Jennifer N. Victor
Democratic backsliding is happening. Good thing we already know what to do.
Our ancestors taught us how to defeat autocracy in the U.S.; we should heed them.
It's tempting to start a 10-year retrospective on political blogging with a grandiose statement about just how much has changed over the past decade. When we started this blog in 2012, we mostly wrote explanatory pieces about “regular order” party politics, but today we are more likely to offer commentary about existential questions of democracy. To fully appreciate that shift, we need to look further back than one decade.
In the U.S., and elsewhere, representative democracies are collapsing. The writers at Mischiefs of Faction definitely did not expect this outcome when we started in 2012. The consequences of democratic decline are collectively dreadful, but there are good reasons not to despair. We've seen this story before and our forbearers taught us how to deal with it. In one word: organize.
Representative democracy is in decline
The rate of social decay today is increasing at an alarming pace. There are legitimate reasons to believe governments and economies are unstable, and the signals come from a variety of sources. When Bright Line Watch surveyed Americans in the fall of 2021, a full year after the 2020 election, only 27 percent of Republicans were “very” or “somewhat confident” that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election. Election denial is actively eroding common faith in elections—the hallmark of democracy.
A recent study by Pew Research showed vast majorities of partisans hold very negative sentiments about “the other party.” Specifically, 72 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats say that members of the other party are more immoral and dishonest than other Americans. Negative partisanship has metastasized.
Even basic civil liberties are under duress. According to a recent report from NBC, over two dozen states have banned books in the past nine months. These bans are evidence of a conservative backlash against recent advances in civil rights for LGBTQ people and against calls for a more holistic understanding of US history that is not white-centered.
To add to this angst, the entire population has just lived through a global pandemic, in which over 1 million American lives were lost; the 7th most deadly plague to afflict humans in modern history. Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death among Americans in 2021, according to the CDC. Research has suggested that hundreds of thousands of deaths could have been avoided if the federal government's response had been more coordinated and aggressive.
Among scholars who have examined anti-democratic shifts in political parties, there has been an increasing focus on rightward extremism and growing factions in the Republican party toward illiberalism. According to the V-Dem Institute in Sweden, US parties have shifted little on the traditional liberal-conservative ideological scale, but Republicans have become increasingly drawn toward illiberal viewpoints, such as violating minority rights, disrespecting opponents, and encouraging violence. The most observant writers of our time are wondering out loud about how democracy persists in a nation where one major party does not value democratic principles.
The U.S. is in a precarious position today. But, looking at the ascendent illiberalism and autocratic demagoguery in other parts of the world (Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, Italy, India, and elsewhere), the U.S. is not particularly unique. It is useful, however, to use a comparative and historical lens to view the current context of American politics.
We've been here before
America’s situation may feel novel because more people than ever are experiencing the uncertainty of failing democracy for the first time, but part of the reason for that is that more people than ever before have experienced democracy over the last few generations. US democracy reached its peak in the period between 1965 and 2013, when federal protections for voting rights were at their most expansive. For most U.S. adults today who lived through that peak period, our reference points of democratic efficacy are very high. Any backsliding, of course, represents a loss of democratic liberalism, but life is not static and the arc of history tells us we should expect backsliding to follow periods of progress.
After the U.S. Civil War and the period of federally enforced Reconstruction that expanded rights for many African Americans, we entered a long harsh period of backsliding—the Jim Crow era. Between 1877 and 1965, democratic backsliding was concentrated in the American South. This era included vigilantism, lynchings, violence, state-supported racial segregation, and loss of rights and liberties for millions of Americans, whose progeny were subsequently locked out of economic and educational opportunities to build wealth, own property, and advance their family wellbeing, relative to many white Americans.
This period of backsliding is instructive for managing our current backsliding for two reasons. First, we’ve been here before. We should not act as if America has been a beacon of exemplary democracy for hundreds of years and does not know how to manage domestic conflict; rather, we’ve only been a democracy for fewer than 60 years, and our entire history is a cycle of managing domestic conflict. The U.S. experienced autocratic rule, at least regionally, for the better part of a century through the Jim Crow era—it is not a novel invention in modern America.
Second, the lesson of prior periods of backsliding is that organizing against oppression and autocracy is the way out. In fact, it is the only way out. Jim Crow did not magically end in the 1960s because Americans finally came to their moral senses. For all his tremendous accomplishments, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not single-handedly cause progress on racial equality. He wasn't even popular at the time; he was a strongly controversial figure. The entire period of Jim Crow is filled with activism, organization, coalition building, and advocacy to improve institutions and create a just society for more people. A robust Civil Rights movement existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s led by prolific and courageous leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells.
We’ve been here before and our ancestors have shown us the way out. Do not relent. Persist. Seek justice. Organize. Be generous toward your community. Express gratitude toward others and yourself. When you can muster the courage, call out injustice when you see it.
This empowerment is the main reason not to despair for too long, given the state of things. Look for signs of organizing, resistance, and community-building around you—you will find them. But the other reason is that 10 years is an insufficient lens to understand the transitions of the past decade. If we use a longer telescope into history, we can appreciate the magnitude of improvement to the human condition, despite the recent backsliding in democratic liberalism.
Things could be—and have been—much worse
“200 years ago, everyone in the world lacked democratic rights, and now billions of people have them.” Today, there are more democratic than non-democratic countries on Earth.
There are fewer deaths from communicable diseases, maternity, and nutritional diseases today than at any time in history. In 1990, 46 percent of global deaths were from these preventable causes and in 2019, they were 26 percent of deaths—a remarkable human advancement.
Fewer people on Earth die of famine today than at any point in human history.
Fewer people on Earth live in extreme poverty today than at any point in human history. As economic growth and wealth have improved across the globe in the past century, there are more humans who say they are happy and satisfied than at any other time in history.
It may feel like cheating to dig back fifty, 100, or 200 years ago to contextualize contemporary politics—after all this is supposed to be a 10-year retrospective—but the longer arc of human progress provides an important perspective for our current moment. Things are bleak, but they could be—and have been—a whole lot worse.
There is no certainty that America will stop its backsliding. The last period of intense backsliding lasted nearly a century. Evidence suggests things are likely to get worse in the near term, before they get better, and who knows if things will turn around during our lifetimes. While the prospect of more political violence and democratic backsliding is dire, appreciating that we know what we need to do to right the ship, and we aren’t the first ones to try, is, at least for me, a motivating force to do the work democracy requires.
Here's to another decade of Mischiefs.