Back in 2006, the British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb risked a sketch in which they played two Waffen-SS officers toward the end of World War II. Reflecting on the Totenkopf (death's head) badges on their caps, Mitchell asked the immortal question: "Are we the baddies?"
An increasing number of anxious American political commentators are asking themselves a version of this question. For some time, it has been a concern of political scientists such as my colleague Larry Diamond that the world is in a "democratic recession" or "regression," which he dates from around 2006.
I remain less worried about the global trends. Compared with the 1970s or 1980s, according to all the major surveys and databases, the world is a significantly more democratic place. Not only are there many more democracies (57% of all countries in 2017, compared with 25% in the mid-'70s); democracies also account for around three-quarters of global GDP. The thing we really need to worry about is not global democracy. It is American democracy.
It is not just that, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in early February, only one-fifth of US adults regard the promotion of democracy as a top foreign policy objective, putting it at the bottom of a list of 20 choices. It is not just that this month's virtual Summit for Democracy, convened by President Joe Biden, was a lukewarm mess. (As David Rothkopf and others were quick to point out, the invitations seem to have been sent out on a wholly arbitrary basis. Inside the velvet rope were Poland, the Philippines, Zambia, Pakistan, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Left standing on the sidewalk were Tunisia, Hungary, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bangladesh and Bolivia — all of which score higher on the Economist's democracy index than Zambia, Pakistan, Niger and the DRC.)
The problem is that the world no longer sees the US as a shining city on a hill — more like a festering slum on a floodplain. According to a survey of adults in 17 advanced economies published by Pew in November, "a median of just 17% say democracy in the US is a good example for other [countries] to follow, while 57% think it used to be a good example but has not been in recent years," and a quarter say it has never been a good example.
True, that average conceals a wide range of opinions. South Koreans have a far more positive view of the US political system than New Zealanders, for example. But there is widespread agreement abroad that (to quote Pew) "discrimination against people based on their race or ethnicity is a serious problem in the US"
Such negative perceptions tally with the various attempts to quantify the health of American democracy. In 2013, for example, the venerable nonpartisan organization Freedom House gave the US a score of 93 out of 100 in its annual Freedom in the World report. Today, that figure is down to 83, meaning that the US now ranks below 60 other democracies, including Argentina and Romania. This is because (according to Freedom House) America's "democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity and political influence."
Such self-criticism is music to the ears of this country's strategic rivals. Earlier this month, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had the audacity to publish an essay-length critique of American democracy. It is, the authors argued, "a system fraught with deep-seated problems" — a "game of money politics" in which the theory of "one person one vote" is belied by the reality of "rule of the minority elite." The much-vaunted constitutional system of checks and balances has degenerated into a "vetocracy" or "gridlock."
A list of the report's subheadings cannot do full justice to this document, but they give you a flavor:
Messy and chaotic practices of democracy
- The Capitol riot that shocks the world
- Entrenched racism
- Tragic mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic
- Widening wealth gap
- "Freedom of speech" in name only
"Democracy in the US," the authors state, "has become alienated and degenerated. … Problems like money politics, identity politics, wrangling between political parties, political polarization, social division, racial tension and wealth gap have become more acute." And of course:
The gunshots and farce on Capitol Hill have completely revealed what is underneath the gorgeous appearance of the American-style democracy. The death of Black American George Floyd has laid bare the systemic racism that exists in American society for too long. … While the COVID-19 pandemic remains out of control in the US, the issue of mask-wearing and vaccination has triggered further social division and confrontation.
You may be forgiven for wondering what business a one-party totalitarian regime has scolding Americans about the defects of their democracy. Look no further for a response than last month's letter to the National Interest by Anatoly Antonov and Qin Gang, respectively the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the US, who shamelessly depicted the People's Republic of China as "an extensive, whole-process socialist democracy [that] reflects the people's will, suits the country's realities, and enjoys strong support from the people [who] have the right to elections, and … can get deeply involved in national governance, exercising their power through the People's Congresses at the national and other levels."
With critics like these, you might say, American democracy hardly needs defenders. And yet the shocking thing is how much of the Chinese critique of American democracy is copied and pasted from … Americans. No fewer than eight US professors are quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, notably Robert McDaniel Chesney (University of Illinois), Noam Chomsky (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Daniel Drezner (Tufts), Francis Fukuyama (Stanford), Ray La Raja (University of Massachusetts), Robert Reich (University of California, Berkeley), Emmanuel Saez (Berkeley) and Matthew Stephenson (Harvard).
