Demographic changes as a threat to democracy

Yoni Appelbaum has a long article arguing that demographic changes are going to threaten the very fabric of democracy in the US as one side consisting of conservatives, Republicans, and white Christians seems to be concluding that the power they traditionally held is slipping away and a day is coming fairly soon after which they may never win elections again. What choices they make to deal with this future will define what kind of democracy will remain.

But now many conservatives, surveying demographic trends, have concluded that Teixeira wasn’t wrong—merely premature. They can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.

Trump has led his party to this dead end, and it may well cost him his chance for reelection, presuming he is not removed through impeachment. But the president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.

Adam Przeworski, a political scientist who has studied struggling democracies in Eastern Europe and Latin America, has argued that to survive, democratic institutions “must give all the relevant political forces a chance to win from time to time in the competition of interests and values.” But, he adds, they also have to do something else, of equal importance: “They must make even losing under democracy more attractive than a future under non-democratic outcomes.” That conservatives—despite currently holding the White House, the Senate, and many state governments—are losing faith in their ability to win elections in the future bodes ill for the smooth functioning of American democracy. That they believe these electoral losses would lead to their destruction is even more worrying.

Today, a republican party that appeals primarily to white Christian voters is fighting a losing battle. The Electoral College, Supreme Court, and Senate may delay defeat for a time, but they cannot postpone it forever.

The GOP’s efforts to cling to power by coercion instead of persuasion have illuminated the perils of defining a political party in a pluralistic democracy around a common heritage, rather than around values or ideals.

Whether the American political system today can endure without fracturing further, Daniel Ziblatt’s research suggests, may depend on the choices the center-right now makes. If the center-right decides to accept some electoral defeats and then seeks to gain adherents via argumentation and attraction—and, crucially, eschews making racial heritage its organizing principle—then the GOP can remain vibrant. Its fissures will heal and its prospects will improve, as did those of the Democratic Party in the 1920s, after Wilson. Democracy will be maintained. But if the center-right, surveying demographic upheaval and finding the prospect of electoral losses intolerable, casts its lot with Trumpism and a far right rooted in ethno-nationalism, then it is doomed to an ever smaller proportion of voters, and risks revisiting the ugliest chapters of our history.

As I said, it is a long article but interesting.


  1. says

    The last time white America had this problem, they decided that slaves’ owners could vote for them and their votes only counted partially. US “democracy” has always been a sham and US politicians have always believed as Mao later said: “power comes from the barrel of a gun.”

  2. file thirteen says

    to survive, democratic institutions “must give all the relevant political forces a chance to win from time to time in the competition of interests and values.”

    This is a really strange thing to say. Since when has the U.S. FPP electoral system been democratic? Have the greens got a chance to win from time to time then? Or is the underlying message that it would be undemocratic if the republicans never got to win again? Nonsense.

    [many conservatives] are losing faith that they can win elections in the future.

    Utter nonsense. I know the hopeful want to believe the tide is turning, but this is straight from cloud cuckoo land. Newsflash: republicans still control the senate, and Trump is still president.

  3. Sam N says

    @2 I feel hopeful that it’s a house of cards. And it will come crushing down all at once in a beautiful demolition of their hate and prejudice. Well, I need to cling to something. I still vote regularly.

  4. says

    I recently saw a bunch of liberal non-hispanics trashing a Mexican-American rancher who complained about the border wall taking land that’s been in his family for 100 years. They automatically assumed he voted for Trump.
    His family has been here long enough to have told stories about La Matanza, like my mom’s family does. Only one cousin is conservative on that side of the family.
    Seems like unthinking bigotry is still widespread.

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