.
Maybe these melees stay contained. But violence may also beget more violence; before you know it, America could be engulfed in its own Years of Lead.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right clash with counterprotesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017.
It’s all speculative, of course. And this worst-case scenario may not even be likely. But Walter urges against complacency.
“Every single person I interviewed who’s lived through civil war, who was there as it emerged, said the exact same thing: ‘If you had told me it was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed you,’” she warns.
Part II: Catastrophe
In McCoy and Press’s draft paper on “pernicious polarization,” they found that only two advanced democracies even came close to America’s sustained levels of dangerously polarized politics: France in 1968 and Italy during the Years of Lead.
The broader sample, which includes newer and weaker democracies in addition to more established ones, isn’t much more encouraging. The scholars identified 52 cases of pernicious polarization since 1950. Of these, just nine countries managed to sustainably depolarize. The most common outcome, seen in 26 out of the 52 cases, is the weakening of democracy — with 23 of those “descending into some form of authoritarianism.”
Almost all the experts I spoke with said that America’s coming period of political struggle could fundamentally transform our political system for the worse. They identified a few different historical and contemporary examples that could provide some clues as to where America is headed.
None of them is promising.
Viktor Orbán’s America
Since coming to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has systematically transformed his country’s political system to entrench his Fidesz party’s rule.
Fidesz gerrymandered parliamentary districts and packed the courts. It seized control over the national elections agency and the civil service. It inflamed rural Hungarians with anti-immigrant demagoguery in propaganda outlets and attacked the country’s bastions of liberal cultural power — persecuting a major university, for example, until it was forced to leave the country.
Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images Viktor Orbán delivers a speech in Budapest, Hungary, in March 2018.
The party’s opponents have been reduced to a rump in the national legislature, holding real power only in a handful of localities like the capital city of Budapest. A desperate campaign by a united opposition in the 2022 election faces an uphill battle: a polling average from Politico EU has shown a Fidesz advantage for the past seven months.
There was no single moment when Hungary made the jump from democracy to a kind of authoritarianism. The change was subtle and slow — a gradual hollowing out of democracy rather than its extirpation.
The fear among democracy experts is that the US is sleepwalking down the same path. The fear has only been intensified by the American right’s explicit embrace of Orbán, with high-profile figures like Tucker Carlson holding up the Hungarian regime as a model for America.
“That has always been my view: we’ll wake up one day and it’ll just become clear that Democrats can’t win,” says Tom Pepinsky, a political scientist at Cornell who studies democracy in Southeast Asia.
In this scenario, Democrats fail to pass any kind of electoral reform and lose control of Congress in 2022. Republicans in key states like Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin continue to rewrite the rules of elections: making it harder for Democratic-leaning communities to vote, putting partisans in charge of vote counts, and even giving GOP-controlled state legislatures the ability to override the voters and unilaterally appoint electors to the Electoral College.
Megan Varner/Getty Images Demonstrators wear chains while holding a sit-in on March 8, 2021, inside the Georgia Capitol building in Atlanta in opposition to a pair of bills that would have placed more restrictions on early and absentee voting.
The Supreme Court continues its assault on voting rights by ruling in favor of a GOP state legislature that does just that — embracing a radical legal theory, articulated by Justice Neil Gorsuch, that state legislatures have the final say in the rules governing elections.
These measures, together with the built-in rural biases of the Senate and Electoral College, could make future control of the federal government a nearly insurmountable climb for Democrats. Democrats would still be able to hold power locally, in blue states and cities, but would have a hard time contesting national elections.
Political scientists call this kind of system “competitive authoritarianism”: one in which the opposition can win some elections and wield a limited degree of power but ultimately are prevented from governing due to a system stacked against them. Hungary is a textbook example of competitive authoritarianism in action — and, quite possibly, a glimpse into America’s future.
The Latin American path to a strongman
The rising hostility between the two parties has made it harder and harder for either party to get the necessary bipartisan support to pass big bills. And with its many veto points — the Senate filibuster being the most glaring — the American political system makes it exceptionally difficult for any party to pass major legislation on its own.
The result: Congressional authority has weakened, and there’s a rising executive dependence on unilateral measures, such as executive orders and agency actions. Only rarely do presidents repudiate powers claimed by their predecessors; in general, the authority of the executive has grown on a bipartisan basis.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP A man holds an anti-filibuster sign with a depiction of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as Uncle Sam during a rally in support of voting rights on September 14, 2021.
