Behind the saga of Biden and Trump lies the fight for democracy around the world

We need to view politics in "landscape mode" to understand the danger we face — and seize the historic opportunity

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published May 16, 2021 12:21PM (EDT)

Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

As the Jan. 6 insurrection recedes in time, media attention is beginning to focus on potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates, including "new faces" like Kristi Noem and Josh Hawley, old also-ran Ted Cruz and others and, of course, Donald Trump. In a representative democracy, it's only natural that elected leaders — or credible potential ones — should be a significant focus of attention. 

But there's an air of unreality hovering over all such portrait-mode coverage when a broader landscape view shows that the very survival of democracy is up for grabs — not just in the U.S., where GOP House members are in deep denial about the Jan. 6 insurrection while Republican legislators have introduced voter suppression bills in 47 states, but around the world. The Swedish-based V-Dem Institute's 2021 annual report notes that "the global decline in liberal democracy has been steep during the past 10 years and continues in 2020" and concludes that the "level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2020" has fallen "to levels last found around 1990." At that time there was a jubilant buzz about the "End of History." Now there's an undertone of dread that we could "meanly lose, the last best hope of earth," as Abraham Lincoln warned.

Talk of as many as 24 potential GOP candidates in the next cycle recalls pre-2016 talk about the GOP's "deep bench," which, as I noted at the time, was a media-hyped myth. Those candidates fell into three groups: governors with horrible to mediocre job-creation records plus some ex-governors who hadn't run in a while, first-term senators with paper-thin résumés in a particularly dysfunctional Congress, and assorted wild cards, including Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, as well as a certain New York real estate developer turned reality-TV star. I focused primarily on the shared failure of GOP economics, the party's purported strong suit. "The degree to which key articles of GOP economic faith clash with overwhelming expert judgment is staggering — and there's nary a hint of it in most of the media," I wrote. "It's a disconnect reminiscent of global warming, but much less widely recognized." 

The problem goes much deeper now, to the shared failure of Republican patriotism, as their party has turned against democracy. While media awareness may be better, without grounding coverage in a "landscape view" of the problem journalists are fumbling the biggest story of our time — the global threat to democracy, and the enormous potential for a renewal that could finally realize democracy's full promise for all.

America's place in a landscape of democratic decay

What's known as the "third wave of autocratization" — characterized by creeping democratic erosion rather than violent coups — continues to spread: V-Dem's report notes that "25 countries, home to 34% of the world's population (2.6 billion people), are in democratic decline by 2020." One especially disturbing highlight "is that India — formerly the world's largest democracy with 1.37 billion inhabitants — turned into an electoral autocracy," meaning a system in which elections continue to be held but the chance of power changing hands is virtually nil. Prior to Jan. 6, the U.S. seemed far from being in a similar situation, but that is effectively what the new wave of GOP voter suppression laws could accomplish, especially with added provisions that jeopardize the post-election process

America is still a long way from becoming India — but things can change quickly. The U.S. score on V-Dems "Liberal Democracy Index" or LDI is 0.73 (out of a possible 1) while India is less than half that, at 0.34, a precipitous decline since 2010 that places it among the planet's top 10 major "autocratizers." While the U.S. doesn't make that ignominious list, it's marked in red to "signify cases of significant and substantial autocratization." In 2010, the U.S. was among the highest-ranked nations, and is now no longer in the top 30, falling below Chile and Greece, countries with recent histories of military rule. 

"The U.S. is somewhat unusual among the decliners," a trio of V-Dem researchers — Anna Lührmann, Dan Pemstein and Juraj Medzihorsky — told Salon via email. "Most of the decliners are reasonably young democracies," they wrote, adding that the U.S. has had a high and stable LDI in their rankings since the civil rights era. "The U.S. is a very different case than India or Brazil and also the various Eastern European countries [which] have much shorter democratic histories, despite being at similar levels in 2010."

The American case, they note, "shows that it is possible for this illiberal playbook, which we're seeing play out in diverse places ranging from Brazil to India, Hungary and Poland, to gain traction even in consolidated liberal democracies."

The party landscape: Even starker

Things look even more perilous from two other landscape views: the landscape of parties across the world, and the landscape of state-level government. A V-Dem briefing paper and its followup, entitled "Walking the Talk: How to Identify Anti-Pluralist Parties," found that the Republican Party has shifted dramatically in recent decades, from being in the same ideological territory as the British Conservative Party in 2000 to the neighborhood of India's Hindu nationalist BJP now, while the Democratic Party has barely moved at all.

