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The decline of American democracy won’t be televised

Democratic backsliding is a real threat, but we might not see it coming.

We imagine democratic failure as being some spectacular, singular event — a violent military coup or the declaration of martial law. But in a country like the United States, democratic failure is likely to look a lot less interesting.

That’s because over the past few decades, countries that have drifted away from democracy have typically done so through a process called “democratic backsliding” — the slow erosion of a country’s democratic institutions by its elected leaders. Populist leaders in countries like Turkey and Venezuela have used their power to make gradual, often legal changes to undermine restraints on their authority rather than pursuing a dramatic power grab.

When political scientists warn that Donald Trump poses a threat to American democracy, they’re usually referring to backsliding. Trump shows a deep distrust of America’s democratic institutions — he criticizes sitting judges, questions the legitimacy of an election he won, and punishes news outlets he believes cover him too harshly.

That kind of behavior poses a real challenge for journalists.

Modern news media is designed to bombard viewers with breaking news and discrete pieces of information that briefly capture audiences’ attention. But democratic backsliding doesn’t work that way — it happens slowly, through a series of steps that seem legal and benign in a vacuum but end up doing tremendous damage in the aggregate. This means news outlets are unlikely to point out that democratic backsliding has started until it’s too late.

Watch the video above to see how Trump’s anti-democratic impulses can slip under the media’s radar.