In the last four years, America has experienced the early stages of democratic backsliding. Like the authoritarians in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India and other countries that used to be democracies, President Donald Trump has flouted both formal and informal restrictions on executive authority and used the power of the state to his advantage. While the traditions of the rule of law, division of power and checks and balances are more deeply embedded in the United States than in perhaps any other country, these ideals do not seem as unshakeable or well established as they were four years ago.
Donald Trump has undermined the integrity of American democracy by becoming the first president in US history to refuse to commit to the peaceful transfer of power and recognize the results of the election. He has flaunted the rule of law by using his power to commute the sentences of former aides and pressure foreign countries into digging up dirt on a political opponent and shredded American federalism by threatening to cut off federal funding to states and cities that refuse to conform to his agenda. He has made a mockery of America’s constitutional system, by abusing emergency powers to bypass the constitution, issuing executive orders at an unprecedented rate, rejecting congressional oversight of the executive branch and treating the power accorded to Congress by the Constitution as a matter of presidential courtesy, using the CDC as “the fourth branch of government” to unilaterally create new regulations and laws bypassing Congress. He has embraced crony capitalism, by profiting from his presidency and using the power of the federal government to pick economic winners and losers. The president’s assault on democracy extends far beyond the borders of the United States—for the first time since the Second World War, the US president not only refuses to lead the free world but continuously subverts America’s relationships with its allies and coddles dictators, just as technocratic authoritarian regimes are increasingly posing the greatest threat ever to open societies.
Some of the president’s defenders may say that much of what Trump’s opponents criticize is merely rhetoric. But, even if we disregard his actions, rhetoric matters. For words—especially those of the president of the United States—can change people’s minds and influence their perception of reality, whether about the importance of wearing masks or the credibility and legitimacy of American democracy. For example, according to one poll, seventy percent of Republicans do not think that the election was free and fair—which should not come as a surprise, in light of President Trump’s unending tweets containing unfounded accusations of electoral fraud and his refusal to concede. The president is engaged in a disinformation campaign against his own country, and his evidence-free attacks on the legitimacy of America’s foundational institutions, though highly unlikely to change the outcome in his favor, are sowing distrust and undermining the credibility of the American system, both in the eyes of his supporters and across the world.
What is even more unfortunate is the refusal of the vast majority of Republican elected officials to recognize Joe Biden as President elect and their acquiescence in Trump’s baseless allegations concerning the integrity of the election (even as they celebrated GOP wins in the House of Representatives and Senate, though candidates for president, Senate and House appeared on the same ballots). Checks and balances can work only if the majority honors legal obligations and informal norms and, most importantly, recognizes the legitimacy of key institutions. The danger is that, as more people see the system as rigged, they will begin to resort to illegitimate ways of overthrowing it—a phenomenon that is increasingly evident on both sides of the political spectrum. President Trump has lost his re-election bid, so it may look as if the key threat to democracy has been allayed. But, even after his attempts to change the results of the election ultimately fail, his rhetoric will probably have a lasting impact on the perception of the legitimacy of American democracy and therefore its chances of preservation.
But the threats to the American system are not limited to the presidency. The government is not the only entity with the potential to undermine fundamental western ideals. As John Stuart Mill warns in On Liberty, society “practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
The woke movement, represented by activists who see themselves as the guardians of absolute truth, with a sacred mission to spread Social Justice and attain an anti-racist utopia, presents another kind of danger to American democracy, because of its rejection of science, reason, humanism, progress, individual liberty, freedom of speech, tolerance and universalism. Key institutions like the mainstream media, university campuses and corporations are being infiltrated and captured by the censorious and intolerant Social Justice progressives. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces, researchers are denied tenure because of their political views and academics are getting canceled for not conforming to the woke orthodoxy. Indeed, Donald Trump’s 2016 victory is at least partly attributable to the illiberal excesses of political correctness and cancel culture.
For some observers—such as James Lindsay—the November election presented a choice between authoritarian populism and woke totalitarianism because Joe Biden is permissive towards the movement and will enable a woke revolution at the administrative level, while Trump’s recent ban on Critical Race Theory training demonstrates that he is going to counteract social justice progressivism. But while Biden may pay lip service to parts of the woke agenda, he is certainly neither a woke extremist nor an identitarian. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, like the woke, relies on an ugly form of identity politics to generate support: stoking division, and using tribalism as a political tool. Lindsay argues that the woke activists aim to infiltrate the federal bureaucracy and change policies at the administrative level, where they are unaccountable to legislators. But their ability to shape policies depends on who rules the federal agencies: since the Senate is likely to remain under GOP control, even in the unlikely case that he appoints woke extremists to his cabinet, Biden will be constrained by Republican lawmakers on whose consent appointments to key roles will depend.
The argument that Trump could stop Social Justice activists ignores the complex challenge the woke movement presents. In America, government power is limited, meaning that the actions of the government cannot induce major changes in societal trends. Trump’s actions limiting woke diversity training by federal agencies and contractors are unlikely to have any real impact on the movement’s trajectory, since this is primarily a societal phenomenon that is taking over areas in which the state cannot legally interfere. Regardless of who wins the presidential election, these underlying societal dynamics won’t change, as long as the government acts within the limits prescribed by the constitution. Neither Trump nor Biden can defeat the woke. Also, Trump does not seem to be the vocal opponent of woke ideology committed to preserving American values many think he is. His decision to ban Critical Race Theory training was probably not a result of deliberate policy planning but of watching Tucker Carlson’s talk show on Fox News.
