Is American democracy already lost? Half of us think so — but the future remains unwritten

The American people understand that their democracy and their society are in deep trouble. But they do not agree on who or what is the cause of the problem, and do not share a common understanding of basic facts. To make matters worse there is a kind of sinister synergy between America’s democracy crisis and other serious problems facing the country, which risks creating a state of collective paralysis.

During his prepared comments before the House Jan. 6 committee last Thursday, retired judge J. Michael Luttig, a lifelong conservative Republican who advised former Vice President Mike Pence before and during Donald Trump’s coup attempt, issued this dire warning:

A stake was driven through the heart of American democracy on Jan. 6, 2021, and our democracy today is on a knife’s edge.

America was at war on that fateful day, but not against a foreign power. She was at war against herself. We Americans were at war with each other — over our democracy.

Jan. 6 was but the next, foreseeable battle in a war that had been raging in America for years, though that day was the most consequential battle of that war even to date. In fact, Jan. 6 was a separate war unto itself, a war for America’s democracy, a war irresponsibly instigated and prosecuted by the former president, his political party allies, and his supporters. Both wars are raging to this day. … America is now the stake in these unholy wars. … America is adrift. We pray that it is only for this fleeting moment that she has lost her way, until we Americans can once again come to our senses.

In response to a question from committee chairman Bennie Thompson about the danger to the republic still represented by Trump and his supporters, Luttig elaborated further:

Almost two years after that fateful day … Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.

That’s not because of what happened on Jan. 6. It is because, to this very day, the former president and his allies and supporters pledge that in the presidential election of 2024, if the former president or his anointed successor as the Republican party presidential candidate were to lose that election, they would attempt to overturn that 2024 election in the same way that they attempted to overturn the 2020 election, but succeed in 2024 where they failed in 2020.

If there are any reasonable and intelligent Americans who continue to doubt that this country is in the midst of an existential crisis, facing the dangers of Trumpism and a growing white supremacist authoritarian movement, Luttig’s words should shock them back into reality.

A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll adds even more weight to Luttig’s warnings about American democracy as it teeters on the precipice of irrecoverable disaster. The lead finding is that more than half of those surveyed, across the political spectrum — 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans — believe it is “likely” that the United States will “cease to be a democracy in the future.”

RELATED: Global forecaster on “another bad year for democracy”: Is the world near a dire tipping point?

Further findings in that poll are arguably even more troubling given the events of Jan. 6 and the Republican-fascist movement’s increasing embrace of violence and terrorism:

  • Among Republicans, 52% believe it is likely that “there will be a civil war in the United States in [their] lifetime.” The proportion among Democrats is only slightly smaller, at 46%, while 50% of independents share that view
  • While 50% of respondents were willing to rule out using violence or “taking up arms against the government” to protect the country from “radical extremists,” 26% percent of those who participated said that political violence could sometimes be justified.

This new poll also demonstrates that negative partisanship and other forms of extreme political polarization now appear to be permanent features of American political life. Andrew Romano summarizes this at Yahoo News:

When asked to choose the phrase that best “describes most people on the other side of the political aisle from you,” a majority of Republicans pick extreme negatives such as “out of touch with reality” (30%), a “threat to America” (25%), “immoral” (8%) and a “threat to me personally” (4%). A tiny fraction select more sympathetic phrases such as “well-meaning” (4%) or “not that different from me” (6%).

The results among Democrats are nearly identical, with negatives such as “out of touch with reality” (27%), a “threat to America” (23%), “immoral” (7%) and a “threat to me personally” (4%) vastly outnumbering positives such as “well-meaning” (7%) or “not that different from me” (5%).

These findings offer further evidence that the U.S. in the Age of Trump and beyond is what political scientists call an “anocracy,” a system that combines features of dictatorship and democracy. The coup against democracy and the rule of law did not end when Trump’s insurrectionists left the Capitol on Jan. 6. The Republican-fascists and the larger white right continue to advance a strategy whose ultimate goal is a Christian fascist plutocracy, one modeled on a system of competitive authoritarianism in which political parties still exist and elections occur, but where outcomes are manipulated as in Russia, Hungary or Turkey. 

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This dystopia made real will be a combination of such books and films as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Atlas Shrugged,” “Brazil,” “Idiocracy,” “Robocop,” “CSA: The Confederate States of America” and “1984.”

Donald Trump and his acolytes continue to threaten political violence against their “enemies,” meaning liberals and progressives, nonwhite people, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ people and any other groups or individuals they deem insufficiently “American” and not part of the MAGA faithful.

The Republican Party, its propaganda machine and other opinion leaders continue to amplify Trump’s Big Lie and its inherent conclusion that further violence may be necessary to return Trump (or a successor) to the White House — and, more generally, to prevent Democrats from winning or holding power by any means necessary.

