In the days after the recent American midterm elections, democracy seemed to have won the round. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, Republican candidates who subscribed to the “big lie,” the fable that the Democrats stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump, bit the dust, denying them the opportunity to interfere with the results of the 2024 presidential election.
Not to welcome this good news would make one a sad naysayer. Unfortunately, as long as political polarization continues to wreak havoc, the question of the survival of democracy will continue to be raised in the U.S., even as we are witnessing the end of Donald Trump’s political career.
Polarization Is a Threat to Democracy
The Republican victory in the House of Representatives marks the sixth consecutive midterm election resulting in a change in control of at least one chamber of Congress. Of course, alternation is desirable in a democracy. In the U.S., however, in a context of a rigid and intractable two-party system, the eras of the greatest electoral competition historically coincide with exacerbated partisanship. When the two parties can hope to take control of the federal government at every election, cooperating with the opposition runs the risk of giving them an advantage, hence the recourse to the systematic obstruction and Manichean demonization of that opposition. This dynamic is not new. In their 2020 book, “Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy,” political scientists Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman remind us that the visceral hatred between the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans at the turn of the 19th century nearly cut short the American democratic experiment and describe polarization as a threat that periodically challenges the stability of democracy in the U.S.
As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt highlight in their book, “How Democracies Die,” another seminal work in the study of the collapse of American democracy, a step is taken when adversaries cease to view themselves as legitimate opponents, but as mutual enemies who must, at any cost, be removed from power, even if it means bypassing the fundamental requirements of democracy. It should be remembered that many elected Republicans who will serve in the 118th Congress more or less openly condoned the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, which some described as a movement by patriots to, irony of ironies, defend American democracy.
DeSantis Is Not the Answer
Current concerns about the future of democracy are intrinsically linked to the figure of Trump, a former president impeached twice by the House of Representatives who has nevertheless announced that he will be running again in 2024. But, for the first time since 2016, the idea of a future without Trump is taking shape within the Republican Party with the emergence of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In the days following his triumphant reelection, DeSantis received a number of high-profile endorsements from within the Grand Old Party and the conservative intelligentsia.
The Republican primaries are far from underway, but if, at 44, the young governor were to choose to enter the race for the nomination of his party, one must, starting now, set aside the idea that he might make a U-turn from a Trumpist orientation. DeSantis is an ultraconservative who distinguished himself during his stint in the House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019 by taking part in the creation of the Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-liners that current Republican leader Kevin McCarthy may have to contend with.
The Floridian is opposed to abortion, gun control measures, and if he does believe in climate change, he does not believe in the need to combat or reduce the threat (and in a state particularly vulnerable to sea level rise!).
As governor, DeSantis authorized redistricting that limits the electoral influence of African Americans in his state, as well as used LGBTQ+ activists and undocumented migrants as scapegoats, to the delight of his electoral base. But as Mettler and Lieberman point out, the marginalization of certain groups constitutes as much a threat to the stability of American democracy as polarization.
It is doubtful that the candidacy of the Florida governor in 2024 is the answer to the current democratic crisis. Far from moderate, DeSantis is a politician looking to give shape to Trumpism without Trump. That said, the result of the Nov. 8 elections demonstrate that the American electorate has little appetite for such an agenda.