"In 2000 the GOP was a party that was clearly committed to democratic standards as listed in the paper," the V-Dem scholars wrote. "In 2018 (the last point of measurement), this commitment was not clearly visible." They continued: 

The data shows that the Republican Party in 2018 was far more illiberal (that is anti-pluralist) than almost all other governing parties in democracies. Only very few governing parties in democracies in this millennium (15%) were considered more illiberal than the Republican Party in the U.S. Conversely, the Democratic Party was rated slightly less illiberal than the typical party in democracies. In 2018, the Republican Party scores much higher than almost all parties in democracies on almost all of these indicators.

The shifts they observed were especially dramatic in two of four areas: "demonizes opponents" and "encourages violence."

Given the asymmetric change between the two major American parties, I asked if there were other countries that could shed light on what might happen next, or whether we were in uncharted territory?

"We did not see any sufficiently similar examples that we could bring up," Medzihorsky responded. "Given the information that we have, we refrained from speculation."

The red-state landscape of democratic decay

Another landscape perspective that can shed some light is that of state-level government, explored by University of Washington political scientist Jacob M. Grumbach in a paper called "Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding." Inspired by the V-Dem model, Grumbach developed a measure of subnational democratic performance called the State Democracy Index. He tested a range of different theories about what might contribute to democratic erosion over the period from 2000 to 2018, "based in party competition, polarization, demographic change, and the group interests of national party coalitions." Strikingly, he found "a minimal role for all factors except Republican control of state government, which dramatically reduces states' democratic performance during this period." 

I reached out to Grumbach to ask about his findings and their significance. He began by discussing certain consequences of the American federal system:

Even compared to other countries with federalism, American federalism is especially decentralized, giving more control over political institutions to the lower subnational units. This means that the U.S. can experience extreme regional differences in democratic performance, as it did during the slavery and Jim Crow periods. Current regional differences in U.S. democracy aren't as big as they were in Jim Crow, but they're substantial and growing.

Grumbach's data only goes through 2018, but we're now seeing a vast wave of Republican efforts to suppress democracy and crack down on dissent and education, as I discussed in a recent Salon story on conservative "cancel culture." I asked Grumbach where he thought we might be headed. 

We've seen 300-something new voter suppression bills out of Republican state legislatures since the 2020 election, as well as anti-protest bills and bills to outlaw particular forms of educational content that challenge nationalistic interpretations of U.S. history. We've also heard continued claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. All of these are threats to key tenets of democracy, including free and fair elections and civil rights and liberties. Although the politics and policy moves have been distinct, we've seen similar threats to democracy in Hungary and Brazil in recent years, which makes me concerned about the global trends.

The V-Dem 2021 report outlines a typical pattern to the process of "autocratization": "Ruling governments first attack the media and civil society and polarize societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information, then undermine elections." That seems like a strikingly accurate description of what happened during Trump's four years in the White House. But Grumbach's work points to a lengthy prehistory as well. I asked how we should understand the whole story, from the state-level story he describes through Trump's time in office to the fall-out today. He responded:

This is such an important question. I argue that Trump — and the [Jan. 6] insurrection — were just the latest and most visible manifestations of a longer term antidemocratic trend in the GOP. We've heard about "Stop the Steal" since 2020, but the GOP has for decades been selling conspiracies about mass voter fraud and suggesting that Democratic governance is illegitimate. The GOP currently is a coalition of two groups, an elite coalition of the very wealthy and an electoral base motivated by white identity politics. Both of these groups have an interest in pursuing minority rule through voter suppression, norm erosion, gerrymandering and other tactics. 

Finally, Grumbach noted another dimension where partisan differences were minimal: 

It's important to note that my main State Democracy Index focuses on electoral democracy, and there you see the GOP leading democratic backsliding. However, when I focus the measure on civil liberties and freedom from state authoritarianism, this kind of illiberalism has been bipartisan. American federalism puts policing and incarceration authority at the state level, and Democratic, divided and Republican state governments have all pursued "tough on crime" policy that has led the U.S. to become the most heavily incarcerated country on earth (more than dictatorships with larger populations).

How that came about is one of three interconnected social policy strands described by Cornell historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann in her 2017 book, "Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America." (I'll be interviewing her for a  forthcoming Salon feature.) Last year's Black Lives Matter demonstrations signaled a long-overdue challenge to that wretched bipartisan consensus, forged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Because national Democrats have shown at least some willingness to respond to this challenge, Trump and the Republicans have sought to demonize them for it, so this may become another party-polarized dimension — or, more optimistically, part of a new consensus, as suggested by various public opinion polls, as well as the almost 2-to-1 passage of Florida's Amendment 4, which restored ex-felons' voting rights (although that was later gutted by the Republican legislature and governor, an issue now in litigation).

