There are problems in the American system. But there’s every reason to believe it could be better.
To begin with, imperfect democracy survived 2020, and as significant as the setbacks have been (and sure, the loss of the Voting Rights Act is a big matter), the overall retreat that has occurred is still possible to overstate. We haven’t gone back to 1960, 1910, or 1860, and we aren’t even near. The movement isn’t all going in the same direction, either. For example, in the United States, the diversity of elected and unelected government leaders is not only better than it was in 1960 or 1970; it is also much better than it was 20 years ago and is improving.
Furthermore, many of the initiatives to make voting more difficult are missteps of laws enacted in the last 25 years to make voting easier. I’ll throw in one more: According to the Bright Line Watch poll, both Democratic and Republican voters underestimate the opposing party’s democratic support. This can be problematic since it can lead to preemptive system attacks to prevent the opposing side from acting first. However, it also indicates that we’re not dealing with a system in which widespread anti-democratic sentiment exists.
It’s not just the voters. If antidemocratic sentiment among Republican party actors, particularly former President Donald Trump and his allies, is the greatest threat, we must also recall that Trump’s attempt to reverse the 2020 election was mostly failed due to Republican opposition.
Election officials in state after state insisted on publishing the true results. Republican-controlled legislatures have declined to transmit alternate electors slates to Congress. Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president, has refused to join Trump’s plotting. To be sure, we’ll never know if those who refused to go along would have voted differently if the election had been a little closer. However, it’s possible that most Republicans in the House and Senate who voted against the legitimate results on Jan. 6 were only doing so to make a symbolic statement, and would have backed down if they thought they could truly overturn the results.
There’s also something to be said about Republicans who stood up to Trump last winter.
Up until Trump pushed them to betray their oaths of office, people like Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger were squarely in the mainstream of their party. (Kemp was most known in the United States for his efforts to make voting more difficult.) However, they and other Republicans appeared to see a clear distinction between shifting the law to their benefit and completely disregarding the law. While some Trump-aligned Republicans are willing to go to any extent for him, others believe in the rule of law and may see things differently once in government than they do now.
That may or may not be comforting. However, there are numerous examples of minor changes in the rules of the game favoring one party, group, or individual throughout American history.
As long as it doesn’t go too far, it can lead to a form of muddled-through democracy.
The idea is that despair is the incorrect response to the current situation. The dangers are real, but they’re only that: dangers, with perfectly reasonable alternatives. Furthermore, moving further away from a healthy republic will require making decisions, both individually and collectively, rather than simply plodding along. That means that decisions can be made differently, and that political action can still affect the outcome.
It’s true that if we continue with the same institutions, the same dangers will reoccur. That’s how politics works. People make decisions, and they may make awful decisions. However, as long as the republic exists, citizens will have the option to make good decisions and choose a system that will allow future collective decision-making to be relevant.