In July 2020 when more than 130,000 Americans had died from COVID-19, I wrote an article for Smerconish.com arguing that the Trump administration failed to protect and serve our nation for deliberately misleading the public on the true medical harms of the virus.
It feels almost like a lifetime has passed. Today, more than 825,000 Americans have lost their lives from the coronavirus, and the radical ideologies that spurred the January 6 attack on our Capitol continue to persist – and even gain momentum.
As I reflect on the threats to American sovereignty today, I am convinced that our democracy is in peril. The risk to our institutions no longer comes from a single morally corrupt man, but a crisis of consciousness that has radicalized large swaths of our nation. Yes, Trump’s attempt to overturn the election was thwarted, and the January 6 insurrectionists are being prosecuted, but we would be foolish to think, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board does, that “Democracy Isn’t Dying.”
As a student of the past, I am alarmed when I assess the state of our nation against the backdrop of world history. I hold five higher ed degrees, including a Ph.D. in political science from Florida International University. My graduate dissertation was titled “Genocide in the Modern Age: State-Society Relations in the Making of Mass Political Violence, 1900-2015,” and today I continue to teach on the Holocaust, genocide studies, and the vital role of public administration in our democracy.
To me, we are in the eye of a hurricane that is headed directly for our democratic principles and ancillary election laws.
In listening to the television and radio coverage commemorating the attack on January 6th, I was struck by the continual analogies of our democracy to that of a tree. I can understand why the speakers wished to make this comparison to a degree. Trees symbolize life and growth, after all.
However, this analogy also unintentionally gives Americans false comfort. Political scientists like myself have known for decades that the duration or longevity of a democratic government is not a good predictor of the future. To us, democracy is an ongoing practice, not some tangible given.
So, rather than compare democracy to a tree we should be analogizing this form of governance to skyscrapers. Democracies don’t have ever-expanding “roots” that dig deeper over time. We have the same fixed base. Skyscrapers can be built or extended over time, but what matters for them to remain standing is the foundation. That requires constant vigilance, and when necessary, maintenance.
As I see it, there are four foundations to our democracy. First, we have the formal rules and procedures that are spelled out in the Constitution, federal and state laws, and judicial decisions. These are the pillars upon which our skyscraper is formed. You cannot build outside of “these” parameters, but they allow us to grow upward. (Such as expanding suffrage to African American men in 1870, to women in 1920, to all Black Americans in 1965, and more recently, to presently incarcerated persons in two New England states.)
The second pillar stems from what political scientists call “informal institutions” – in other words, our norms and values. Some informal institutions can become codified into law like constitutional term limits for presidents. These institutions are easier foundations for Americans to abide by because their sustainment requires the average citizen to do absolutely nothing. And we like doing nothing, at least when it comes to civic responsibility.
Our final two pillars are civic knowledge and civic engagement. Unlike the first two pillars I outlined, the responsibility to uphold these pillars falls almost entirely on the everyday American citizen.
Tragically, civic knowledge in America today is abysmal. Many Americans fail to understand even some of the most basic building blocks of our political system, and that lack of knowledge is the precursor to conspiracy thinking.
On his SiriusXM program, Michael Smerconish noted this reality when he reviewed a recent survey of conspiracy theories and the percentage of Americans that believe them. Shockingly, basic knowledge of our three branches of government, how a bill becomes a law, or Americans’ ability to name both of their U.S. Senators from their home state is terrifyingly low.
Not one, not two, not three, but all four of these pillars are under assault today from anti-democratic forces on the political right with the exception of the Liz Cheneys, Adam Kinzingers, or Mitt Romneys. Our democratic skyscraper will not stand much longer if we do not act.
In the world of political science, Godwin’s Law refers to the idea that all internet conversations inevitably lead to a discussion of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. So, as a scholar of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies, I will now (correctly) invoke Godwin’s Law.
In 1923, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi comrades led an effort to overthrow the democratically elected German government. Hitler knew he could not be successful without his political party’s support. Luckily, the coup – known as the Beer Hall Putsch – was defeated. Hitler was arrested and convicted of high treason, originally sentenced to five years but only served eight months of the sentence.
However, it took less than 10 years for the Nazis to gain access to the German Federal Republic through elections. After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party won a plurality of seats within the German Parliament in 1933, Paul von Hindenburg, the then-president, appointed Hitler as the Chancellor of Germany. It was only once Hitler was appointed chancellor that he was able to quickly consolidate power. The Nazis burned down the Reichstag, the seat of the German government, in a false flag operation that blamed the attack on communists. The fire was used as a pretext to grant the Nazis emergency powers that Hitler used to establish his totalitarian regime.
So, despite what many think, the Nazi Reich was not established by some bloody civil war, but by methodically tilting the levers of bureaucracy towards autocracy.
If the pillars of democracy that uphold the United States were to come apart, they would likely, come apart in a similar fashion – a silent subversion. In an article in The Atlantic titled “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” Barton Gelman wrote, “technically, the next attempt to overthrow a national election may not qualify as a coup. It will rely on subversion more than violence, although each will have its place.”
That doesn’t mean we will escape violence and possible mass carnage. In some regards, our current divisions are even more dangerous than those of the Civil War. They are horizontal, not vertical. While the Civil War was fought over slavery and federalism, divisions in America largely exist along two disparate political identities grounded in ever-widening outlooks of society. We sort ourselves according to politics. We choose to socialize with people of the same political persuasion. We live in neighborhoods based, in part, on ideology and race. Our divisions are rooted in political affiliation, so it is unlikely that we will see a second civil war that mimics the first.
If large-scale violence were to break out, there would undoubtedly be targeting of persons based on their political affiliation. We’ve already seen this to a limited extent. For example, when a group of Texas motorists of the so-called “Trump Train” tried to run a Biden bus off the road just days before the 2020 election. Or when a Bernie Sanders supporter shot Republican Congressman Steve Scalise along with four others in 2017.
This type of political violence is somewhat common in deeply divided societies that hav
e two basic conditions: (1) an innate power imbalance between the groups, and (2) a lack of interdependence and social interaction between these groups.
To the first condition, Republicans have an embedded advantage when it comes to the electoral college and control of state legislatures for the purpose of gerrymandering and in the federal judiciary, most notably today at the Supreme Court. And for the second, neither liberals nor conservatives want to interact with one another anymore. When they do they are lambasted for compromising on their principles. All of this is to say that the danger of future violence remains high. The American political landscape is a tinder box awaiting a match.
This will be how American democracy falls. It won’t be, at least by my present analysis, through immediate bloodshed, though that is likely to occur after the fact. It will die from within. Almost immediately following the 2020 Presidential Election, Republican state legislatures started to erode voting rights and restricted citizen access to the ballot box, and they have not stopped since.
Our democracy may not have collapsed like a Jenga tower on January 6th, but failing to fully understand the forces that drove that mob will undoubtedly bring about a far more violent – and better organized – threat. I pray Americans will wake up and engage in all levels of government or they may find when they finally wish to participate, there’s nothing left to contribute to.