The United States is undergoing a transition that no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced. Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority. This transition is already producing a sharp backlash, exacerbated by Trump’s rhetoric.
‘This sad chapter in our history has served to remind us that our democracy is fragile”, said President Joe Biden last week, just hours after the second Trump impeachment. Joe was being optimistic. The reality is that after four chaotic years of Donald Trump, American democracy is in intensive care and will be on a ventilator for the next two years. Only after the Congressional elections in 2022 will we know if democracy has a chance of survival. If an extremist Republican Party, which some would like to be renamed the Trump Party, takes control of the House and Senate, President Biden will be severely limited in achieving any of his campaign promises. This in turn could lead to the return of Donald Trump in 2024, or of a figurehead beholden to the Trump family, signalling the beginning of the end of democracy in America.
Take a look at Republican support and you’ll get some idea of why. The wealthy love Donald—after all, he slashed their tax rates. Thanks to his $1.5 trillion tax cuts in 2018, the richest 400 families in America paid an effective tax rate of 23%, while the bottom half of American households paid a rate of 24.2%. Another group of supporters were those “left behind” by globalisation. Trump promised this group that he would bring jobs back to America and that “wages would start going up at levels that you haven’t seen for many years”. Many believers are still waiting. But by far the biggest group are those affected by demographic change, white Americans, who see their way of life being altered beyond recognition.
The United States is undergoing a transition that no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced. Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority. White Americans, who made up 86% of the population in 1960, will be overtaken in 2050 by non-whites, with black, Asian and Hispanic Americans becoming dominant. This transition is already producing a sharp backlash, exacerbated by Trump’s rhetoric. White working-class voters who claim that they felt like strangers in their own country were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Trump is their “defender” and they believe he is the last chance to stop America’s decline.
Among the Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January were members of right-wing groups, including the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, all white supremacists whom Donald Trump has continually refused to condemn. These extremists believe that they are in the vanguard of survival of the white population in America and that only Trump’s version of the future of the Republican Party can achieve this. The action of these extremists was more than an assault on the Capitol. Their attempts to stop Congress from ratifying a fair and free election were an assault on American democracy.
American democracy, if you define it by universal suffrage, has only existed since 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed under the Johnson administration. This gave the vote to all Americans regardless of colour and was hated by the white supremacists. In the early days it was still an infant, vulnerable and soft, and white leaders, particularly in the South, worked hard to stunt it. They found new ways to lean on and intimidate black voters while scrambling to register poor whites. They gerrymandered districts to shut away black voters together when it suited them, or to crack apart growing black political bastions. Although the Supreme Court ruled against re-districting and racial gerrymandering, voting-rights opponents poked and prodded, looking for areas where the courts were not so vigilant. Maximising the white vote and minimising the others was the cry, and it still is.
When gerrymandering became difficult, the white majority found an alternative and certain way to win an election; make the process of voting easy for their supporters and difficult for their opponents. Until recently this wasn’t possible, as US law required the Federal Government to have oversight of changes to voting systems in all US states. But that changed in June 2013 when a narrow Supreme Court vote (5-4), allowed states to be responsible for their own voting legislation. This immediately opened the floodgates for dodgy officials to keep significant numbers of eligible voters from the poll, especially racial minorities and poor voters, all likely Democrat supporters. As President Obama said at the time: “We’re the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.” He was right. In the presidential election of 2016, which brought Donald Trump to the White House, voter suppression measures in more than 30 states resulted in a 7-point drop in the black-voter turnout. Without this, the result could have been very different.
So how did corrupt states achieve “voter suppression”? It was really quite simple. Take voter ID, for example. Some 9% of Americans have no form of photo ID, with the highest number in the black and Hispanic community. So if possession of an ID is essential to vote, this will prevent many potential “Democrat” voters from participating. The numbers are large and can be a game-changer. In Texas, for example, it was estimated that 600,000 people lacked the IDs necessary to vote under the state’s strict guidelines. To make things worse (or better, if you are a Republican), Virginia put restrictions on organisations that were registering people to vote through drives and campaigns, and Tennessee made such groups subject to criminal penalties if they made mistakes.
Another simple method to win an election, favoured by Southern states, is to remove voting booths. US elections are held in November when the weather can be unpleasant, so without local booths, voters sometimes have to travel several miles, often on foot, to cast their vote. No problem for wealthy Republican voters, but a major issue for poorer voters without vehicles. Thousands of polling places have been shut in recent years, especially in states such as Georgia, which have histories of racial discrimination in elections.
If stricter ID laws and the closure of polling booths aren’t sufficient deterrents, then “voter purge” might work to win elections. This is when officials scrub names from the voter rolls, ostensibly to ensure people don’t vote twice, or that people who have died or moved get deleted from the rolls. All perfectly legitimate, of course, but there has been a growing tendency for mistakes. A 2017 study found that the system used by most states was 99% more likely to purge legitimate rather than ineligible voters. Most of them Democrats.
Forty-eight states have some form of “felon disenfranchisement”, meaning those convicted of any crime are prohibited from voting. Three states, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia disenfranchise felons for life. The impacts are disproportionate. One in 13 African Americans have lost their right to vote, as opposed to one in 56 non-black voters. In all, some 4.7 million convicted Americans are prevented from voting. But there are signs of change. In 2018, Florida voted to return the franchise to felons when they leave prison, potentially restoring the vote to 1.4 million people. Had this been done earlier, it could have resulted in Hillary Clinton becoming President in 2016, not Donald Trump. It almost certainly would have given victory to Democrat Al Gore over Republican George Bush in December 2000.
Stung by Trump’s defeat and armed with these anti-democratic tools, Republican leaders are busy preparing a slew of new voting restrictions for the next Congressional elections in 2022. Georgia, the epicentre of Trump’s attempts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election results, will be the focal point of the Republican push to change state election laws. But there are plenty of officials in many other white-supremacist Republican states who are citing Trump’s meritless claim of voter fraud last November as an excuse to tighten access to the polls. A serious push for new voter ID laws and further removal of voting booths is underway by Republicans in the swing states, as well as restrictions on postal voting, the bête-noir of Trump.
Some Republican officials are blunt about their motivations, believing that they cannot win unless the rules are fixed in their favour. Donald Trump’s acolyte, Senator Lindsey Graham, put it directly in November when pressing Trump not to concede: “If we don’t challenge and change the US election system, there will never be another Republican President elected.”
The next two years are crucial for America’s democracy. Democracy relies on foundations of shared truths, conspicuously absent over the past four years in the White House where lived a pathological liar. Although now gone from the seat of power, Trump has a current approval rating of 81% in his party and wields considerable power and influence. Those Senators who voted to convict him in the recent impeachment are all in trouble with their bases, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the de facto leader of the Republican Party as Trump remains in exile in Florida with no public platform, was personally attacked by the ex-President last week in a press release. Open feuding in the Republican Party could, of course, have a negative impact for them in next year’s mid-term elections, but never underestimate the zeal of the Trump camp and the panic of white Americans.
“This is not who we are”, Joe Biden repeated throughout his campaign, noting the huge divisions created by his predecessor. No democracy can survive unless ultimately divided groups are willing to compromise with one another, and Biden has a colossal, seemingly impossible task to repair the damage in such a short time. Democracy in America is indeed hanging by a thread.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.