American democracy is dying a slow death. Between Russia helping Donald Trump win the presidency, extreme partisan gerrymandering that allows political parties to control legislatures far beyond the proportional votes they receive in an election, unaccounted dark money in politics, restricting voting rights, inability of Congress to stop a runaway presidency and the Supreme Court’s abandonment of religious neutrality, we are sliding toward an illiberal democracy, the kind on the rise in Venezuela, Russia, Turkey, Poland and Hungary. In 1997, Fareed Zakaria warned of this phenomena, “Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.” Most Americans, although uncomfortable with the institutions that protect our democracy, have not yet reconciled with the fact that our democracy is also in a perilous state.
There has been a steady erosion of the public’s confidence in our institutions. Using the start of this millennium as an arbitrary point of reference, the American public’s confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court, as measured by Gallup, has fallen from 47 to 40 percent; organized religion from 56 to 41 percent. U.S. Congress from a paltry 24 percent to a shocking 12 percent. Big business from 29 to 21 percent. Newspapers from 37 to 27 percent. The presidency from 42 to 32 percent. Banks from 40 to 32 percent. TV news from 36 to 24 percent. Only a handful of institutions have seen their approval ratings rise. Among the most notable are the military (which is the only institution that boasts a majority approval rating) and organized labor (which is seriously undermined by the most recent Supreme Court ruling against labor unions).
What is at the core of this erosion? Major American institutions, for the most part, cater to the interests of the rich and powerful. At least that is the perception among a vast majority of Americans. And that perception is not without its reasons. When the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC ruled that corporations are people and money equals speech, it tilted the political playing field toward the rich and the powerful. The same Supreme Court also ruled in favor of gerrymandering, which in many states creates situations in which the party that receives the minority of votes rules like the majority, subverting the will of the people. On the economic front, tax policies and corporate reorganization have allowed wealth to be concentrated in the hands of the few. American income inequality is now on a par with Russia’s. Our political system is trending in that direction, too, where a strongman leads a sham democracy and the ruling elites are a handful of oligarchs. Racial disparity remains a chronic problem with very little being done through public policy to redress centuries of discrimination. African Americans remain under-represented in every walk of life, except prisons. The recent Trump Administration action of tearing babies from their parents for the “crime” of seeking asylum is Kafkaesque.
It’s easy to point to Donald Trump’s election as the starting point of decline, because he makes for an easy target with his bluster and authoritarian tendencies. While Trump is the most colorful and obnoxious symbol of a system that was failing its people at many levels, Trump did not necessarily create those fault lines—he simply exploited them to his own political and economic advantage. The Trump presidency will end at some point, though not soon enough for his many detractors. Whether he is impeached or loses the next election or wins a second term and is termed out, the wounds he has created by exploiting existing fault lines will need to be healed. That healing will require a new awakening by the American public.
The midterm elections in 2018 could be that starting point. However, even if Democrats win back the House (very likely) and the Senate (possible but not probable), that’s not sufficient to change society enough to prevent a Trump 2.0 from emerging, either from the left (less likely) or from the right (quite likely). Trump 2.0 would be smarter and more manipulative than the original and may very well lead America to becoming a Gilead (Handmaid’s Tale) or the Capitol (Hunger Games). These scenarios may seem fictional and far-fetched today, but if one follows the trend lines, such changes are not outside the realm of possibility.
Though where we stand today looks perilous, it’s not inevitable that an illiberal democracy is America’s future. Offshoots of resistance are slowly taking hold. Witness the election of a Democratic Socialist in New York who ran on a people-centered platform of universal healthcare, tuition-free college, higher minimum wage, addressing climate change, gun control, enacting criminal justice reform and a humane immigration system, all positions that have the support of the majority of Americans. Fear-mongering will scale new heights as vested interests try to preserve the status quo. But the onus, as always, rests with the American electorate. We must choose leaders who reflect our values and not succumb to the forces of darkness, who desire to rule our hearts and minds through fear.
Ahmed teaches at the University of North Florida.