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American democracy is at a precipice, experts say. And time is ticking

As the U.S. increasingly grapples with political polarization ahead of the midterm elections, there are growing fears that American democracy is headed toward a crisis point.

It's a decisive moment in American history — and many say what happens in November will set the tone for 2024

Ideas53:59The New World Disorder | The End of America

Less than six weeks before the U.S. midterm elections and after an explosive spring and summer of Jan. 6 congressional hearings, some analysts are sounding the alarm on what they say are serious threats to American democracy.

There's the ongoing impact of disinformation and hyperpolarization, as well as a sizable segment of the public that now questions the results of the 2020 election. Public trust in the government is at a near-historic low, polling shows, and 43 per cent of respondents in one poll said they think a civil war could be likely in the next decade.

Such concerns are setting the stage for pivotal midterm elections.

Roughly 200 Republicans running for office on November's ticket maintain the lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Some of these elections will determine important positions that could have the power to weigh in on future elections.

Although former president Donald Trump hasn't announced if he'll run again in 2024, he remains the Republican party's unofficial leader, endorsing candidates and holding rallies, most of whom question or refute the 2020 results.

President Joe Biden, who has been reluctant to weigh in on the issue, delivered an uncharacteristically combative speech earlier this month, calling Trump and some Republicans "an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic." He then implored Americans to "vote, vote, vote."

The situation is dire, experts say, noting it's also a long time coming.

"There's a great passage in [Ernest] Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises where one person is asked, 'How did you go bankrupt?'" said Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.

"The answer is, slowly at first and then all at once, and I think that's a description of where we are with this democracy."

'As bad as it gets'

Lessig has been warning about threats facing American democracy for years. He even ran briefly in the 2016 presidential election on a message of fixing the country's electoral system.

Lessig said there's been a chipping away at the premise of the U.S. as a representative democracy. Gerrymandering, voting restrictions, money in politics and changes in how the filibuster is used have helped pave the way, he said.

Using the filibuster, for instance, which requires a supermajority of 60 votes, Senate Republicans blocked potentially landmark legislation that would have bolstered voting rights.

This kind of political inequality threatens democracy, Lessig said. But combined with a polarized media and calls to overturn the 2020 election, he calls the current landscape "as bad as it gets."

Secession, insurrection

Although some Americans fear the country may be headed toward another civil war, experts are quick to point out the landscape looks very different than it did during the lead-up to the American Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

For starters, they say, there's no clear geographical division.

"It's actually a rural-urban divide, which makes the picture a little bit more mixed," said Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at The New School for Social Research in New York.

"But regardless, you have a kind of separation in terms of people's beliefs, fundamental vision for what America is and should look like. What the sort of fundamental values that the nation is built on should be, and what they shouldn't be."

That separation is not unlike what took place in the 1850s and the period leading up to the Civil War.

Jason Opal, an American historian at Montreal's McGill University, sees an alarming tendency to refer to the current situation as a war, which he calls "deeply frightening."

"It has a clear echo in the 1850s," he said. "You normally saw this in the south, but sometimes in the north, as well. Certainly with some northerners, saying this is basically war, and our opponents are not fellow Americans, or fellow citizens with whom we have disagreements. They are enemies."

Lessig points to a divided press in the antebellum period, which resulted in northerners and southerners reading newspapers that presented different views of reality.

"As those views never met, these two segments of America could march themselves into a war that neither expected would be the catastrophic conflict that it was," said Lessig.

Omar El Akkad, a journalist and the author of the 2017 novel,American War, which imagines a second civil war set in the near future, notes some ideas from the conflict never really went away.

He recalls seeing a billboard near the border between Florida and Georgia that simply said 'Secede.'

The billboard is one example of how ideologies promoting the disintegration of the country are allowed to persist, El Akkad said, from secession to insurrection.

Some Republicans, for instance, now downplay the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which left four people in the crowd dead that day. One has even compared it to a "normal tourist visit."

And of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the attack, only two will appear on November's ticket.

"Whatever happens in terms of physical violence is always going to be underpinned by ideology," El Akkad said.

"One of the most terrifying things about the United States, not just today but for much of its history, is the notion that the ruinous ideology is allowed to survive because it's considered somehow sacred."

Turning points

As to what the future holds for the U.S. without sweeping structural change, El Akkad predicts a slow but steady decline, as Americans are forced to live with things that previously seemed unthinkable. He points to school shootings as an example, the threat of which has rapidly become a part of American life.

Lessig said this is a decisive moment in the nation's history.

"I think the next four years will determine whether, 50 years from now, people will look back on this as a bad moment in American history, the way you might [have] looked at the Civil War as a bad moment in American history," Lessig said.

"Or look back on it as the moment when America's democracy perished."

Lessig said he fears a situation where election results are reversed by state legislatures or secretaries of state in heavily gerrymandered swing states due to unfounded allegations of fraud.

"If these techniques get deployed in 2024 to subvert the democratic results, it's easy to see how that spins into violence in a way that we have no clear mechanism for tamping down," he said.

Woodly believes the tone for America's 21st century will be set in the next decade, depending on how people organize.

"And so the question is, will people be organized to achieve and organize themselves to achieve a multiracial, more equitable democracy in the 21st century?" she said. "Or will people be organized to achieve an autocratic, fascistic, uber-capitalist dystopia? Either of these things can happen.

"I will say that I don't think that we will land in a middle ground. I think that things will either improve or get much worse."

As for Opal, he cautions that it's in the best interest of everyone, Canadians included, to safeguard democratic institutions.

"You have to work at democratic life," Opal said. "You have to think of it as a way of life that is hard to preserve, and hard to improve, but that must be done. Because when it gets as bad as it has in the United States, it is really hard to come back from.

"The best way to avoid this problem is not to get there."

This episode was produced by Melissa Gismondi. It is part of our series, The New World Disorder.


Melissa Gismondi is a writer and audio producer whose work has appeared in major media outlets, including the New York Times, the Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Literary Review and on the CBC Radio programs Ideas, Tapestry, the Sunday Edition and Writers & Company. Before coming to journalism, she earned a PhD in American history and lived in the U.S. for many years.

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