So long as America is wracked by partisan conflict, it’s easy to see this trend getting worse. In response to an ineffectual Congress and a party faithful that demands victories over their hated enemies, presidents seize more authority to implement their policy agenda. As clashes between partisans turn more bitter and more violent, the wider public begins crying out for someone to restore order through whatever means necessary. Presidents become increasingly comfortable ruling through emergency powers and executive orders — perhaps even to the point of ignoring court rulings that seek to limit their power.
Under such conditions, there is a serious risk of the presidency evolving into an authoritarian institution.
“My bet would be on deadlock as the most plausible path forward,” says Milan Svolik, a political scientist at Yale who studies comparative polarization. “If there’s deadlock … to me it seems [to threaten democracy] by the huge executive powers of the presidency and the potential for their abuse.”
Such a development may be more acceptable to Americans than we’d like to think. In a 2020 paper, Svolik and co-author Matthew Graham asked both Republican and Democratic partisans whether they would be willing to vote against a politician from their party who endorses undemocratic beliefs. Examples include proposals that a governor from their party “rules by executive order if [opposite party] legislators don’t cooperate” and “ignores unfavorable court rulings from [opposite party] judges.”
They found that only a small minority of voters, roughly 10 to 15 percent, were willing even in theory to vote against politicians from their own party who supported these kinds of abuses. Their research suggests the numbers would likely be substantially lower in a real-world election.
“Our analysis reveals that the American voter is not an outlier: American democracy may be just as vulnerable to the pernicious consequences of polarization as are electorates throughout the rest of the world,” Svolik and Graham conclude.
Globally, some of the clearest examples of a descent into presidential absolutism come from Latin America.
Unlike most European democracies, which employ parliamentary systems that select the chief executive from the ranks of legislators, most Latin American democracies adopted a more American model and directly elect their president.
In the late 20th century, social and economic divisions in countries like Brazil and Argentina led to legislative gridlock and festering policy problems; presidents attempted to solve this mess by assuming a tremendous amount of power and ruling by decree. Political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell termed these countries “delegative democracies,” in which voters use elections not to elect representatives but to delegate near-absolute power to one person.
“Presidents get elected promising that they — strong, courageous, above parties and interests, machos — will save the country,” O’Donnell writes. “In this view other institutions — such as Congress and the judiciary — are nuisances.”
The rise of delegative democracy in Latin America exposed a flaw at the heart of American-style democracy: how the separation of executive and legislative power can grind government to a halt, opening the door to unpredictable and even outright undemocratic behavior.
“I think what we’re going to have is continued dysfunction … that could lead people to say, as we’ve seen in so many other countries, especially in Latin America, ‘let’s just have a strongman government,’” says McCoy, the scholar of “pernicious polarization.”
Dante Zegarra/AFP via Getty Images Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori addresses a crowd outside the government palace in Lima during a surprise public appearance on April 20, 1992. Just two weeks earlier, he had announced the dissolution of the Congress and the suspension of the Constitution in a military-backed move.
In some cases, like contemporary Ecuador, presidents were granted new powers by national referenda and pliant legislatures. But in others, like Peru in the 1990s, the president seized them more directly. An outsider elected in 1990 amid a violent insurgency and a crisis of public confidence in the Peruvian elite, President Alberto Fujimori frequently clashed with a legislature controlled by his opponents. In response, he took unilateral actions culminating in 1992’s “self-coup,” where he dismissed the legislature and ruled by decree for seven months — until he could hold elections to legitimize the power grab. His regime, authoritarian in all but name, persisted until 2000.
Much like the slide toward competitive authoritarianism, a move toward Fujimorism in America would happen gradually — one executive order at a time — until the US presidency has become a dictatorship in many of the ways that count.
A civil rights reversal
Americans do not need to go abroad in search of examples of democratic breakdown.
Jim Crow, primarily remembered as a form of racial apartheid, was also a kind of all-American autocracy. Southern states were one-party fiefdoms where Democratic victory was assured, in large part due to laws denying Black people the right to vote and participate in politics.
The Jim Crow regime emerged out of a national electoral crisis — the contested 1876 election, in which neither party candidate was initially willing to admit defeat. In 1877, Democrats agreed to award Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency on the condition that he withdraw the remaining federal troops stationed in the South. The result was the end of Reconstruction and the victory of so-called Redeemers, Southern Democrats who aimed to rebuild white supremacist governance in the former Confederacy.
The Compromise of 1877 is perhaps the most dramatic example of a common pattern in American history, ranging from the Northern Founders’ Faustian bargain with enslavers to the New Deal’s sops to racist Southern Democrats to the politics of welfare and crime in the 1980s and ’90s: When major political factions clash, their leaders come to arrangements that sacrifice Black rights and dignity.
