Dire warnings of fascism or civil war have raised the specter of America’s democratic failure in recent months. Although these warnings have been qualified by careful scholars, new comparative analysis shows how unprecedented is our situation compared with other Western democracies. The U.S. was in the company of India, the Philippines, and Hungary in its democratic backsliding in 2019-2020, according to International Idea’s report on global democracy.
My recent analysis with Ben Press of extreme polarization among global democracies since 1950 finds, according to one metric, that the U.S. is alone among wealthy Western democracies in experiencing such intense polarization for such an extended period. Most democracies with as extreme “us versus them” polarization are less established and less wealthy than the United States.
The study shows that half of the fifty-two perniciously polarized democracies failed to reduce it and also suffered democratic downgrading. Even the thirty percent of countries that managed to depolarize and maintain their democracies had a hard time sustaining depolarization – nearly half of those sixteen cases later returned to pernicious levels, creating new vulnerabilities.
A few, including the U.S., have managed chronic pernicious polarization in recent years, but the quality of their democracies has suffered. Such polarization creates gridlock in governments unable to implement effective policy and is associated with democratic erosion.
Perverse Logic of Polarization
The logic of polarization creates perceptions of a zero-sum game and leads both sides to see the other as an existential threat to the nation and way of life if they were to gain (or retain) power. Thus, it creates incentives for politicians and voters alike to support anti-democratic behavior if it advantages their own party.
In the face of this reality, we should ask ourselves: What are the prospects for the U.S. to reduce its polarization and arrest its democratic backsliding? Two characteristics of American democracy pose particular challenges to addressing its current crisis of polarized democracy.
First, an endemic source of polarization in the U.S. is what Murat Somer and I call a “formative rift” – the unresolved debates over national identity and citizenship from a country’s founding. When these debates re-emerge as the fault-lines of polarization, it is particularly prone to becoming embedded in the system and difficult to change. Two of these formative rifts have reemerged today: religion and race.
At the founding of the Republic, three groups were excluded from full, or any, rights of citizenship: African slaves, Native Americans, and women. Compounding these debates were disputes over the origin of truth, whether from God or the laws of nature. Over the next two centuries, Americans periodically expanded citizenship rights, but every era of progress met with a backlash, such as the legal and informal discrimination against African Americans during the Jim Crow era of 1877-1964. Indeed, throughout America’s political history, Black Americans have often been the losers in the resolution of democratic crises.
Well-intentioned reform efforts can also produce unintended consequences. Giving voters more control over the candidate selection process through binding primaries after the 1960s ended up privileging the most activist voters, usually on the extreme ends in each party in the context of growing polarization. When legislators are chosen based on more extreme views, or feel beholden to the most vocal and extreme constituents, state legislatures and Congress become even more gridlocked, unable to negotiate and compromise.
The eventual election of the country’s first Black president in 2008 produced another backlash from voters worried about potential changes to their “way of life” as the country diversified in its representation of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, and religious values in the halls of power. The “birther” conspiracy espoused by Donald Trump to delegitimate Barack Obama was a forerunner to the growth in conspiracy beliefs about the Democratic Party that contributed to Donald Trump’s ability to persuade nearly 80% of Republicans that Joe Biden’s victory was not legitimate.
Can we assume the U.S. is simply in another downturn that will spur another reform movement that will repel democratic backslide and racial, cultural, and partisan animosity? After all, the country seemed to be going through a racial reckoning following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, with massive multiracial protests and the initiation of police reforms in many communities. Americans turned out in record numbers to vote in November 2020, across ideologies and ethnicities, with innovations to make the vote more accessible in the middle of the pandemic.
But police reform efforts have largely stalled and high voter participation was met with counter-reforms in many Republican-led states that seemed aimed not at shoring up such expansive political participation, but at curtailing access and enabling partisan intervention in election administration and certification. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting in 2021.
A second feature adds to the difficulty in escaping the trap of pernicious polarization in the U.S.: the anachronistic features of the election system stemming from the Constitution and from habits of practice. Binary choice is deeply embedded in the U.S. electoral system, creating a rigid two-party system that facilitates “us versus them” divisions of society. This binary choice stems in part from our reliance on single-member districts to elect the vast majority of our state and national representatives, something few other established democracies do. Along with other factors such as deregulation of campaign finance and a strong gerrymandering habit, this majoritarian electoral system makes it extremely hard for new parties to emerge and creates a winner-take-all logic that raises the stakes of every election.
