In the long arc of human history, the modern democratic era is a mere blip.
Humans first began residing in city-like agricultural settlements about 10,000 years ago. The American and French revolutions, widely seen as the dawn of the democratic age, took place less than 250 years ago. For most of subsequent history, so-called “democracies” didn’t meet minimal modern standards — most notably by restricting the franchise to white, property-owning men.
Democracy as we know it — a system formally premised on equal citizenship for everyone — is really a 20th-century invention. The degree to which it has become the consensus gold standard for human governance, both in the United States and around the world, is nothing short of miraculous.
This development is not just a function of democracy’s military victories or constitutional innovations. It has depended fundamentally on the global rise of a democratic culture — a set of ideas, beliefs, and expectations centering on the notion that democracy is the only just and feasible way to run a society.
Democracy has grown and matured by turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy: It persists because everyone in a society believes it should and will exist. If democratic culture dims, democracy’s prospects dim with it.
The United States, the first country to claim the mantle of democracy in the modern era, has long had an exceptionally strong democratic culture. Belief in democratic ideals, liberal rights, and the basics of constitutional government are so fundamental to American identity that they’ve been collectively described as the country’s “civil religion.”
Yet today, America’s vaunted democratic culture is withering before our eyes. American democracy, once seemingly secure, is now in so much trouble that 75 percent of Americans believe that “the future of American democracy is at risk in the 2024 presidential election,” according to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.
This withering took off during Donald Trump’s rise to power and has continued apace in his post-presidency. The more he attacks the foundations of the democratic system, the less everyone — both his supporters and his opponents — believe American democracy is both healthy and likely to endure.
Moreover, he has birthed an anti-democratic movement inside the Republican Party dedicated to advancing his vision (or something like it). These Republicans vocally and loudly argue American democracy is a sham — and that dire measures are justified in response. This faction is already influential, and will likely become more so given its especial prominence among the ranks of young conservatives.
As worrying as the prospect of a second Trump term is, the damage he and his allied movement have already done to American democratic culture is not hypothetical: It’s already here, it’s getting worse, and it will likely persist — even if Trump loses in 2024.
Put differently, Trump has already robbed us of our sense of security and faith in our democracy. The consequences of that theft are not abstract, but rather ones we’ll all have to deal with for years to come.
How democratic culture protects democracy
To understand how democratic culture works — and how Trump’s behavior damages it — it’s important to start with a political science concept called “democratic consolidation.”
The idea, which grew out of the study of new and fragile democracies, is that merely creating a formal democratic system isn’t enough to ensure its survival. Rather, democracies only become stable when no major political actors even think of breaking its most fundamental rules. Once such a culture has been constructed, democracy becomes the only game in town: the only conceivable means for attaining and wielding political power.
There are many different ways to think about the process of consolidation. Some center around the idea of political legitimacy — whether public and political elites come to believe that their democratic government has the moral right to rule. Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford, defined democratic consolidation in a 1994 article as “the process by which democracy becomes so broadly and profoundly legitimate among its citizens that it is very unlikely to break down.”
Others focus less on legitimacy than on political calculation. In a 1997 paper, Central European University’s Andreas Schedler argued that a democracy is most at risk when both elites and the mass public believe that it won’t last. If members of competing factions are afraid that the other side might seize power undemocratically, they become more willing to try to do it themselves. But when everyone believes that democracy will likely survive and that power can’t or won’t be seized in some extralegal fashion, they become more likely to play by the rules.
“Democracy is consolidated,” Schedler writes, “when actors think it actually will last well into the future.”
These two factors, legitimacy and expectations, are deeply intertwined. The more widespread a government’s legitimacy among the citizenry, the more reason people have to be confident it will persist. The more stable a democracy seems, the more likely people are to see it as a legitimate source of authority.
So once a country has managed to establish a democratic culture, it tends to build on itself over time. Statistically, one of the strongest predictors of a democracy’s future survival is how long it has already been in place. Older democracies tend to have such robust democratic cultures that their fraying seems unimaginable.
The United States is often described as the oldest democracy in the world — and not without justification. While it fell far short of many basic democratic standards until fairly recently, America has been holding electoral contests that produced peaceful transfers of power for its entire history. The consensus on democracy’s most basic idea, that the people should get to determine who rules them, has been remarkably strong in American public culture (even when the definition of “the people” was unacceptably shrunken).
For this reason, post-civil rights America was long seen as the most consolidated of consolidated democracies. Yet today, there are serious fears that American democracy may not be long for this world. The gold standard consolidated democracy may no longer be consolidated at all.
The great unsettling of American democracy
In the United States, democracy’s positive feedback loop turned negative. Republican attacks on the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions caused Democrats to doubt their very survival — leading Democrats to take actions that Republicans (incorrectly) perceive as further undermining the system’s legitimacy.