“In the [early and middle] 20th century, polarization looks low,” Lieberman, the Johns Hopkins scholar, explains. “That’s because African Americans are essentially written out of the political system, and there’s an implicit agreement across the mainstream to keep that off of the agenda.”
America is obviously very different today. But as in the past, divides over race and identity are the fundamental driver of deep partisan polarization — and whites are still over 70 percent of the population. It’s not hard to conjure up a scenario, borrowing from both our distant and not-so-distant past, in which minority rights are once again trampled so whites can get along.
Imagine a future in which, with the benefit of structural advantages, Republican electoral victories pile up. Protests against GOP rule and racial inequality once again turn ugly, even violent. In response, an anxious Democratic Party feels that it has little choice but to engage in what the Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon calls “white appeasement politics”: Think Bill Clinton’s attack on the rapper Sister Souljah, his enactment of welfare reform, and his “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice.
J. David Ake/AFP via Getty Images President Bill Clinton addresses the National Governors Association in Washington, DC, in February 1993, when he said he would allow states to use federal money for welfare reform experiments, and repeated his campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”
Democrats dial back their commitment to policies aimed at addressing racial inequality, including abandoning any serious attempts at reforming the police, defending affirmative action, reducing discrimination in the housing market, or restoring the Voting Rights Act. They also move to ramp up deportations (which has happened in the past) and substantially lower legal immigration levels.
Democrats and Republicans primarily compete over cross-pressured whites, while Black and Latino influence over the system is diminished. America’s status as a multiracial democracy would be questionable at best.
“That is a real possibility,” warns Hakeem Jefferson, a political scientist at Stanford who studies race and American democracy.
And there’s another twist to this scenario that some experts brought up: Democrats attempting to unify the country through conflict with a foreign enemy. The theory here is that low polarization in postwar America wasn’t solely an outgrowth of a racist detente; the threat of nuclear conflict with the Soviets also played a role in uniting white America.
There’s one obvious candidate for an adversary. “I’ve always thought Americans would come together when we realized that we faced a dangerous foreign foe. And lo and behold, now we have one: China,” the New York Times’s David Brooks wrote in 2019. “Mike Pence and Elizabeth Warren can sound shockingly similar when talking about China’s economic policy.”
The result would be a new equilibrium, one where China displaces immigration and race as the defining issue in American public life while the white majority returns to a state of indifference to racial hierarchy.
Is this scenario likely? There are good reasons to think not.
Jefferson thinks the makeup of the modern Democratic Party, in particular, poses a significant barrier to this kind of backsliding. Racial justice and pro-immigration groups are powerful constituencies inside the party; any Democrat needs significant Black and Latino support to win on the national level. The progressive turn on race among liberal whites in the past few years — the so-called Great Awokening — means that even the white Democratic base is likely to punish racially conservative candidates in primaries.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images People rally outside the US Capitol on December 7, 2021. Progressive Democrats have urged the Senate to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the US in the Build Back Better Act.
And the best research on China and polarization, a 2021 paper by Duke professor Rachel Myrick, finds ramping up tensions with Beijing is more likely to divide Americans than to unite them. “I have difficulty imagining the set of circumstances under which we’re going to see bipartisan cooperation in a way that’s analogous to the Cold War,” she tells me.
But in the long arc of American history, few forces have proven more politically potent than the politics of fear and racial resentment. While their reconquest of the Democratic Party may seem unlikely now, stranger things have happened — like the party of Lincoln becoming the party of Trump.
Part III: Change
Between 1930 and 1932, the Finnish government was shaken to its core by a fascist uprising.
In 1930, a far-right nationalist movement called Lapua rocketed to prominence, rallying 12,000 followers to march on the capital, Helsinki. The movement’s thugs kidnapped their political opponents; the country’s first president, who had finished his term just five years prior, was one of their victims.
In 1931, the Lapua-backed conservative Pehr Evind Svinhufvud won the country’s presidential election. The movement became even more militant: In March 1932, Lapua supporters seized control of the town of Mäntsälä.
But the attack on Mäntsälä did not cow the Finnish leadership: It galvanized them to action. Svinhufvud turned on his Lapua supporters and condemned their violence. The armed forces surrounded Mäntsälä and forced the rebels to put down their arms. Leading political parties worked to limit Lapua’s influence in the legislature. The movement withered and ultimately collapsed.
