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The Threat

Our democracy is in danger.

For the first time since the Civil War, a violent insurrection prevented the United States from holding a peaceful transfer of power. A white supremacist mob, urged on by a sitting president and carrying confederate flags, stormed the Capitol, forced Congress to halt the counting of Electoral College votes, and left five people dead. And even after that, 147 Members of Congress voted not to certify an election that was unquestionably free and fair.

Two months later, roughly two-thirds of Republicans approved of the way Donald Trump handled the events of January 6. According to a Morning Consult study, right-wing Americans are significantly more likely to have authoritarian tendencies than either the American left or the right in other comparable countries, but overall support for democracy has been eroding in the United States across parties. Whereas only one in sixteen Americans expressed openness to the idea of military rule 30 years ago, today that number has risen to roughly one in five. That occurred during a period in which the federal executive has grown ever more powerful under presidents of both parties, and the more representative legislature has been hollowed out and rendered dysfunctional in many ways. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the quality of U.S. democracy has consistently declined over the past fifteen years.

This is not happening in a vacuum. That same 15-year downward trend is true for democracy globally, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World Report. Around the world, democracy is in retreat, and authoritarianism is on the rise. According to the research organization V-Dem, the number of non-democratic countries now outnumbers the number of democratic countries for the first time in 20 years. And the percentage of the world’s population living under democratic regimes has sunk to the lowest point since 1991.

Freedom House: U.S. freedom in decline

These global trends impacting the entire democratic world, when combined with our own governance structures and history of white supremacism, have resulted in an amplification of the power of an anti-democratic, illiberal, and bigoted faction in our society that has always existed.

That faction, first through Trump’s presidency and now through the political party it has largely captured, is deploying the same six-step authoritarian playbook that illiberal movements from Turkey to Hungary, Venezuela to Poland have used in recent years to dismantle democracies.

(1) politicize independent institutions, (2) spread disinformation, (3) aggrandize executive power and undermine checks & balances, (4) quash dissent, (5) delegitimize vulnerable populations, and (6) corrupt elections.

It took extraordinary efforts for our democracy to survive the past four years. History teaches that once autocrats achieve power, it’s not easy to dislodge them. As a nation, we succeeded in doing that by ensuring that the aspects of our system designed to prevent tyranny actually did so. But the authoritarian faction in this country is growing, and learning from its past failures so as not to repeat them. Unless we meet that faction with an even more powerful coalition of those on the left and right who believe in democracy, the next time we might not be so fortunate.

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