Donald Trump Holds A Campaign Rally In Erie, Pennsylvania

Former U.S. President Donald Trump enters Erie Insurance Arena for a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

If Democracy Dies, So What?

Whether we like it or not, the 2024 election is a referendum on Joe Biden only insofar as he represents the alternative to authoritarian rule.

The Biden campaign has made the 2024 general election into a referendum on democracy. So far, however, the electoral choice between authoritarianism and democracy has not registered among voters as a determining factor. The Times/Siena poll in May indicates that only 2% of registered voters identify the state of democracy as a main factor in their choice of a candidate for the presidency, and only 5% list it as their most important issue. That’s bleak, whichever way you look at it.

Maybe the situation is not quite so bad? The March Reuters/Ipsos poll indicates, for instance, that 23% of the American public consider political extremism or threats to democracy the most important problem facing the US (36% of Democrats, 25% of independents, and 11% of Republicans). Of course, incompatible definitions of democracy, extremism, and threats held by voters of different political persuasions would reduce even further these relatively small numbers of voters who might support Biden to defend democracy from autocracy.

If the candidate for democracy wins, the politics of persuasion in a pluralistic polity and governance by checks and balances continue; if he loses, rule by demagoguery and coercion begins.

Let’s say the number of voters sufficiently troubled by the threat to democracy stands now somewhere between 2% and 23%. Maybe even as many as a third of Democrats plus half of Independents (together amounting to about 25% of voters) currently agree that the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate is a grave enough threat to democracy to vote for Biden despite concerns related to his age, inflation, interest rates, immigration, police reform, the Israel-Gaza war, and more. That is not enough to win the election, unless something changes between now and November to increase the number of voters seriously worried about an authoritarian victory and/or convinced on economic or other grounds to support Biden.

At least among Democratic voters and the subset of independents who tend to vote for Democratic candidates, it should be obvious that Donald Trump’s intentions for a second term are decidedly antidemocratic, that there is good reason to worry his authoritarian rule would not be restrained by democratic norms or institutions, and that a peaceful return to democracy would be unlikely after he takes power. Reminders regularly appear in the news.

Time magazine’s Eric Cortellessa, for instance, recently interviewed Trump to find out what he would do in a second term. The answer, in broad outline, is an imperial presidency that would reshape the country. He would deport millions of people, build migrant detention camps, and deploy the US military both at the border and in the country’s interior. He would allow red states to monitor and prosecute women who seek abortions. He would dictate to the Department of Justice and fire any US Attorney who defies his orders. He would pardon his supporters who attacked the US Capitol and punish his enemies. He would replace existing federal civil servants with political supporters. In short, Cortellessa reports, the 2024 election could amount to a revolution that brings about, in the words of historian Douglas Brinkley, “the end of our democracy.”

Unfortunately, Trump’s MAGA-dominated Republican Party has abandoned democracy to become the party of authoritarian rule. Election 2024 is their final battle to “demolish the deep state,” to “drive out the globalists,” to “cast out the communists … and radical-left thugs that live like vermin,” to “rout the fake-news media,” to “throw off the sick political class that hates our country.” The real threat, Trump proclaims, “is from within,” from the “radical left.” Joe Biden, in Trump’s upside-down rhetoric, is “the true threat to democracy.” As political historian Federico Finchelstein notes, “This is how fascists campaign.” Indeed, Robert Reich observes, Trump has begun to “signal his embrace of fascism.”

Criticism of Joe Biden’s policies, or even concern for his age, is not the problem. Indeed, a healthy democracy engages in spirited debate and is marked by the serious contestation of divergent viewpoints. The problem instead is that translating such concerns and serious differences into a decision not to vote, or even to vote for a third candidate, amounts to a vote against democracy. The 2024 election is a referendum on Joe Biden only insofar as he represents the alternative to authoritarian rule. This election is not a choice between candidates of the two major parties both of whom affirm democratic values. The choice is between constitutional democracy and autocracy. If the candidate for democracy wins, the politics of persuasion in a pluralistic polity and governance by checks and balances continue; if he loses, rule by demagoguery and coercion begins.

This is a stark reality that prompts Bernie Sanders to work for Biden’s re-election, even though he strongly disagrees with Biden’s Israel policy. His announcement to stump for Biden focused primarily on the need to stop Trump and what a Trump administration would do to the country and the world. “If you believe in democracy,” Sanders said, “The next several months will be the most important in modern American history.”

Believing in democracy—in the present case, constitutional democracy—means recognizing the implications of pluralism and engaging politics accordingly. The choice of democracy over the rule of coercion is to practice a politics of inclusion, tolerance, dialogue, dissent, deliberation, and compromise. The democratic quest of a diverse people requires nothing less. Pluralism is a demographic fact but also is a principle of political discourse to address competing expectations that reflect diverging perspectives and conflicting interests. Engaging differences expands overly narrow perspectives on complex issues, which helps to build political community amidst an array of differences and to exercise good judgment on matters of public policy.

Democracy in this sense is a politics of contestation in a world of uncertainties, divided opinions, competing interests, different priorities, and divergent perspectives. It operates on a principle of persuasion, if it is true to itself, and it is guided by a set of values, including liberty, equality, and fairness, among others. At best, these aspirational values are partially and tenuously realized at any given time or place. They are also subject to interpretation—even prevarication, perversion, and subversion—but, absent democratic values, politics is aimless, authority is arbitrary, and power is oppressive.

The difficulty of sustaining a robust democratic practice is rooted in the complexity of political relations. Competing interests and divergent perspectives, beliefs, and priorities are endemic to a large and diverse public. This condition of pluralism is a social reality that tests the limits of tolerance. It requires an ongoing search for common ground and an openness to compromise. As such, pluralism is also a democratic principle of good governance.

The outcome of this prophetic struggle between authoritarian demagoguery and democratic persuasion hinges on this year’s general election.

That said, democracy is a demanding exercise in collective self-rule, especially for a large and diverse people. Deliberating knotty issues tries public patience and creates an opening for authoritarianism and the demagoguery of intolerance. The prospect of collective self-rule is darkened when discord alienates citizens from one another enough to prevent a strong majority from voting against tyranny. As historian Heather Cox Richardson frankly observes, we have entered a time of testing, a time in which America is teetering on the brink of authoritarianism, a time to reclaim democratic principles, a time for a democratic reawakening and to reclaim democratic principles because “democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint” (Democracy Awakening, 2023, pp. xi, 253).

These are apocalyptic times that test the country’s democratic will. The conceit of white dominion that festers at the base of Trump’s candidacy is at war with the aspirations of a diverse people. The outcome of this prophetic struggle between authoritarian demagoguery and democratic persuasion hinges on this year’s general election. Whether democracy dies slowly or is dispatched quickly should it suffer electoral defeat in November, its demise will impact Americans adversely, more grievously than they expect. Life under authoritarian rule is stifling and harsh. It subdues aspirations, demolishes the freedoms and rights we prize, rescinds the material benefits we take for granted, defaults to coercion, and crushes morale. Alternatively, a coalition opposed to tyranny can still disagree with one another and advocate for competing policies while working together to reawaken the people’s stake in a democratic future and to turn out a decisive majority in November.

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