The process was visible during Trump’s rise in 2016, when his partisans began casting the contest with Hillary Clinton in apocalyptic terms — “charge the cockpit or you die,” as one famous pro-Trump metaphor went. But it really accelerated after the 2020 election, when Trump argued that the election was stolen from him and attempted a kind of coup rather than accepting defeat.
Polling has consistently shown that large majorities of Republicans believe that Biden stole the election from Trump — that is, that America’s last presidential election was not decided democratically. Political scientists have confirmed that they’re not just saying this: Republicans sincerely believe that American democracy is not functioning in a legitimate fashion, that it’s rigged against them.
Trump’s attempt to overturn the election made it plain to his opponents that he posed a clear and present threat to American democracy. Democrats began talking, and acting, like the country was in the midst of an existential crisis — making the preservation of democracy a central issue in the 2022 midterms.
Today, it’s common among pro-Trump Republican partisans to jeer at the invocation of democratic values (“muh democracy” is a common sarcastic phrase on right-leaning social media). They see liberals and Democrats warnings’ about Trump as an insincere ploy to defend a corrupt system and scorn them accordingly.
Anti-democratic rhetoric is not the sole province of Trump and a handful of his most online supporters.
Current Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) was the architect of the House Republican caucus’s legal argument for overturning the 2020 election. Amazingly, Johnson was not perceived as the most radical candidate during the contentious fight to choose a speaker: He was a consensus alternative to Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a dogmatic Trump ally who (per some reports) was the House Republican most deeply involved in Trump’s election overthrow effort.
In a recent piece in the Unpopulist, the libertarian writer Radley Balko compiled a long list of other influential Republicans who have made their disdain for democracy plain. Some examples included:
- Kash Patel, a high-level Trump administration official rumored to be a top pick for CIA director, vowed to “go after” his enemies in government and the media “criminally or civilly” if returned to power.
- Mike Davis, a Republican lawyer on Trump’s attorney general shortlist, says he would use that power to engage in a “reign of terror” in which they “put kids in cages” and “detain a lot of people in the DC gulag.”
- Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) advised Trump to fire “every civil servant in the administrative state” and “replace them with our people.”
- Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy went on a conspiratorial rant during the December primary debate — calling the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot an “inside job,” defending the white nationalist “Great Replacement” theory, accusing “Big Tech” of stealing the 2020 election, and indulging in 9/11 trutherism.
- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has opened a criminal investigation into Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog, in retaliation for its criticism of Elon Musk’s content moderation on Twitter (also known as X).
The official veer into authoritarianism Balko documents is underpinned by an intellectual climate on the right that’s socializing the next generation of Republicans into extremism.
Take the pseudonymous writer Bronze Age Pervert, for example. Identified as a Yale-trained political theorist named Costin Alamariu, BAP is a pop-Nietzchean extremist who refers to his political enemies as subhuman “bugmen” and describes his own politics as “fascism or ‘something worse.’” Despite (or perhaps because) of this bizarre presentation, he is widely read by young Republican staffers. Nate Hochman, a former Ron DeSantis speechwriter, told the New York Times that “every junior staffer in the Trump administration read [BAP’s manifesto] ‘Bronze Age Mindset.”
Among liberals and the left, the response to this has been increasing talk about playing constitutional hardball to stop the right — and even murmurs of outright alternatives to existing political arrangements.
In a recent Washington Post essay announcing that “a Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable,” the writer Robert Kagan counsels Democratic governors to resist Trump rule through “a form of nullification” — the doctrine of states’ rights underpinning pre-Civil War Southern resistance to the Union. In a forthcoming book titled No Democracy Last Forever, eminent legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky argues that Americans need to think about “forms of secession” from the Union.
This is what it looks like when a democracy de-consolidates. The shared expectation that the American system deserves its citizens’ respect has collapsed; so too has the shared sense that there’s no alternative to democratic rules and elections for the foreseeable future.
This is not just a Trump phenomenon: The loss of faith in American democracy runs deep.
The social forces unleashed by the MAGA movement are bigger and more primal than one man. The political rise of figures like Johnson, Vance, and Ramaswamy — all younger vehicles for Trump-style anti-democratic politics — points toward a post-Trump right that continues to attack democracy’s foundations. So too does the anti-democratic right’s ascent to political power in advanced democracies around the world.
There’s plenty of cause for hope that American democratic culture can be repaired. But it’s important to start from a place of realism about the problem — that we are in the midst of an unprecedented kind of democratic collapse: the de-consolidation of the world’s oldest and most deeply rooted democracy, fueled primarily by the Republican party’s institutional turn against democratic ideals.
Trump may not win next year. But he has already succeeded in taking something vital from us — our faith in a bright democratic future.