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In his first official campaign speech of this most consequential of U.S. presidential elections, Joe Biden made the stakes perfectly clear. “This is not rhetorical, academic, or hypothetical. Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time, and it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”

Given that framing and the ever-expanding body of evidence showing the various ways Donald Trump and his associates tried to overturn the 2020 election, you might be tempted to think this will be a slam dunk for American voters. Sure, they might have concerns about Biden’s age or lingering frustrations about inflation and the economy, but the country that prides itself on being one of the world’s great democracies wouldn’t vote itself out of the club it effectively founded. Right?

Wrong, I’m afraid. The Republican Party, which has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections, has been quietly drifting away from its commitment to democracy for a while now. It knows its voter coalition keeps getting older and more rural, and that this makes it harder to win elections in a country where most of the population growth is in the cities and suburbs. As Utah Sen. Mike Lee said in 2020, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity (sic) are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”

As CNN’s Zachary Wolf noted in a recent piece, new Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has an even more colourful way of depicting democracy’s apparent shortcomings. “Do you know what a democracy is? Two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner. You don’t want to be in a democracy. Majority rule: not always a good thing.”

It’s not just Republican leaders who are so conspicuously lukewarm about their country’s democratic underpinnings. The Public Religion Research Institute’s 2023 American Values Survey shows almost half of Republicans (48 per cent) agree with the proposition that their country “needs a leader who is willing to break some rules if that’s what it takes to set things right.”

They’re not alone, either, as 38 per cent of independents and 29 per cent of Democrats also agree with that invitation to authoritarianism. Most worrying of all, one-third of Republicans in the survey believe things have gotten so far off-track that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

But the most striking piece of research on this subject comes from a pair of Yale professors named Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik. Their 2020 paper tests the real, rather than imagined, commitment to democracy among American voters. “Research that traces its intellectual origins to (Alexis de) Tocqueville’s Democracy in America finds that the United States consistently exhibits some of the highest levels of support for democracy in the world. We show that this conventional wisdom rests on fragile foundations.”

That’s because while Americans still overwhelmingly support democratic ideals in the abstract, those aren’t the conditions under which they’re being threatened. In more real-world scenarios, ones that account for people’s partisan biases and priorities, that support is much less robust.

Only 13.1 per cent of respondents in their survey were willing to vote against a candidate from their own partisan tribe for breaking democratic principles. All told, the overall effect is just 3.5 per cent — maybe enough to swing a close election, but hardly enough to do so decisively. “Our findings suggest a sobering upper bound on what can reasonably be expected from ordinary people in defence of democracy.”

Democracy is officially on the ballot in November's presidential election. Here's why it might lose, and what that says about our collective willingness to let the partisan ends justify the political means.

This is obviously more than just an academic concern for Canadians. If Trump is re-elected in November, few countries will pay a higher or more immediate price than Canada. Our trade relationships will be thrown into chaos, our defensive alliances may be torn apart and our mostly productive friendship with the oldest democracy in the world will be replaced by a wary co-existence with its newest autocracy.

That might be the best-case scenario, too.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking Canadians are any more dedicated to defending democracy here at home or that the worst elements of our society won’t try to take advantage of that. Our country hasn’t slid nearly as far down this authoritarian rabbit hole as America, but it’s not for a lack of trying in certain quarters. When Conservative members of Parliament use words like “tyranny” to describe their country and their leader constantly tells people their freedoms are under threat, they’re nudging us all towards it.

Yes, these sorts of inflammatory statements might help them win an election. But as former Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney has discovered, it can come at the cost of their party — and maybe, as we’ll find out in November, their country.

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Thank you for this piece, even though it's extremely disturbing. I keep asking myself, "Why isn't Trump in jail yet?!" Have we forgotten the lessons of WW II? It's hard to believe that there are so many people in the US (lawyers etc.) who are willing to support Trump and propagate his lies.
But I guess, as this report shows, the most disturbing thing is that so many people can be manipulated by these politicians who are only after power and don't care about what is best for the country nor democracy. And yes, Canadians are vulnerable to PP's dangerous rhetoric.

What can be done about this?

Anti-democratic forces in U.S. politics are nothing new.
The tendency towards authoritarianism is but the inevitable result — or culmination — of the original paradox of American democracy, as conceived by the founding fathers.
The first democracy in fifth-century B.C. Athens excluded women, foreigners, and slaves.
American democracy excluded women, foreigners, slaves, and Native Americans. A framework for white male privilege, not equality.

As the electorate becomes increasingly urban, ethnically diverse, and non-white, white male America is losing its privilege. It is no longer enough to gerrymander the vote and discourage blacks from voting. The last best hope to preserve white male privilege is to cast the democratic façade aside.
Make America Great Again. Make Government White Again.

Very astute comment. The heart of the matter, and I think this ball really got rolling in the radical sixties where newly brazen sexual impropriety being flaunted was shocking enough on its own.
But when the women's liberation movement and "feminism" resulted from that and "the pill," not just moral, religious panic ensued (because all religions are patriarchal with both implied and outright misogyny) but also just general panic around so profoundly upsetting the status quo.
Because these perceptions are embedded on so many levels they're still not readily accessible to many (ask women about this), leaving basic gut-level reactions of anger and ongoing, vague fear of "being replaced" and/or major change in general, as visceral as climate change is to those of us with more open minds (what defines us "progressive.")
So the effect on the average tribal American Republican mind has always been and still IS comparable to what happened when even a half-black man became president, i.e. it's just not RIGHT!
A woman somehow becoming president would incite identical, irrational aversion, but that's becoming less likely, is in fact inversely proportional to how many more women are now in positions of relative authority.
The societally destructive feature of patriarchal and politically aggressive religion in the context of democracy is that it provides an authoritative (if knee-jerk) sanction for keeping half of humanity under control and out of power. This is illustrated by what's happened to the U.S. Supreme Court, the long sought victory of the religious right, but clearly even that is STILL not enough.
The fact that Joe Biden, who GETS what's at stake here regarding democracy nonetheless remains oblivious to the fact that his regular sign-off to "God" at the end of his speeches is also a nod to the religious right's political domain shows how deeply embedded the problem of religion actually IS.