Five University of Notre Dame professors who specialize in different areas of democracy studies recently signed a strong statement of concern issued by the think tank New America warning of the serious threats to democracy in the U.S. Notre Dame is a longtime leader in research on democratization in comparative perspective through a number of campus institutes, and the American politics subfield that is part of the Department of Political Science emphasizes research on inclusion.
As demonstrated by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project, there has been a “significant erosion of liberal democracy in the U.S. since 2016,” Michael Coppedge, professor of political science and one of the V-Dem principal investigators, said. V-Dem has measured hundreds of attributes of democracy and governance for most countries going back to 1789. The 2021 V-Dem report on democracy, “Autocratization Goes Viral,” underscores the dramatic spikes in countries becoming more autocratic. In fact, V-Dem reports that, as of 2020, only 4 percent of the world’s population is living in democratizing nations. It also reports that no country in North America or Western and Eastern Europe has advanced in democracy in the last decade, while democracy in the U.S. (along with Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovenia) has declined substantially.
“A decline is already underway. If recent and pending state-level legislation erects more and more barriers to voting and makes the translation of votes into seats and electors even more distorted than it already is, I am sure this trend will worsen,” added Coppedge, who is also a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.
The U.S. has dropped in three out of six indices studied by V-Dem that measure everything from the quality of elections and individual rights to rule of law and whether political decisions are made in the interest of the common good. The 2021 report shows the U.S. declined substantially on the Liberal Democracy Index from 0.86 in 2010 to 0.73 in 2020. This is in part, the researchers write, a consequence of former President Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the media and opposition politicians, and the substantial weakening of the legislature’s de facto checks and balances on executive power. The V-Dem team also reported significant negative changes in the U.S.’s deliberation score, the component that captures the extent to which public speech, including counterarguments, and respect for political opponents is respected by political leaders. It moved from 0.91 in 2016 to 0.61 in 2020.
Although the V-Dem team saw an overall decline in pro-democracy mobilization worldwide, the U.S. had its highest number of protests in recent history. The June 6, 2020, protests with more than half a million people spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the months of protests that followed are seen as a condemnation of systemic oppression of people of color. Race was key in the fight for voting rights in 2020 in states like Georgia, where Black voters not only handed President Joe Biden a win, but also ensured victories for the state’s first Black senator and first Jewish senator over their Republican opponents. More recently, the Republican-led state legislature has been successful in changing voting laws in Georgia — a move that has been criticized as an attempt to limit voting for people of color.
“Marginalized and intersectional communities have been crucial leaders in the contemporary struggle to defend and secure voting rights. Black women in particular have turned their commitment to community into sophisticated voter mobilization organizations,” said Christina Wolbrecht, professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy. “It’s important to emphasize, however, that resisting and overcoming discriminatory voting rules requires time, energy and attention that these communities do not have in abundance and that distract from other work that advances human flourishing.”
Luis Fraga, the Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor of Political Science, whose areas of expertise include Latino politics, politics of race and ethnicity, voting rights policy and immigration policy, emphasized that the contemporary fight for minority rights is nothing new.
“We are a nation founded on the basis of slavery and its related racism,” he said. “We have culture wars and our racist historical past and its lingering contemporary effects and immigration — particularly from Latin America — is identified as a threat to American identity and elements of American ideals. Add to that people coming from Muslim countries, and this intensifies the culture wars. We’ve seen the decline of the material status of some blue-collar workers in some parts of the country. All these things together have led to — and research backs this up — the importance of white identity. Working against this threatens the status of the Republican Party and spurs the gerrymandering/voting tricks. Their goal is to dehumanize the people who are the sources of that threat.”
Echoing the V-Dem team’s deliberation score for the U.S., Fraga said this rhetoric, combined with political leadership doubling down on misinformation with the intent of spreading it as widely as possible via likeminded news outlets, has caused extreme political polarization in the U.S. He added, “It’s not that the people who are influenced by that are in any way unsophisticated — it’s things changing in the U.S. in a way that they are not comfortable with.”
Fraga, who also serves as the Rev. Donald P. McNeill, C.S.C., Professor of Transformative Latino Leadership and the director of the Institute for Latino Studies, sees hope in proposed legislation. The goal of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is to restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the For the People Act aims to expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of money in politics, limit partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has announced that he will not support the For the People Act, as he believes any reforms in voting and election practices should be bipartisan. In a recent op-ed, he wrote, “Partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it.”
Fraga sees it differently, noting that many lawmakers see clearly that “this is not America at its best,” and that the proposed acts would be a way to prevent democratic backsliding.
“The New America statement is supported by my research, teaching and values and is in the best traditions of Notre Dame,” he continued. “We were established to provide education to predominantly immigrant, working-class and marginalized Americans. This attack on voting rights one can understand as a threat to what Notre Dame stands for and what has brought it its greatness.”
Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs Aníbal Pérez-Liñán studies processes of democratization, political instability and the rule of law in new democracies, particularly in Latin America. He sees parallels in some Latin American countries to attempts by U.S. state Republican legislatures to restrict voting rules, thus securing long-term partisan control of their states.
“This strategy only works if federal legislation fails to enforce voting rights nationally,” said Perez-Liñán, who holds a joint appointment at the Keough School of Global Affairs. “Students of Latin American politics call this phenomenon ‘boundary control.’ In Latin America, authoritarian governors are known to preserve power in their enclaves by fending off the influence of national governments.”
The idea of eliminating the filibuster — a Congressional tactic, meant to delay a vote on or kill a bill, that requires 60 percent of senators to overturn — has been bandied about since the Biden administration began and Democrats gained control of both the White House and the Senate. Perez-Liñán, who recently wrote an article for the Dignity & Development blog on the damage legislative supermajorities can do to democracy through altering the independence of courts, notes that the filibuster is an important maneuver that protects legislative minorities.
“Paradoxically, however, some Republican senators are using this institution to disempower minorities in their own states,” said Perez-Liñán, who is also a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute. “By blocking the adoption of federal legislation to defend voting rights, they sadly exercise boundary control to protect the adoption of restrictive voting laws.”
Eugene and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science Scott Mainwaring agrees and stresses that the overt attempts to suppress minority votes, the partisan manipulation of electoral administration and the refusal to accept Trump’s defeat are all harbingers of the demise of democracy.
“These practices represent a movement toward competitive authoritarian regimes, and they are a deep threat to democracy,” said Mainwaring, who is also a faculty fellow at the Kellogg Institute. “As a student and scholar of democracy for more than 40 years, I am disheartened to see these practices.”