The January 6 Capitol riot was a fitting end to the Donald Trump presidency — dangerous and absurd in equal measure. But as Democrat-led congressional hearings into the 6th drag on and Republican candidates, judges, and grassroots activists prepare to ensure that the Republican Party is declared the winner of the next presidential race regardless of the results, it looks more and more as if the attempted insurrection also marked the beginning of a new and dangerous era.
A New York Times headline from last week gets straight to the point: “Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority.” It refers to a poll the Times conducted showing that 71 percent of Americans think democracy is at risk, while only 7 percent name those risks as the country’s most pressing problem.
In one sense, these numbers simply reflect the country’s long-standing political divide. Sustainable American democracy is objectively in more danger now than it was before the events of January 6, but a major part of Trump’s and the Republicans’ strategy to hold on to power was to convince their followers that Joe Biden was elected illegitimately, probably through some sort of conspiracy. So that 71 percent includes many respondents mortified by the storming of the Capitol, but also many who supported it. Both would say democracy is in peril, albeit for very different reasons.
Perhaps the issue of democracy has become just like the economy — which voters are far more concerned about. It fundamentally isn’t working, but the country is split on why that is and who’s to blame. With inflation eating away at their already-stagnant earnings and the Federal Reserve set to trigger a recession in response, most people are understandably more focused on how to make ends meet in the next few months than on what might happen in an election more than two years away.
The problem is not entirely new. George W. Bush became president through bluster and a partisan Supreme Court. Conservatives have attacked the foundations of fair voting for essentially the nation’s entire history, with a renewed push in state legislatures and the courts in the 2000s that accelerated after Trump took office. But just because it isn’t entirely new doesn’t mean recent developments are no cause for concern. Even if Trump basically has the same goals as the rest of the GOP, his willingness to go beyond the rest of the party’s playbook has serious consequences.
The country’s reaction to climate change is an instructive case study for understanding the erosion of democracy. In both cases, the root of the problem goes back centuries. In both cases, the problem has accelerated significantly in the past two decades. In both cases, experts have been ringing alarm bells as loud as they can — and most of it is happening out in the open for everyone to see.
It’s not just the Left; the entire country is in a sort of purgatory. We’re watching things deteriorate day by day, while anyone in a position of power is either pretending the problem isn’t serious or actively making it worse. While Democratic lawmakers are rightfully looking into an attempted insurrection that threatened their lives, there is still little on the table to address gerrymandering or the judicial rollback of the Voting Rights Act — the biggest factors that laid the groundwork for the movement that coalesced on the Capitol.
We’re bombarded simultaneously with two messages: first, the situation is critical; second, we aren’t going to do anything about it. Is it any surprise people tune out?
The destruction of democracy and climate change share one other important feature: as difficult as it is to prevent the worst damage now, it will be orders of magnitude harder to undo it later. In both cases, those who want to avert catastrophe urgently need to find a way to connect the issues to pocketbook concerns at the front of voters’ minds. Otherwise, the Right will keep setting the agenda for the foreseeable future, with disastrous consequences.