Discerning the differences between the two realms — electoral democracy and civil liberties — is precisely what a landscape view of politics makes possible: differences of history, agency, motivation and possible futures. Making sense of these different landscapes and their relationships is crucial to navigating them — and perhaps making meaningful democratic governance possible.

Denialism vs. democratic decay

Perhaps inevitably, there's a nascent right-wing denialist response that tries to reject any such analysis of democratic decay. At the Free Beacon, Aaron Sibarium wrote a story criticizing Grumbach's scoring system, and more broadly all such systems, called "The Myth of Measuring Democracy." But simply claiming bias and crafting a self-comforting narrative doesn't exactly prove a counter-argument.  

Bias could emerge, Sibarium argued, through "the choice of variables used as proxies for democracy and the process by which those proxies are assessed." He attacked Grumbach for the first, and V-Dem for the second:

At least three of the factors that decrease a state's democracy score — voter ID laws, high incarceration rates, and denying felons the right to vote — are things that large majorities of Americans support. According to Grumbach, maximizing democracy means defying the popular will.

Sibarium called V-Dem's framework, "the most balanced," then went on to say that "it too reflects the liberal consensus — because the indicators are all scored by liberal academics."

Both Grumbach and V-Dem offered detailed responses. In essence, Grumbach said, Sibarium assumes that democratic support would make slavery democratic — one answer to what's known as "Wollheim's paradox." Grumbach also said his index includes measures that capture both sides of the paradox, meaning "policy responsiveness to majority opinion and procedural indicators of how costly it is to vote, how gerrymandered districts are, etc." 

"Because people might have different opinions on how to measure democracy, I simulate 100,000 different measures that weight indicators differently," Grumbach explained. "Across the 100,000 measures, it is clear that GOP control of state government reduces democratic performance. This finding isn't an artifact of some particular way that I measured democracy."

The V-Dem trio called Sibarium's criticism "part incorrect and part banal." It was incorrect in labeling the expert scorers "liberal academics," they said: Many are outside the academy and they come from all over the world. "Ascribing all of these experts from different countries and backgrounds the same ideology — 'liberal' or otherwise — is simply silly," they said. 

The criticism is banal, they said, "because of course the values are a mathematical representation of expert opinion. ... The purpose of the project is to measure concepts that are incredibly important but inherently difficult to observe."

"Scholars have subjected the V-Dem data to a multitude of validity tests, and it has generally held up well," they said. "We also emphasize that our measures exhibit uncertainty — experts disagree! — and provide public estimates of the scale of that uncertainty."

In short, the measures used by V-Dem, Grumbach and others are meant to inform our understanding of how well or poorly democracies are functioning, not to dictate judgments. They don't pretend to tell us everything. The unique status of the U.S. as the highest-ranked democracy to undergo "significant and substantial autocratization," its two-party system with only one party radicalizing, its decentralized federalism and its distinctive, highly contested racial history, among other factors, mean that it's imperative to seek out other approaches as well.  

Leaders, norms and violence: A different landscape view

One of the most helpful of those is to look back at our own history, as in Nathan Kalmoe's book "With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War" (Salon interview here). Kalmoe has a lot to say about how political leaders and partisan media affect the potential for violence — another example of a "landscape mode" effect, as opposed to a "portrait mode" direct-causation account. 

"Whether looking at U.S. history or cross-nationally at politics around the world," Kalmoe said in a more recent exchange, "party leaders, including media figures, play a key role in how ordinary partisans think and act. That extends to extremes like violence."

Leaders both embody and influence group thinking in multiple ways, he said: 

Leaders are experts whose judgment their followers trust, and leaders are seen as definitional group members whose words and deeds set the norms for the group. Party leaders are especially influential when they simultaneously represent multiple political and social identities (e.g., race, religion), and those group alignments make violence more likely.

Leaders mobilize violence in many ways, not just direct calls for violence, though those may be most powerful. They also encourage violence with their failure to condemn violence by their own group, by violent metaphors and coy remarks implicitly supporting that violence, and by using vilifying and dehumanizing language that makes it easier for group members to rationalize harming their opponents.

