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The Threat

What is The Threat?

American democracy is in danger. 

The growth and spread of democracies that defined the 20th century peaked in the early days of the 21st. Over the past decade, one in six democracies has failed. In countries around the world—places like Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Venezuela—autocrats have slowly dismantled democratic systems, leaving governments that are for the most part democracies in name only. 

Larry Diamond, one of the world’s foremost scholars on democracy, says a military coup won’t ring democracy’s deathknell, but instead: “The death of democracy is now typically administered in a thousand cuts. In one country after another, elected leaders have gradually attacked the deep tissues of democracy—the independence of the courts, the business community, the media, civil society, universities and sensitive state institutions like the civil service, the intelligence agencies and the police.”

Freedom House: US freedom in decline

While the story of the United States has been one of constantly seeking to perfect an imperfect democracy, for most of our history we moved as a nation towards delivering democracy’s promise to more and more of our union. In recent years, however, this progress has stalled and reversed. The global autocratic threat has arrived on our shores and our democracy is facing challenges not seen in decades, perhaps longer. Recent years have been marked by deeply concerning presidential abuses of power, deliberate efforts by political leaders to stoke hatred, racism, and misogyny, and failures of our system of checks and balances that have sounded a powerful alarm that—if we are not careful—our democracy could suffer a similar fate. 

Trump is a symptom, not the cause

While Donald Trump poses an immediate, acute, and extreme threat to our democracy that must be blunted, he is not the sole cause of the problem and is a symptom of political forces that are eroding support for democracy at home and abroad. Since our launch, this autocratic threat has materialized faster than even we expected.

But long before the current president was elected, economic and demographic changes led to growing social divisions, and technology began to reshape how we communicate, helping us filter ourselves into separate ideological and demographic bubbles. 

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53% of Americans believe that the country is not “able to overcome political divisions to solve problems.” Furthermore, 49% of all adults and 56% of Democrats believe that our democracy needs a “total overhaul” or “major changes.” Even before Trump’s presidency, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy,” citing further erosion of public trust in government and elected officials.

As much as current political actors pose an acute threat, the weaknesses in our system of constitutional checks and balances pre-date this moment and will continue unless we take affirmative steps to reinforce our democracy. 

Checks and balances are a metaphor, not a mechanism

It has become painfully clear that the long-standing guardrails that constrained past presidents from abusing executive power have turned out to be only as strong as the personal qualities and norms of the oval office occupant. As David Frum, a writer for The Atlantic, put it in his 2017 article “How to Build an Autocracy: “A president determined to thwart the law in order to protect himself and those in his circle has many means to do so.” What’s more, populist leaders and parties have “exploited legal and constitutional instruments [and] weaponized the law, turning it into a means of hollowing out democracy,” says Aziz Huq, a law professor focused on constitutional law and democracies.

Moving forward, we see two great threats on the horizon. The first is that an autocratic approach to government continues to dominate the White House and fully dismantles our system of checks and balances. The second is that a more democratic approach to government takes hold in the White House and we wipe our hands of the problems that have been exposed in our system, leaving us vulnerable to Trump 2.0: the person watching all of this from the sidelines, recognizing that the American electorate is open to a strongman style of governance, but who is more capable than Trump and will rise in time to implement an autocratic model even more effectively. 

If we don’t take action to constrain the office of the presidency, we risk further weakening our system of checks and balances and putting our democracy at risk of declining into a more autocratic form of government. 

Protect Democracy formed to prevent that decline from happening. We’ve worked with some of the leading scholars on autocrats who have helped us identify the six tactics autocratic leaders typically employ to dismantle democracies. Much of our work is organized around preventing those six tactics from being used here in the US. Specifically, we are working to:

  • Prevent the corruption of elections
  • Prevent the executive from aggrandizing power at the expense of competing institutions
  • Prevent the delegitimization of vulnerable communities
  • Prevent the politicization of independent institutions
  • Prevent the government from spreading disinformation
  • Prevent the government from being able to quash dissent

— Read more on the threats facing our democracy.

— Read more on how we’re taking on this threat.

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