The core tenets of the “great replacement” conspiracy theory — which a white supremacist terrorist recently claimed as the motive for murdering 10 Black people last month at a Buffalo supermarket — have been embraced by a majority of Republicans, and an even larger majority of Trump followers.

National security experts on terrorism and armed conflict have continued to warn that Trump’s coup attempt and the Capitol attack are further evidence that the U.S. may face a period of sustained right-wing violent insurgency. Robert Pape, director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, has estimated that more than 20 million Americans believe that using political violence to return Trump to power is justified. 

In a widely read December 2021 essay in the Globe and Mail, Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon offered a memorably grim prognosis of America’s future. He predicted that “American democracy could collapse” by 2025 — that is, following the next presidential election — and that by 2030, the U.S. “could be governed by a right-wing dictatorship”:

We mustn’t dismiss these possibilities just because they seem ludicrous or too horrible to imagine. In 2014, the suggestion that Donald Trump would become president would also have struck nearly everyone as absurd. But today we live in a world where the absurd regularly becomes real and the horrible commonplace….

Mr. Trump’s electoral loss has energized the Republican base and further radicalized young party members. Even without their concerted efforts to torque the machinery of the electoral system, Republicans will probably take control of both the House of Representatives and Senate this coming November, because the incumbent party generally fares poorly in mid-term elections. Republicans could easily score a massive victory, with voters ground down by the pandemic, angry about inflation, and tired of President Joe Biden bumbling from one crisis to another. Voters who identify as Independents are already migrating toward Republican candidates.

Once Republicans control Congress, Democrats will lose control of the national political agenda, giving Mr. Trump a clear shot at recapturing the presidency in 2024. And once in office, he will have only two objectives: vindication and vengeance.

Homer-Dixon then drew the this parallel between the current state of the U.S. and the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s: 

The situation in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was of course sui generis; in particular, the country had experienced staggering traumas — defeat in war, internal revolution and hyperinflation — while the country’s commitment to liberal democracy was weakly rooted in its culture. But as I read a history of the doomed republic this past summer, I tallied no fewer than five unnerving parallels with the current U.S. situation.

America’s future stability is so much in doubt that even global rivals or enemies are concerned about the destructive forces unleashed by the Age of Trump. In a series of phone calls before and after the 2020 election, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought to reassure his Chinese counterpart, saying, “The American government is stable and everything is going to be OK. … Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

An ambush is always disorienting, and intentionally so, but the best option is always to fight back. That’s where we are right now.

This situation is undeniably bewildering, and deliberately so. But for pro-democracy Americans, inaction is not an option. That will inevitably lead to defeat. In military terms, a successful ambush is almost always disorienting, but the best option is always to fight back, not hunker down. The Republican-fascists and their allies want the American people to feel so confused and overwhelmed by their unending attack on democracy, the rule of law, the common good and basic human decency that they essentially turn away, close their eyes and surrender. In essence, the Republican-fascist movement is using their own version of a  political “shock and awe” strategy here at home against the American people.

The Lincoln Project recently offered this evaluation of America’s democracy crisis: 

After three [Jan. 6 committee] hearings we know for certain the nation is at one of the most dangerous moments in its history. These revelations will not change the true MAGA believers mind but will cause them to double and triple down on the “Big Lie” — making them more dangerous and perhaps more violent. Every single American needs to decide if they are the side of the seditionists who tried to tear down a free and fair election, or do they support our Republic and its democratic principles?

In short, the American people must act with deliberate purpose and speed if they hope to save their democracy and society. Voting is of course necessary, but by itself is insufficient. “Hashtag activism,” with its “likes” and “shares” and memes, is for the most part symbolic or performative politics that accomplishes little or nothing in the long run, and may actually be counterproductive if people mistake it for real action. In the long-term struggle, substantive movement-building and organizing will be required to defeat fascism in America and around the world. 

Voting is necessary, but not sufficient. “Hashtag activism” accomplishes little or nothing, and may even be counterproductive. What we need is movement-building.

Supporters of democracy must engage in grassroots organizing. They need to join, establish, and grow a range of civil society organizations. They must raise and donate money in effective ways, not by giving it to doomed Democratic candidates in hopeless races. Ultimately, they must be willing to engage in corporeal politics, including general strikes, street protests, civil disobedience and other forms of direct action where they can confront the Republican-fascists and their allies with overwhelming numbers.

Right now, almost all the momentum is with the Republican-fascists and their broad-spectrum attack on American democracy and society. They are in revolutionary mode, and they are are winning. They will press onward to total victory, unless and until they are stopped. This will require people of conscience to take a personal inventory and ask themselves, “How much am I willing to sacrifice to save my country, my family and future generations from this nightmare?” The future of American democracy and society largely hinges on how many of us can answer that question honorably and rise to the challenge.

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