You might want to blame this on the well-established tradition of American academia hating on America. But ordinary voters also seem to share the Chinese Foreign Ministry's dim view of our democracy. According to another Pew survey (published in March but based on late 2020 data), 72% of American adults believe that their democracy "used to be a good example for others to follow but has not been recently," while fewer than half (45%) are satisfied with the way US democracy is working. Two-thirds agree that the phrase "most politicians are corrupt" describes their country well. More than a third (35%) of all those surveyed, and 57% of Republicans, believe their government does not respect personal freedoms. And three-quarters think discrimination based on race or ethnicity is a serious problem.
I repeat: Are we the baddies?
For some American political commentators, this rot has further to run. "Our constitutional crisis is already here," wrote Robert Kagan in the Washington Post in September. "The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves."
The sequence of events Kagan imagined leading to Civil War II begins with Donald Trump being the Republican nominee for the presidency in 2024. In advance of this election, there is already "an organized nationwide campaign to ensure that Trump and his supporters will have the control over state and local election officials that they lacked in 2020." Republican officials who were unwilling to help deliver that election to Trump are being removed. Republican-controlled legislatures in 16 states have increased or intend to increase their control over the election-certification process. "A Trump victory," Kagan concluded, "is likely to mean at least the temporary suspension of American democracy as we have known it."
You like this kind of thing? There is plenty more. In the Financial Times in September, Martin Wolf foresaw "The strange death of American democracy," warning that by 2024 "the transformation of the democratic republic into an autocracy … might be irreversible."
"Are We Doomed?" asked George Packer in this month's Atlantic. The answer is, of course, yes. But our doom could come in various ways. Here's one of Packer's scenarios:
In 2024, disputed election results in several states lead to tangled proceedings in courtrooms and legislatures. The Republican Party's long campaign of undermining faith in elections leaves voters on both sides deeply skeptical of any outcome they don't like. When the next president is finally chosen by the Supreme Court or Congress, half the country explodes in rage. Protests soon turn violent, and the crowds are met with lethal force by the state, while instigators firebomb government buildings. Neighborhoods organize self-defense groups, and law-enforcement officers take sides or go home. Predominantly red or blue counties turn on political minorities. A family with a Biden-Harris sign has to abandon home on a rural road and flee to the nearest town. A blue militia sacks Trump National Golf Club Bedminster; a red militia storms Oberlin College. The new president takes power in a state of siege.
I had to re-read this to make sure it wasn't intended as satire. A blue militia sacks a New Jersey golf course? Seriously? However, Packer has other, less lurid versions of our democracy's doom. "Following the election crisis, protests burn out. Americans lapse into acquiescence, believing that all leaders lie, all voting is rigged, all media are bought, corruption is normal, and any appeal to higher values such as freedom and equality is either fraudulent or naive. … Citizens indulge themselves in self-care and the metaverse, where politics turns into a private game. … America's transformation into Russia is complete."
My final exhibit in the chamber of horrors is a recent Washington Post essay by two academics, Risa Brooks and Erica De Bruin, who detail the "18 Steps to a Democratic Breakdown." They group the steps on their lengthy stairway to hell under five headings: "limiting participation in elections; controlling election administration; legitimizing and mobilizing social support for methods to obstruct or overturn an election; using political violence to further that end; and politicizing the regular military or National Guard to delegitimize election outcomes."
Now, I do not dismiss the political Cassandras. Much of what Brooks and De Bruin prophesy was either attempted or at least contemplated in the strange days between Nov. 5, 2020, and Jan. 6, 2021. And the more we learn about what exactly happened on Jan. 6, the more like a bungled coup d'etat it appears — albeit one thwarted by the vice president and a significant number of other senior Republicans.
I do struggle a bit with some of the later steps to democratic breakdown the authors ask us to imagine. I would not expect many "active-duty military officers" to "make public statements supporting claims of election fraud or anti-democratic actions" and remain active-duty for long. I also have a hard time imagining "governors send[ing] the National Guard to state capitols for the express purpose of 'rerunning' elections." There's a little too much here of Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" for me to be entirely convinced. After all, Lewis's book was written in 1935. And it still hasn't happened here, because the US is not Venezuela.
Nevertheless, let's take seriously the hypothesis that the republic is on its last legs and is just three years away from dissolution. After all, a great many republics throughout history have ended like this, with a demagogue or would-be Caesar inciting the masses against a corrupt political establishment. One of the central lessons of the political theories of the ancient world, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was that republics are inherently hard to preserve and tend, after a time, to lapse into tyranny. To read any recent account of the fall of the Roman Republic — Tom Holland's "Rubicon," for example — is to be reminded how important civil strife was in this process. How close are we really to suffering this fate?
