Democratic Backsliding in the US: Trends and Countermeasures 

By: Iris Koster

Picture credits: Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Introduction

While the US presents itself as a beacon of democracy, scholars have recently been concerned that American citizens are increasingly less supportive of democratic norms and values. This is due — among other reasons — to an increase in polarisation in the US, which causes people to overlook transgressions by co-partisans. As a result, the US has been experiencing democratic backsliding. 

To mitigate the erosion of democracy in the US, the federal government has taken measures such as funding new initiatives to improve the robustness of democratic institutions. Given that the 2024 US elections are imminent, American democracy will get tested again. Potential issues that were raised in the elections of 2020 could emerge again, such as the accusation of rigged elections by Trump. Therefore, it is imperative to study the phenomenon of democratic backsliding in the US in order to understand it and to find more ways to combat it. Moreover, the JASON Institute is dedicating its spring issue to the topic of ‘Challenges to Democracy’, a theme to which this article contributes by highlighting a global issue. 

In this article, I will first explore the concept of democratic backsliding: How can we define democratic backsliding, what causes democratic backsliding, and what are the effects of democratic backsliding? Subsequently, I take inventory of how democratic backsliding manifests in the US: What are the specific factors that cause democratic backsliding in the US, and how does it affect US institutions? Lastly, I examine what measures the US has taken to combat democratic backsliding and whether these policies have been successful.

Democratic backsliding as a concept

Over the past two decades, democratic backsliding has been increasingly prevalent worldwide. Two main trends are contributing to the stagnation of liberal democracy. First, many authoritarian regimes, such as China, have not wavered in their form of government as modernisation theory predicted, namely that authoritarian countries would eventually transition to a democracy. Consequently, because countries like China have not transitioned into a democracy, they still exert antidemocratic influences across their borders. Second, many Western democracies are facing regressions. For example, accusing elections of having been fraudulent is a form of democratic regression, which Trump did after President Biden’s victory in 2020.

In short, democratic backsliding is a political change in which a democratic country becomes significantly less democratic. The erosion of democracy has multiple causes. It can be induced by general discontentment, instigated by (perceived) crises such as immigration or inflation. The discontentment causes people to back authoritarian behaviours such as rejection of democratic values, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, encouragement of violence as a means of political action, and limiting the civil liberties of political opponents. 

Similarly, discontentment intensifies polarisation. Polarisation can be defined as a process whereby various social groups perceive others as extreme, thus feeding into an “us’’ versus “them” mentality. Subsequently, one side may use tactics to discredit the opposition or to enhance its electoral advantage by intimidating voters. Moreover, if one competing actor dominates the legislature, it could rewrite laws and enforce them to their advantage. These tactics could cause distrust among opposing political parties, which, in turn, can obstruct democratic institutions from passing important policies as political conflict intensifies. Equivalently, the protection of political rights and civil liberties is another important aspect of democracy. As a result, their compromise can contribute to democratic backsliding. 

Democratic backsliding in the US

While democratic backsliding became especially visible in the US during 2020, this phenomenon has a long history in the US. 

First, the US has been experiencing significant levels of growing income inequality since the 1970s. Increasing levels of socio-economic inequality harm democracy, as the majority of politicians are more sensitive to the interests of the wealthy. Second, since 2010, some states have passed laws reducing voters’ access to the ballot, further restricting civil liberties. Finally, the Supreme Court cut back on the Voting Rights Act in 2013, outlawing racially discriminatory voting practices. Consequently, the burden of proof is now on the voters who are discriminated against, rather than on government officials seeking to prove that their changes were not discriminatory. This undermines democracy as it is now harder to sue against discriminatory voting practices. As a result, there is a weaker guarantee of equal access to the ballot.

However, recently, these regressions of democracy in the US have reached unprecedented levels. While the US has had an increase in political polarisation since the 1970s, Naja Bentzen argues that the tensions of polarisation and distrust in US institutions have been made worse by Trump. Her debriefing for the European Parliament shows that this is the case due to Trump’s refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election. Consequently, the ensuing storming of the Capitol is a clear example of political violence caused by polarisation. As shown by an opinion poll in 2022, Democrats and Republicans have very different perceptions of what the threats to democracy are, and these differences are not going to be solved any time soon. In fact, they encourage both parties to try to obstruct the other by authoritarian means. In addition, both sides are being fed misinformation and disinformation via partisan media, which also obstructs them from gaining each other’s trust. As a result, voters have been sold doubt and are now harder to persuade with facts. Consequently, they are losing confidence in the election system, making it harder for people to cooperate with their political opponents as they do not believe their interests are aligned.

Democratic resilience policies

Since President Biden was elected president in 2020, he has prioritised strengthening democracy in the US. In 2022, President Biden signed the Electoral Count Reform Act, which establishes clear guidelines for their system of counting electoral votes for President and Vice President positions. This Act aims to ensure that electoral votes tallied by Congress reflect each state’s public vote for the president. Furthermore, in 2023, the US announced a 690 million dollar funding for the Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, designed to improve democracy not only globally but also nationally. For the US itself, this Renewal aims to improve several areas, which include the protection of voting, justice for groups experiencing voter suppression, and bolstering democratic institutions. Whether this initiative is a success is yet to be proven.

Presently, congressional democrats are trying to get a new Act to pass through the Senate, specifically the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This bill was written in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to cut back on the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and it intends to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by creating a new framework. The framework includes making voting changes by states subject to approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, DC. Only states that previously have had a history of discriminatory voting changes must first get consent. Until today, there have been two attempts to pass through the Senate, and both have failed.

Moreover, the US has also introduced a new policy to protect their voting systems from foreign interference in their elections. In 2016, the Senate released a US intelligence report concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election by stealing and leaking Democrat emails to boost Trump’s campaign. To tackle this problem, in 2018, Biden released a statement declaring a national emergency to deal with the threat of foreign interference in US elections. Finally, in 2024, the US released a fact sheet announcing a new tool for addressing the problem of foreign interference: The Framework to Counter Foreign State Information Manipulation. This framework aims for the US and its allies to build resilience against foreign disinformation. However, as this framework has just been introduced, its effectiveness is yet to be seen.

In addition, the extensive polarisation witnessed in the US is another factor negatively influencing its democratic institutions. One solution could be for the different media platforms in the US to develop a criticism community to increase public trust. This can be done, for example, by questioning journalists’ relations to politicians, as well as by examining whether their articles are spreading misinformation, as it was often the case during the 2016 elections.

To conclude, the US is experiencing democratic backsliding. Despite undergoing a democratic regression for years, democratic backsliding has been especially noticeable since the 2016 elections. Clear signs include the spread of misinformation, foreign interference in US elections, as well as Trump’s refusal to concede electoral defeat in 2020. However, there are strategies to combat democratic regression by introducing new policies to protect the integrity of elections and avoid issues such as misinformation.  

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