The majoritarian electoral system is combined, however, with strong counter-majoritarian institutions in the U.S. constitution designed to protect against the tyranny of the majority – namely the Senate and the Electoral College.
The Senate gives disproportionate representation to less populous and rural states by design, stemming from a desire to give equal representation to diverse states at the founding of the country. However, because of the geographic sorting of the parties along an urban-rural cleavage in the last three decades, this system now gives a built-in advantage to the Republican Party, which today dominates the more rural states.
For example, a senator from California represents 68 times more people than a senator from Wyoming. Or, to put it another way, a California citizen has 1/68th the voice in their senator that a Wyoming citizen has. The practices of the Senate also give individual senators unusual authority to single-handedly hold up presidential nominations or debate on legislation, while the filibuster rule enables the minority party to block consideration of legislation that would have a majority vote in favor. These contribute to government gridlock and fuel public disapproval of Congress.
Finally, the disproportionality of Senate representation translates to disproportionality in the Electoral College – whose indirect election of the president is again exceptional among presidential democracies. The Electoral College, where each state is represented by a number of electors comprised of adding its two senators with the House of Representative delegation size, is a result of a compromise between free states and slave-holding states. It is at its core an elitist method to insulate the presidency from “popular passion.”
But the founding fathers did not envision political parties emerging. In fact, many of the founders viewed political “factions” as a relic of a monarchical British system. In these minority-empowering institutions, it can be “loser-take-all” when the popular vote-winning party fails to win a majority of the Senate seats or Electoral College votes. Indeed, the Republican Party has been a minority party in the national popular vote since 1992, winning a popular vote majority for president only in 2004.
Partisan sorting and rising polarization thus create a pernicious logic of zero-sum politics that incentivizes behavior undermining democratic institutions and norms. The final year of Donald Trump’s presidency saw the president and his party fuel a false narrative to discredit the electoral process, attempt to overturn the presidential election, and refuse to disavow political violence.
But the logic also prevents the capacity to bridge the divide to find solutions. So, what can we do?
Breaking the Polarization Trap
The answer will not come from Washington, D.C. The gridlock is now baked in. Instead, it will take a national movement with courageous grass-roots organizing from below; businesses and foundations to put their money behind principled ideas, research, organizing, and political candidates committed to democracy; academia, think tanks and independent media to provide the ideas and truthful analysis with bold solutions; and faith leaders, labor, and cultural influencers to galvanize the needed change. It requires not only legal reform but a revisioning of American society.
Three things in particular need to change: First, change the outmoded institutional system that facilitates binary divisions and enables one of the two major parties to be captured by an anti-democratic figure and movement. Such reforms should aim to lower the high stakes of elections and give voters more voice and more choice. Lessons from abroad give us some hints: reforms such as shifting to a proportional representation system (as New Zealand did in the 1990s) and/or using ranked-choice voting in multimember districts (such as in Ireland) could break up America’s rigid binary logic, give voters more choice, and allow for coalition-building to ease the gridlock.
Second, elected officials and cultural influencers need to clearly distance themselves from individuals and groups employing political violence, exclusionary nationalist appeals, or anti-democratic measures, as the Italian parties did to end a decade of violence in the 1970s.
Third, the country must address head-on the formative rifts over race, gender, and religion. This requires reckoning with the legacies of past and current exclusion of specific populations – Blacks, indigenous, women, gays, and immigrants. Americans need to collectively decide if they will embrace the multiracial and multicultural society that the United States is and will increasingly become. The choice is to create a new vision for a vibrant, thriving democracy, or devolve into a dysfunctional government, or even an electoral autocracy, because of the paralyzing fear of our currently divided politics.
Jennifer McCoy, Ph.D.
Jennifer McCoy, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Georgia State University and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She leads a collaborative research project on the consequences of severe political polarization for democracies around the world, and is currently working on a book on how to overcome polarization.