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Is America divided beyond the hope of democracy? How we got here and where we might be headed

U.S. flag ties hang from a shelf at the reopened Century 21 department store, which stands across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, in February 2002.  (Tribune News Service)
U.S. flag ties hang from a shelf at the reopened Century 21 department store, which stands across the street from the site of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, in February 2002. (Tribune News Service)

As more details of the Jan. 6 insurrection come to light – and Americans seem more split on issues such as abortion, gun control and the economy – many worry about the state of our democracy.

Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about the direction of the country and the economy. An AP-NORC poll of 1,053 adults nationwide found that 85% of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Political scientists and researchers agree that America is in an “extraordinary” time, but most think democracy can prevail.

“There are some very troubling trends taking place right now,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. “But you have to think about democracy in the long term as a progression. There are ebbs and flows, and we’re definitely in an ebb period.”

When a sitting president refuses to concede the election, as seen on Jan. 6, it is one of the most severe threats a democracy can face, said Frances Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.

“The system held, but it shouldn’t be minimized,” she said.

It’s still somewhat unclear to political scientists how America got to this point – and what the future of American democracy could hold. But many look to the country’s history to gauge its future.

When politics first started to shift

The divisions between American political parties are different than those in the past, Clayton said.

Now, for example, the parties are divided among demographics, such as race, education level, religion or geography. Republicans tend to be increasingly white, rural and religiously devout, while Democrats are increasingly ethnically diverse, secular and live in urban areas, he said.

“Once you divide along cultural lines, politics becomes much less about politics and much more about identity,” Clayton said.

That was not always the case. For example, the Republican party has become stronger in rural areas with noncollege educated voters, and people with college degrees living in more urban settings have become more Democratic, Lee said.

The suburbs remain purple and competitive, she said.

Over time, America’s political parties have continued to realign.

In the 1820s, Andrew Jackson formed a new Democratic party while others after his election formed another new party, the Whig Party.

The Jacksonian political revolution “changed fundamentally our politics,” Clayton said.

Those parties changed again after the Civil War.

A powerful status quo

The current political party changes may be most similar to a realignment that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Clayton said.

At that time, both parties had become internally polarized between populist and establishment figures. There were also social and economic divisions similar to today’s. At that time, the country was shifting from an agricultural economy to a much more urbanized one, Clayton said. There was also an increase in immigration, leading to much more cultural diversity.

“You have similar developments happening today,” he said.

Mass immigration has happened, and so have massive economic changes as blue-collar work continues to decrease, while populist figures in both are parties gaining recognition, Clayton said.

The Republican Party is increasingly representing a minority in the country, Clayton said, but the party benefits from Constitutional advantages, which keep it in power. The political system was designed for Republicans – mostly older, religious and white – so they have been able to hold power in places like the presidency, the Supreme Court and the Senate, despite their shrinking membership, he said.

The system is keeping a minority party in power where it shouldn’t be, Clayton said.

Democracy works when voters are able to shift power if one party becomes too extreme. But if you have a party that can rely on constitutional advantages to stay in power, “that’s a real challenge in democracy,” Clayton said.

The role of ‘the rules of the game’

The narrow divide between the popularity of the two dominant parties is another critical factor in how the country got to where it is today.

In the past, there has been one dominant party and one secondary party, Lee said, but now neither party hold majority support among Americans.

She said part of the narrow divide can be traced back to the 1970s with the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, which held huge Democratic control of Congress for decades.

But it is kind of mysterious, she said. There isn’t one good explanation for why politics has become so competitive.

Such close elections can result in congressional and presidential control switching every two to four years.

She said it’s unlikely the country will have unified party control come January.

Election administration and “the rules of the game” also can affect election outcomes, Lee said. When there are elections with a difference of only a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand votes, systems that affect how likely certain groups are to vote, like vote-by-mail availability or registration deadlines, can have an effect on who wins.

It puts a lot of pressure on institutional rules, Lee said.

A safeguarding Supreme Court, but

Waning support

The growing division among Americans is only exacerbated by the recent Supreme Court decisions, Gonzaga law professor Dan Morrissey said.

In recent weeks, the Court has delivered on a number of contentious issues, from abortion to gun rights to climate change.

People on both sides have recognized the long-term effects those decisions can have on American politics, Morrissey said.

“The Supreme Court’s role is to have a constitutional vision and can’t really be overtly partisan,” Morrissey said.

In the past, the court has always had the highest public approval rating of any of the three branches because it has stayed out of politics, Morrissey said, but that could be changing.

A recent Gallup poll found only 25% of Americans have confidence in the Supreme Court, down from 36% in 2021. It’s the lowest recorded in Gallup’s nearly 50-year trend.

Hope for an America ‘committed to this system’

It’s difficult to predict what effects a political realignment and such close politics will have on today’s democracy.

Often, realignments happen when one party becomes so extreme that it can no longer win elections, Clayton said. Parties that can’t win cease to exist and will be replaced by another party.

That has not happened in this country, as more and more elections remain incredibly divisive.

Realignments also happen when a crisis forces a mass shift in the voting identity of one party, Clayton said.

If then-President Donald Trump’s plan to shut down the Electoral College and continue holding power worked, there could have been “a real crisis point in American democracy” or even a small civil war, Clayton said.

But because it didn’t happen, “I don’t think we’re there yet,” Clayton said.

To completely change the parties and how narrow their divide is, it would take “a huge policy disaster,” like a depression or a war, to truly create an imbalance among the parties, Lee said.

Something like that could discredit a party in power, but “I don’t see that happening,” she said.

There was some speculation that the pandemic would result in a landslide presidential election, but that didn’t happen, she said. It was still almost as close as the 2016 election.

There is no telling how a realignment or more competitive parties will change American democracy as we know it, but experts have some hope that the system will be in place for a long time.

Things could change as younger generations get into power, Clayton said.

Because of the time period in which they grew up, the people who have been in power most recently are governing using a much more “good versus evil” strategy in which they consider their views good and the other side’s evil, Clayton said.

“That’s not a good recipe for a functioning democracy,” he said.

But he said he is confident the younger generation will have a different view.

Morrissey said he has faith that America’s democratic values will prevail. Most people believe in “liberty and justice for all,” he said, but different people have different views how to accomplish that.

“I do think the majority of Americans are good, open people,” he said, “and committed to this system that we have.”

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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