Those who see the danger as coming exclusively from the right like to point to polling evidence that a majority of Republicans still believe Biden did not legitimately win the presidency. In September, a University of Virginia poll showed that 84% of Trump supporters view the Democratic Party as a "clear and present threat to American democracy." A majority of Trump voters (52%) strongly or somewhat agree that it is "time to split the country."
The problem, as David French pointed out, is that Democrats have roughly comparable views. A collective amnesia grips liberal commentators about the sustained campaign by Hillary Clinton and her supporters to deny the legitimacy of Trump's election victory in 2016. Eighty percent of Biden voters view the Republican Party as a "clear and present threat to American democracy." More than two-fifths of Democrats (41%) at least somewhat agree that it is "time to split the country."
Liberal writers fixate on electoral rules and voting rights under the assumption that the 2024 election will be close. They overlook the distinct possibility that the Republican candidate — whether it is Trump or someone else — may win by an indisputably large margin as the country vents its disgust with an administration that promised it could end the pandemic and failed to; drove inflation to its highest level since 1982; presided over an epidemic of homicide in multiple cities; lost control of the country's southern border; ignominiously handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban; and pursued goals of "diversity, equity and inclusion" at the expense of academic standards throughout the educational system.
Liberals are so certain that it is Republicans who intend to overthrow the Constitution that they don't even notice when their progressive wing openly discusses packing the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, conferring statehood on Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and enfranchising noncitizens. (Note that the New York City Council just voted to allow noncitizens to cast ballots in local elections.)
The republic may well be in mortal danger if each of the two major parties aspires to make fundamental changes to the political system obviously designed to entrench itself permanently in power. It is especially dangerous that each side firmly believes that only the other side is trying to do this. Democracy works only when the basic rules of the game are accepted. When changing those rules becomes the central object of politics, the stakes become too high — the price of defeat too heavy.
There is some consolation for us independent types that both major parties have serious problems that stand in the way of the kind of victory on which constitutional amendments could be based. The Republicans' problem is simply Trump. As my Hoover Institution colleagues David Brady, Morris Fiorina and Douglas Rivers have shown in a new paper, Trump remains popular among Republicans. Over 72% approve of his handling of the presidency. Asked about his personal attributes, 82% think him authentic and 73% honest and trustworthy. Trump is miles ahead of the other potential nominees for 2024.
Yet Trump's endorsement of other candidates is a positive in the eyes of just 45% of Republicans. Only 53% are sure they want Trump to run for president again in 2024 (20% are against and the rest are not sure). The doubters are smart. So long as Trump is wedded to the "Stop the Steal" narrative about 2020, he will struggle to win over the swing voters without whom victory in a presidential race is impossible. Harping on about stolen votes four years ago seems unlikely to give Trump the prize that has eluded all but one of the presidents who sought it: a second non-consecutive term in the White House. In short, Trump is no Grover Cleveland.
The Democrats' problem is not personal but structural. As David Shor, head of data science at Blue Rose Research, argues, they are "on the edge of an electoral abyss" — doomed to see their Senate caucus shrink to 43 by 2024 — because "swing voters in [battleground] states are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do."
Progressive types in deep blue Democratic strongholds could not resist the slogan "defund the police" last year. Voters hated it. The party's leadership cares about climate change much more than the voters they need. The elite is out of touch on immigration, too. Above all, key voters in swing states are alienated by wokeism and its linguistic excesses: from BIPOC to Latinx to 2SLGBTQIA+. If it's hip at Yale, it's political suicide in Peoria.
It is not yet 20 years since political scientists were lauding "The Emerging Democratic Majority" by John Judis and Ruy Texeira. It turns out they were wrong: Hispanic immigration did not portend an era of Democratic hegemony. Earlier this month, a startling poll in the Wall Street Journal revealed Hispanic voters evenly divided between the two major parties; evenly divided if Biden and Trump were the candidates again in 2024; and leaning to the Republicans in Congress on economic issues as well as on border security. In Virginia's gubernatorial election, one (disputed) exit poll found that the Republican victor, Glenn Youngkin, beat his Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe 55%-45% among Hispanic voters. As Eric Kaufmann put it, "the trajectory of Hispanic and Asian voters looks a lot like that of white Catholic voters after 1960 … who shifted Right each election by a few points."
Perhaps, despite the manifest weaknesses of the two parties, the republic really is in danger. After Jan. 6, only a fool would dismiss the possibility. But worrying about a crisis of their democracy is one of the ways Americans have kept themselves vigilant ever since the founding of the US This is a feature of American political culture, not a bug — something the Chinese Communist Party simply cannot grasp. It copies and pastes the criticisms we level at ourselves, even as it deletes and suppresses any criticism of its own lawless and cruel regime.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was previously a professor of history at Harvard, New York University and Oxford. He is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm. His latest book is "Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.