Leaders set norms for the group and those norms can shift overnight. In conventional politics, for example, we see instant 10 or 15 point swings in policy views among partisans when top leaders endorse a policy, even when it goes against the party's ideology. In the historical context of Civil War violence, northern Democrats followed their party in initially supporting and then violently rejecting the war to uphold Lincoln's election, including a change in their willingness to kill and die in that war.

Once a new group norm is established, Kalmoe continued, "leaders and group members then police the new bounds, silencing and expelling dissidents within the group. We're seeing that now with Republicans rallying around defense of Trump's multifaceted attempts to reject his loss in a free and fair election."

In short, despite the unique situation we find ourselves in, there's nothing exceptional, or even especially unusual, about the partisan leadership dynamics involved. 

Profound change? Landscape of a possible future

But in a broader sense our situation may be historically unique, as suggested by Ian Hughes, author of "Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy" (Salon interview here.) Hughes combines studies of key 20th-century pathocracies (Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, etc.) through the lens of the "the toxic triangle" — destructive leaders, susceptible followers and conducive environments — with an argument that democracy can be understood as a multi-layer defense system against such disordered leaders and the pathocracies they create.

"This system of defenses comprises the rule of law, electoral democracy, the principle of liberal individualism that underpins the separation of church and state, social democracy and legal protection for human rights," Hughes explains. Those principles have all come under relentless attack during the Trump era, in ways for which we were woefully unprepared. But now there's a chance to recover, and rebuild. 

Now that he's stripped of official power, "Trump is not the real issue anymore," Hughes told me via email. He sees "an opportunity to step back, understand the big picture" and "move the U.S. and the world onto a better path," not just a slightly improved one.

"We are at a historic moment of profound change," Hughes said, going on to explain: 

Most of the social institutions that have been holding society together, however brutally and inequitably, are failing. They are failing in two senses. First, they have contributed to what Biden referred to in his Inaugural Address as the cascading crises of our time — climate change, species extinction, levels of inequality within and between nations that are undermining social cohesion and international order, the erosion of democracy and the persistence of authoritarianism, and the emergence of cultures of animosity, polarization and blame. The list goes on. These cascading crises are the fruit of failing systems of economics, politics, technology, gender, religion and education.

These social institutions are also failing in a second sense. Not only have they helped create the multiple crises we face, they are also (as Einstein might have said) incapable of resolving these crisis, given the level of thinking they are trapped within.

Hughes sees much more than a landscape of failures. "There is also hope, enormous hope," he said. "For each of the social institutions I listed above there is a global movement aimed at building something new, of making that radical rupture with existing paradigms." He continued:   

In economics, for example, there is a whole variety of movements exploring "beyond growth" economics, circular economies, economies where care is recognized and rewarded, an economics that can rein in the parasitic and destructive system of contemporary financial capitalism, and so on. The same is true for gender and race with the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter movement being part of a much broader reimagining of societies where participation and diversity lead to radical system transformations. Well-being and spiritual movements are questioning the valorization of material wealth as the epitome of human development and are reclaiming values of empathy, cooperation and love from their monopolization by organized religion. In the area of technology, movements demanding the responsible development of new technologies and the taming of the destructive uses of existing technologies now have global reach.  

Conventional, portrait-mode analysts look at Joe Biden's agenda in terms of distinct issue categories — pandemic relief, infrastructure, voting rights and so on, and consider the major political actors in each realm. But Hughes' description of democracy as a multi-layer defense system suggests a more expansive landscape viewpoint, with a powerful central theme.

From that perspective, Hughes said, "Biden's agenda can be assessed by the degree to which it can successfully join up all the 'rivers of progressive change' and empowers them further as a means of dismantling the structures that continue to shore up Trump and the pathological incarnation of the GOP," Hughes said. The central question, then, is "to what extent can Biden not bring the U.S. back to normal, but help bring about something new."

The portrait-mode approach to politics naturally favors the "return to normal" orientation. Familiar figures doing familiar things, to familiar praise, regardless of the medium- or long-term results. But a landscape view more readily accommodates change: We can at least potentially see different pathways, different destinations and even imagine different landscapes that might become visible if we stood on different, distant peaks. 

"The degree to which Biden is able to empower these forces for building something new is also the degree to which he will have successfully constrained the former guy and his yesterday's men in the GOP," Hughes said. "In a sense, Trump and the GOP are a perfect fit for our dysfunctional times. Biden's challenge — and the challenge of any democratic leader at this historic moment — is to change our times so that Trump and his fellow authoritarian narcissists stand out as the misfits they truly are." 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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