The Finnish story is one of three examples in a 2018 paper examining democratic “near misses”: cases where a democracy almost fell to autocratic forces but managed to survive. The paper’s authors, University of Chicago legal scholars Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, find a clear pattern in these near misses — that political elites, including both politicians and unelected officials, can change the way a crisis unfolds.
“Sustained antidemocratic mobilization is hard to defeat, but a well-timed decision by judges, generals, civil servants, or party elites can make all the difference between a near miss and a fatal blow,” they write.
In the United States, we have plenty of reasons for pessimism on this front.
During the Trump years, shocking developments and egregious violations of long-held norms would invariably give rise to a hope that this, finally, was the moment where Republican elites would abandon him. The aftermath of the Capitol riot, a literal violent uprising, could have been their Mäntsälä — a moment when it became clear that the extremists had gone too far and the American conservative establishment would pull us back from the brink.
In the days following the attack, that seemed like a live possibility. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a fiery speech on January 19 condemning the uprising and Trump’s role in encouraging it. Other establishment Republicans who had previously defended Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, also openly criticized his conduct.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to his office at the conclusion of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial at the US Capitol on February 13, 2021. The Senate voted 57-43 to acquit Trump of the charges of inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
But McConnell and the bulk of the Republican Party reverted to form, refusing to support any real consequences for Trump’s role in the insurrection or make any effort to break his hold on the GOP faithful. There is no American Svinhufvud with the power to change the Republican Party’s direction.
With one of America’s two major parties this far gone, it’s clear that preserving democracy will not be a bipartisan effort, at least not at this moment. But Democrats do currently control government, and there are things they can do to improve America’s long-term outlook.
Some of the needed reforms are obvious. To reduce the risk of catastrophe, Congress could eliminate the Senate filibuster, pass new restrictions on executive powers, and ban both partisan gerrymandering and partisan takeovers of the vote-counting process.
Alex Wong/Getty Images People participate in a “Freedom Friday March” protest at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, on the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 2021. Activists urged the US Senate “to end the filibuster so we can pass legislation to solve the urgent crises confronting our nation, voting rights, DC statehood, and reparations.”
Even more fundamental reforms may be necessary. In his book Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop, political scientist Lee Drutman argues that America’s polarization problem is in large part a product of our two-party electoral system. Unlike elections in multiparty democracies, where leading parties often govern in coalition with others, two-party contests are all-or-nothing: Either your party wins outright or it loses. As a result, every vote takes on apocalyptic stakes.
A new draft paper by scholars Noam Gidron, James Adams, and Will Horne uncovers strong evidence for this idea. In a study of 19 Western democracies between 1996 and 2017, they find that ordinary partisans tend to express warmer feelings toward the party’s coalition partners — both during the coalition and for up to two decades following its end.
“In the US, there’s simply no such mechanism,” Gidron told me. “Even if you have divided government, it’s not perceived as an opportunity to work together but rather to sabotage the other party’s agenda.”
Drutman argues for a combination of two reforms that could move us toward a more cooperative multiparty system: ranked-choice voting and multimember congressional districts in the House of Representatives.
In ranked-choice elections, voters rank candidates by order of preference rather than selecting just one of them, giving third-party candidates a better chance in congressional elections. In a House with multimember districts, we would have larger districts where multiple candidates could win seats to reflect a wider breadth of voter preferences — a more proportional system of representation than the winner-take-all-status quo.
But it’s very hard to see how these reforms could happen anytime soon. Extreme polarization creates a kind of legislative Catch-22: Zero-sum politics means we can’t get bipartisan majorities to change our institutions, while the current institutions intensify zero-sum competition between the parties. Even Sen. Mitt Romney, an anti-Trump Republican, voted against advancing the For the People Act, which regulates (among other things) partisan gerrymandering and campaign finance — a relatively limited set of changes compared to those proposed by many political scientists.
Drutman told me that the most likely path forward involves a massive shock to break us from our dangerous patterns — “something that sets enough things in motion that it creates a possibility [for radical change].”
This brings us back to the specter of political violence that hangs over post-January 6 America.
Is there a point where upheaval and instability, should they come, get to be too unbearable for enough of our political elites to act? Will it take the wave of far-right terrorism Walter fears for Republicans to have a Mäntsälä moment and turn on Trumpism? Or a truly stolen election, with all the chaos that entails, for Americans to flood the streets and demand change?
America’s political system is broken, seemingly beyond its normal capacity to repair. Absent some radical development, something we can’t yet foresee, these last few unsettling years are less likely to be past than prologue.
Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images Trump supporters stand near the Capitol, in front of a makeshift gallows, on January 6, 2021.