For the federal government to truly challenge the woke movement, it would have to expand its power over society dramatically, venturing far beyond the limits established by the constitution and essentially becoming a dictatorship. In particular, the government would have to become involved in the business of regulating colleges and universities, the media and private companies. Any expansion of the government’s power, even for the sake of righteous goals like eliminating intolerance, could be exploited by people with less benign goals. One cannot seek to overcome a threat to liberty by creating an omnipotent state. We cannot fight illiberalism on the left by encouraging illiberalism on the right. As Helen Pluckrose has put it, “We cannot beat the postmodern Social Justice and alternative ways of knowing of the left with the postmodern post-truth and alternative facts of the right.”
Frederick Douglass lamented that “we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man, we shall be safe.” In a similar fashion, libertarian congressman Justin Amash has recently argued that “this election reaffirms the importance of constitutionalism and federalism”; we should “stop giving the federal government—and especially the president—so much unwarranted power and making the presidency something to obsess over.” Unfortunately, American constitutional checks and balances are imperfect, as the four years of Trump have shown. Donald Trump’s presidency has tested the limits of American democracy’s resiliency and flexibility. If he had been given four more years, the damage could have been irreversible.
Joe Biden is not a flawless candidate, but he is flawed within the bounds of normalcy. Some may claim that his refusal to answer whether he would support expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court is an indication that he is a norm-breaker of Trump’s kind. But Biden will almost certainly not pack—or not be able to pack—the Supreme Court. He has previously condemned court-packing, and his current, regrettable ambivalence regarding the issue is probably intended to attract the support of progressive elements in the Democratic Party. Second, the Democratic Party itself is far from being a woke party—as David Brooks has noted, it still has a vibrant center, represented by the New Democrat Coalition. And Senate Democrats are moderate enough to avoid supporting widely unpopular measures like court-packing (Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia has already made it clear that he would vote against expanding the Supreme Court). Woke elements of the Democratic Party are a very loud minority that has little real influence. Even Franklin Roosevelt, who had majorities in both chambers of Congress, failed to pack the court. Finally, since the Republican Party will probably retain its majority in its Senate, the left will be unable to pass the most radical parts of its agenda.
If, however, Joe Biden had lost to the tear-it-all-down populism of Donald Trump, America could have been left with two illiberal parties and a republic more polarized and divided than ever: had Biden lost, the fringe elements of the Democratic Party would have blamed the loss on his not being left-wing enough, and would have tried to run someone even more radical next time. As Bret Stephens writes, “The success of liberal centrism rests on the success of Biden’s candidacy. And those who worry that a Biden win will empower progressive Wokesters should fear how much more empowered they’ll be should he lose.” National populist right and woke left feed off each other, and Trump’s victory would only have empowered the worst excesses of the left, reinforcing and lending credibility to the woke message that America is a fundamentally racist and xenophobic patriarchy in need of revolutionary change. Trump’s re-election would not only have failed to halt the infiltration of the woke into key societal institutions, but would have empowered and radicalized them. With Biden as president, there is a hope that this dangerous self-reinforcing cycle of radicalization will abate. But populism is not gone, and many challenges remain, as the closeness of the vote in key swing states and Trump’s gain of a few million more votes than in 2016 demonstrate. Trump’s victory was not an aberration, but the start of a profound shift in the Republican Party.
Internationally, populists in power tend to stay in power, but it seems as if America has once again proved its exceptionalism. But wokeness cannot be voted out. Since, in a free and open society like America, the government cannot arbitrarily halt the spread of some ideas and force people to accept others, we need bottom-up—not top-down—change to defeat wokery. Our most effective weapon is not voting, but winning hearts and minds. This is not an impossible task. Most Americans are against racial quotas and defunding the police. Eighty percent of Americans view political correctness as a problem, and almost eighty percent support freedom of speech. This election is a testament to Americans’ negative attitudes towards wokery—the GOP has increased its number of seats in the House of Representatives, and some moderate Democrats are already blaming the adoption of woke rhetoric and flirtations with socialism for their defeat; progressive measures like the reinstatement of affirmative action and classifying Uber and Lyft workers as independent contractors have failed in California. Donald Trump has attracted more support from minorities like black and Latino Americans than he did four years ago. If Joe Biden had not run on a centrist platform emphasizing unity and decency over identity politics, he might have lost the election to Trump, just as Hillary Clinton did.
In this election, Americans have rejected both the illiberal national populism of Donald Trump and the woke illiberalism of the left and it is reasonable to assume that many Americans split their votes between Biden at the top and GOP candidates down the ballot. We can only hope that both parties listen to their constituents. When Joe Biden is elected, he should work with both Democrats and Republicans to reform the American system so as to avoid abuse by the president and make the election and transition process more impersonal and less centered on the actions of the incumbent. The American system of checks and balances is imperfect because it has failed to stop Trump in many respects, and the Biden administration needs to heal and reform the system to limit the ability of future presidents to wreak damage. American democracy has survived a serious test—but it is weakened and delegitimized in the eyes of many. We must now restore Americans’ faith in the system and tackle the threats to the ideas of liberty and equality before the law.