It is difficult to remember—but until a few years ago, the idea that American democracy could come under serious threat seemed patently absurd.
When Roberto Foa and I shared a draft of our paper on democratic deconsolidation with a famous mentor, he strongly disputed its conclusions. It seemed too outlandish that many citizens might be disenchanted with our system, or that this could pose a risk to democratic institutions in North America and Western Europe. In a 2016 article, the New York Times called me “the most pessimistic person in the room.”
But over the past four years, pessimism has become fashionable. In the pages of the country’s most influential newspapers, commentators routinely warn of an impending civil war, worry that Donald Trump will carry out a putsch, or claim that we are about to descend into fascism. Last week, a columnist for the Boston Globe likened Trump supporters to ISIS terrorists.
So, to my own astonishment, I am now one of the more optimistic voices in the room. Trump still poses a serious threat to American democracy. If he wins re-election, the next four years will be very dangerous. But this Tuesday, Americans retain the ability to vote Trump out of office in reasonably free and fair elections. If they do, he won’t be able to incite a civil war or stop Joe Biden from taking office.
Democratic institutions remain under threat around the world. Populist leaders have effectively ended democracy in Turkey and Venezuela. They have concentrated vast powers in their own hands from Hungary to the Philippines. And they may be on the way toward doing so in some of the world’s largest democracies, including Brazil and India.
Even in the United States, it is clear that democratic institutions are more vulnerable than most political scientists once believed. Many predicted that the Republican Party would rein in Trump; instead, he remodeled it in his image. Independent institutions, including the Department of Justice, were supposed to do business-as-usual; instead, they granted favors to Trump’s associates, and turned a blind eye to the crimes of his accomplices.
In the days after the 2016 election, commentators loved to quote a famous line that Harry Truman supposedly said before handing power over to Eisenhower: “He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army.” Trump, these commentators predicted, was about to learn the same lesson.
That turned out to be too sanguine. It took Trump a few years to gain control of the machinery of government, and find lieutenants willing to do his bidding. But, though some civil servants balked at his most destructive impulses or quit on a point of principle, they were quickly replaced or cowed into obedience. So when Trump told his underlings to subvert the mission of Voice of America or to separate kids from their parents at the southern border, the executive branch complied with his demands.
All of this gives us real reason for concern. If Trump wins re-election, he will step up his attacks on democratic institutions. Checks on his power, which have been somewhat attenuated over the past four years, will continue to weaken. Biden has a significant lead in the polls, but a second term is far from impossible. As Nate Silver recently wrote, “Trump has a meaningful chance per our forecast—a little better than the chances it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And remember, it does rain there.”
Even if Biden wins, the next weeks will be scary and turbulent. Trump may try to declare himself the victor. He is almost certain to claim that millions of votes were cast illegally. In the pursuit of one last boost in the ratings, he may even encourage his supporters to protest the outcome of the election or insinuate that he will not leave office.
It is astonishing that one of the oldest and most consolidated democracies in the world finds itself in such a volatile situation. But that only makes it all the more important to keep a cool head. And while Trump can sow chaos in the coming weeks, he does not have nearly enough control over the country’s institutions—especially outside the executive—to stay in office after losing the vote.
Rigging an election takes a lot of planning and discipline. Authoritarian populists who have managed to stay in office even after the public turned against them managed to capture their countries’ institutions in a painstaking, multiyear process. By the time the voters turned on them, they could count on the blind loyalty of courts, electoral commissions and military commanders.
Trump does not (yet) hold nearly enough power to follow their lead. He does not control the country’s judiciary, its state governments or the press. Nor has he installed hand-picked generals who would be willing to defy the constitution for his benefit.
Elections in the United States are administered in a highly decentralized manner. Republican hardliners will undoubtedly engage in shameful shenanigans. But in virtually all swing states they are subject to the countervailing power of Democratic legislators or governors.
Conservatives have also greatly increased their influence in the country’s judiciary, including the highest court in the land. But while I strongly disagree with some recent decisions by the Supreme Court, the justices have given no indication that they would be willing to overturn decades of precedent in order to subvert the will of their fellow citizens.
Nor do we stand on the brink of civil war. If the winner of the election remains unclear for many days or weeks, tension will build, and violent confrontations could ensue. There may even be casualties in the streets of Washington or Philadelphia. But tragic and frightening though the next days may turn out to be, a few such confrontations no more add up to a civil war than did the deadly clashes in Kenosha or Portland in recent months.
There is good reason to think seriously about possible outcomes as well as probable ones. I never thought that American democracy was likely to fail, and yet I have spent much of the past five years pointing out that the dangers were—and are—real. In the same vein, it is sensible to think hard about the worst-case scenarios that might befall us in the coming days.
Even so, the performative pessimism of this moment sits uneasily with me. Over the past days, the Discourse has not treated the idea of an impending putsch or a civil war as a remote possibility, but as a likely outcome. This needlessly terrifies people.
Worse, I sometimes get the sense that some commentators are invested in the idea that a great number of Americans are monstrous. The worst-case scenario would, I suspect, give them grim satisfaction. What better way to prove that America is rotten than to see Trump’s die-hard supporters cheer on a coup?
As for me, the past four years have made me painfully aware that the citizens of democratic countries can make choices I consider immoral and disastrous. But I also retain the hope that they can correct course or pull back from the brink. And if you truly believe in democracy—in the idea that it is, in the end, best to be ruled by a majority of your peers—then you should retain hope, too.
Yascha Mounk is the founder and editor-in-chief of Persuasion.
This article reflects the views of the author, not those of Persuasion Institute.