The epic struggle for America’s soul is just getting started | Simon Tisdall


Is democracy in America really on the brink of collapse? A lot of serious people appear to think so. Last week’s first anniversary of the Capitol Hill insurrection, viewed by Democrats as a coup attempt incited by Donald Trump, has sparked a torrent of nervous speculation that it could happen again before, during or after the 2024 presidential election – and that next time, the coup may succeed.

One unhappy fact underpins this alarming scenario: many, perhaps most, voters have lost trust in the democratic system that governs them. A majority of Republicans believe Trump’s “big lie” – that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election. Democrats cite elections in 2000 and 2016 when Al Gore and Hillary Clinton respectively won the popular vote but were denied the presidency. Each side accuses the other of fraud and bad faith.

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll found eight in 10 Republicans, Democrats and independents are worried about the future of American democracy. But they disagree over the causes – and who’s to blame: 85% of Democrats call the Capitol Hill rioters “criminals”; two-thirds of Republicans believe “they went too far but had a point”.

“Only free and fair elections in which the loser abides by the result stand between each of us and life at the mercy of a despotic regime,” warns Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. But increasingly, for today’s politicians, honourable defeat is a wholly foreign concept.

This chronic loss of institutional trust and credibility, also tainting a politicised, conservative-dominated supreme court, reflects a society more openly riven by longstanding cultural, racial and religious animosities – and one in which income, wealth and health inequalities are growing. These divisions are in turn wilfully exacerbated by rightwing broadcast and online media, bloggers and internet trolls.

A Republican party mostly in thrall to Trump’s lies, delusions and conspiracy theories is creating a world of “alternative facts”, says columnist Thomas Friedman. If they succeed in replacing truth, “America isn’t just in trouble. It is headed for what scientists call ‘an extinction-level event’”.

Jedediah Britton-Purdy, a Columbia law professor, is similarly apocalyptic. “One thing Democrats and Republicans share is the belief that, to save the country, the other side must not be allowed to win … Every election is an existential crisis,” he wrote.

“We should stop underestimating the threat facing the country,” a grim New York Times editorial thundered last week. “January 6 is not in the past; it is every day. It is regular citizens who threaten election officials, who ask ‘when can we use the guns?’, who vow to murder politicians who dare to vote their conscience. It is Republican lawmakers scrambling to make it harder for people to vote and subvert their will if they do. It is Trump who stokes the flames of conflict.” Democracy, it said, was in “grave danger”.

Systemic violence that overwhelms conventional politics may be near at hand. “We…



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