This story was originally published by The New Yorker and can be found here

Freedom House, the Washington-based think tank, opened in 1941, with a mission to counter isolationism in America and fascism around the world. It was conceived as a bipartisan project; the honorary chairs were Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady, and Wendell Willkie, who had been the Republican Presidential nominee in 1940—and lost to Roosevelt’s husband. Over the years, Freedom House studied a broad spectrum of threats to freedom, from McCarthyism to Soviet oppression. Since 1973, it has published “Freedom in the World,” an annual country-by-country report that has been called the “Michelin Guide to democracy’s development.”

The latest edition was published last week, and, as you might expect, it recorded the fourteenth straight year of deteriorating freedom around the world; sixty-four countries have lost liberties in the past year, while only thirty-seven registered improvements. (India, the world’s largest democracy, has seen some of the most alarming declines.) Its assessment of the United States is also disturbing. In 2009, the U.S. had a score of ninety-four, out of a hundred, which ranked it near the top, just behind Germany, Switzerland, and Estonia. In the decade since, it has slipped eight points; it now ranks behind Greece, Slovakia, and Mauritius. Looking at the United States, Freedom House analysts note the types of trends that they more customarily assign to fragile corners of the globe: “pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption. Fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself.”

Explaining what, exactly, accounts for this decline is the work of a growing body of literature. Much of it focusses, of course, on the tenure of Donald Trump, but, interestingly, some scholars and advocates tend to identify a point of origin well before the election of 2016. According to Protect Democracy, a legal-watchdog group dedicated to combatting the rise of authoritarianism in America, “the growth and spread of democracies that defined the 20th Century peaked in the early days of the 21st; since 2005, the state of democracies around the world has receded.”

One of the most frequently cited theories for this change is depicted in what’s known as the “elephant graph.” The graph, which the economist Branko Milanović popularized, in 2013, is, in fact, a chart that shows income growth by stratum (or, in technical terms, by “percentiles of the global income distribution”) in the twenty years leading up to the 2008 global financial crisis. The graph got its name because it looks like an elephant: on the left, there is a plump body of rising incomes—China, India, and other beneficiaries of globalization—and, on the right, a rapidly rising trunk, which reflects the spectacular fortunes of the world’s top one per cent. The most politically significant part of the elephant is in between: the bottom of the trunk, which shows the stagnant incomes of American and European working and middle classes. Those groups have proved to be fertile bases of support for populist rebellions against democratic traditions that, from their vantage point, now appear false or obsolete.

Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, cites the elephant graph as part of the reason for America’s democratic decline. “But I think finance only tells part of the story,” he said, “because there are other factors that need to be accounted for.” Instead of invoking an elephant, Bassin visualizes a volcano. “At the base, there are massive underlying conditions that are changing in the same way that the Earth’s tectonic plates shift—climate, migration, globalization, tribalism—and lava flows into the base of the volcano. At the layer above, you have what I think of as accelerants, like the rise of social media—things like Russian interference—and democratic distortions—like partisan gerrymandering.” The cumulative effect of those accelerants, he said, has been to fuel skepticism about the functioning of American democracy, because they have warped or thwarted the effect of the popular will. Bassin continued, “At the very top of a volcano, there are supposed to be a bunch of checks and balances that hold back the heat and force. But we have a Congress that has basically abdicated its congressional obligations of oversight of the executive, and an executive who openly claims to be above the law. So you’ve got the lava exploding out the top of the volcano.”

It’s a bleak image, but, in Bassin’s view, the metaphor also contains the promise of some realistic interventions. In the three years since Protect Democracy started, he said, “We’ve been able to have some success at the top of the volcano, where it’s narrow, trying to fix some of those checks and balances.” The group has filed a range of legal actions that have resulted in national injunctions, including blocking Trump’s use of emergency powers to build the border wall, and Administration efforts to slow low-income green-card holders from gaining citizenship. In December, Protect Democracy organized a statement, which eight hundred and fifty legal scholars signed, asserting that the President had committed impeachable offenses.

In some other countries that have registered a decline in democracy over the past decade, such as South Korea and Poland, demonstrators have flooded the streets in opposition. In the United States, by contrast, the largest public protest in the name of democracy was on the first day of Donald Trump’s Presidency. The erosion has been gradual enough that many Americans have become inured to it, numb to the alarm. First, they stopped paying attention to the tweets. Then they found it easier to ignore the rallies and the random acts of transgression. American legal activists seeking to stop the slide documented by Freedom House consider that, since Trump was acquitted in his impeachment trial, he has entered a more audacious phase. In the latest gesture of pressure on the press, the Trump campaign has sued the Times, the Washington Post, and CNN, for libel.

There are still eight months to go until the election, with no obvious check on the President’s behavior in place. Many experts fear that Trump will veer even further from the traditions of American governance. Bassin suspects that he will, but also thinks that Americans are gaining a new awareness of their own role in preserving democracy. “There’s been a phenomenon throughout the Trump Presidency of people casting about, looking for a savior,” Bassin said. “Was it going to be Robert Mueller? Jim Mattis? John Kelly? And, of course, all of those figures have let us down because, at the end of the day, the Founders understood that the only ultimate savior for the experiment of self-government is the savior described in the first three words of the constitution: We the people.”