50.50: Opinion

Is American democracy on the brink of collapse?

Political violence, surging ethnonationalism, economic stagnation: the US today resembles the Soviet Union just before it fell

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
28 January 2022, 10.39am
Trump supporters breach the US Capitol in Washington DC, 6 January 2021
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Michael Nigro/Sipa USA/PA Images

As an American born into a conservative Christian family, I grew up surrounded by chauvinist messaging that I was living in “the greatest country in the world”. This message was reinforced in the popular media I was allowed to consume, and also at home, at church and in my Christian school, where pupils’ inculcation in Christian nationalism extended to the recitation of not just one, but three pledges every morning: to the American flag, the Christian flag and the Bible.

These were the waning years of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan, president of the United States at the time, made a regular show of putting pressure on the Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, as part of his performative patriotism – and we evangelicals loved it.

Of course, Soviet citizens were also frequently told – just like us Americans – that they lived in “the greatest country in the world”.

I’m a Russia expert who spent several years living in post-Soviet Russia. I’ve talked to people who were young adults during the détente period of the Cold War (c. 1969 through the 1970s), when Leonid Brezhnev was in charge of the USSR. They remember those times with nostalgia and a certain wistfulness for the loss of their country’s status as a ‘great power’ – something the current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has sought to restore through revanchism and Russia’s own version of a Christian imperial ideology.

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The early 1990s was a period of major trauma for the country. The USSR ceased to exist amid economic privation, rising ethnonationalism and social discontent fuelled in part by the Gorbachev regime’s unprecedented openness about past Soviet atrocities (which was in itself, of course, a good thing).

Could the same thing happen to the United States? The question may strike some as alarmist or even absurd, but there are parallels between the experience of the dying days of the Soviet Union and today’s US.

More political violence imminent

For one, the US is an intensely divided country that’s nearly boiling over with grievances and recriminations. And just as the USSR failed to make much needed upgrades to infrastructure built largely in the 1930s, the hamstrung US Congress is unable to pass even a basic bill to update its country’s infrastructure, which dates mainly from the 1950s and ’60s.

Meanwhile, most Americans are struggling economically despite high (but wildly inequitably distributed) GDP. White nationalism is surging. And among right-wing Americans, especially white evangelical Protestants and Trump supporters, almost 20% believe “that true American patriots might have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

On the anniversary of the 6 January insurrection on Capitol Hill, prominent experts and commentators predicted that more political violence is likely in the immediate future. Leading Canadian political scientist and academic Thomas Homer-Dixon went even further, warning that “American democracy could collapse” as soon as 2025, and advocating that the Canadian government take measures to prepare for this contingency.

A near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon

Professor Homer-Dixon quickly dispenses with the notion that Democrats and Republicans are equally responsible for today’s polarisation. He doesn’t mince his words in describing how “Mr. Trump and a host of acolytes and wannabes such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson and Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene have captured the storied GOP and transformed it into a near-fascist personality cult that’s a perfect instrument for wrecking democracy” by exploiting the fear and anger of white Christian conservatives.

Homer-Dixon concludes that, while it is impossible to predict the precise post-democracy form the US might take or whether civil war might break out, certain things are clear. Should Trump return to power in the 2024 presidential election, “liberalism will be marginalized and right-wing Christian groups super-empowered, while violence by vigilante, paramilitary groups will rise sharply.”

Democracy on life support

Homer-Dixon’s sobering commentary is long and detailed, and I find some parts of his argument more convincing than others. I can hardly do justice to it here, so I would strongly encourage readers to examine it for themselves. But I do have a few thoughts of my own to share.

First, a quibble. While we are accustomed to referring to the United States as a democracy and even (incorrectly, in my view) holding it up as a paragon to be emulated, my country has never come close to fully embodying democratic ideals. It has certainly never deserved to be called “the greatest country in the world”.

The founding fathers left us with a slaveholder constitution that grants disproportionate power to wealthy white men. While remarkable enough for its time, the constitution really needs a few new amendments, not least the elimination of the electoral college, through which states, rather than individual citizens, vote for the president. The result of this profoundly undemocratic system is that recent Republican candidates, including Trump, have won the presidency while losing the popular vote.

American democracy has always been aspirational, at best, but even that aspirational, partially realised democracy is currently on life support.

In that regard, I want to express my gratitude to Professor Homer-Dixon for publicly raising the possibility that the current US system will fail. It is, of course, rather disconcerting, as an American, to read foreign experts’ analysis of the probable collapse of my country.

By the same token, however, it is immensely important that this contingency be discussed – as loudly as possible and by as many parties as possible. The US is in a dire political situation, and most of us aren’t taking the failures of our politics nearly as seriously as we should.

The more we address the real issues, the more likely it is we will find a way to avoid the worst possible outcome. That, at least, is the shred of hope I’m currently trying to hold on to.

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