Is US democracy heading toward a dead end?
Published: Sep 30, 2022 06:59 PM
Crumbling US democracy. Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Crumbling US democracy. Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

It is hard to believe that 30 years after Francis Fukuyama declared the victory of Western democratic system and celebrated the "end of history," 67 percent of Americans now pessimistically believe that democracy is in danger of collapse. This is according to a Quinnipiac University poll. Media from both sides of the political spectrum unanimously signal alarm, when President Biden overtly announced "the threat to US democracy is real" in his recent speech in Philadelphia - and they rightly recognize the consequence of this dangerous degradation, as the "disunited states of America" strikingly appears on the cover of the Economist magazine. 

The trigger has been the FBI's Mar-a-Lago raid following the January 6 hearings, which quickly became the latest episode of the soap drama between the Republicans and Democrats. But this time, the intensity and extensiveness have developed to a level unseen before. Biden, in his presidential role, straightforwardly declared war on "MAGA [Make America Great Again] Republicans" in a public speech as he condemned them "semi-fascism" "enemies of the State." Donald Trump, in a tit-for-tat response, slammed Biden for "vilifying 75 million citizens." In another blow to political norms, federal institutions have been disgracefully involved in partisan rivalry. Both the Republicans and Democrats have accused the Department of Justice of being "weaponized" by their opponents. Democrats argue that Trump should be accused immediately despite the traditional 60-day rule which discourages prosecutors from taking public steps that could influence upcoming elections. Republicans question the timing of the DOJ's subpoenas, denouncing it as a hasty effort to conclude the investigation before Republicans potentially win back the House in the midterm election. 

The FBI is another federal institution caught in the center of the storm. Never before have similar steps been taken to investigate Democratic politicians' handling of classified information. The Bureau is also accused of lacking transparency as the unsealed affidavit used to justify the raid was significantly or fully redacted. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg revealed that the social media giant received a warning from the FBI which prompted Facebook to limit Hunter Biden's laptop controversy on the platform ahead of the 2020 presidential election. 

An increasing number of Americans have realized that the supposed lawful process has become a never-ending power play, and what they will have in store is no justice and just politics. 

The frustration is exploited by lawmakers to incite violence. Luis Miguel, GOP candidate for the Florida House has encouraged voters, on social media, to "shoot FBI, Internal Revenue Agency (IRS), The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and all other feds on sight." Republican senator Lindsey Graham claimed to expect "riots in streets" if Trump were prosecuted. It is not just a war of words at stake: in August a gunman was shot dead after trying to break into the FBI's Cincinnati office. The IRS has announced, for the first time since 1995, that it would conduct a large-scale security review of its operations and facilities, after being targeted by online threats of attack. A UC Davis survey found 20.5 percent participants agree that "political violence is at least sometimes justifiable in general", and 18.7 percent strongly or very strongly believe that "violence or force is needed to protect American democracy when elected leaders will not".

Is it foreseeable that, like many other places in the world, the US would expect aggravated political violence to irreparably destroy its democratic system in a civil war? That is not alarmist conjecture but a concrete concern of almost half Americans: a YouGov poll suggests that 43 percent of Americans think a civil war is "somewhat" likely in the next decade, far above the alert level. Historians have compared the status quo in the US to the pre-Civil War era, as well as the period before World War II when fascism emerged. They foresee a "21st century version" insurgency, characterized by unconventional tactics, domestic terror and guerrilla warfare. 

Even more tragically, Americans find themselves nowhere near a remedy. 63 percent of them expect the political division to increase and 62 percent predict political violence likely to worsen in the next few years. Acknowledging that democracy is under threat, both parties tell voters the only solution is to defeat and eliminate their rival. The US is trapped in an unprecedented dilemma where its people define democracy in fundamentally different and incompatible ways, and social values and common sense gradually disappear. 

It is reasonable for politicians to portrait the midterms a "matter of life and death" when Trump tries to "save America" and Biden "battles for the soul of the nation". But the answer they offer is nothing but a competition to destroy public trust in the government's competence, and a provocation of violent approaches to address social conflicts. The current drama will not lead to a dignified ending.

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News Agency, CGTN, Global Times, China Daily etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn