A quick glance at the red and blue U.S. electoral map, even as parts remain blank and a fierce legal battle may be in the offing, reveals the truth that doesn’t depend on the final results: No matter who wins or loses, something big has happened that will remain with us for an indeterminable amount of time.
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After four years of Donald Trump and everything that has happened, people still voted for him in numbers unfathomable to the bewildered liberal world. It’s clear that Joe Biden won’t enjoy a landslide victory, that the United States is still deeply divided, that the agreed-on rules of the game are being eroded and that neither side has any intention of leaving the playing field.
Sound familiar? In Israel, too, the three general elections in 11 months were above all a head-to-head contest between values and identities. More than a battle over issues or policies, they were a war over the future of the state’s democratic institutions, especially the justice system and the media. In Israel, too, despite the hopes of some of Benjamin Netanyahu’s detractors, the red parts of the political map don’t plan to leave when the prime minister leaves the scene.
Anyone who has followed the researchers who tried to understand what Trump’s presidency means for American democracy had no reason to be surprised by this map. Many of them have concluded that the roots of the danger to liberal democracy in the United States and the world lie not in any particular candidate but in the widening identity rift between Democrats and Republicans, which leads to the erosion of the common norms and values around which the rules of democracy were forged.
Trump didn’t create this situation, and it won’t end when he exits the political stage. He simply amplified and exploited it better than anyone else.
The decline of the Western liberal worldview has been a lively topic since 9/11, which symbolized the beginning of the liberal crisis. In the 2000s, political scientists including Larry Diamond warned of the increasing difficulty of identifying threats to democracy, because a growing number of regimes were adopting the trappings of democracy while emptying the term of all meaning. They eagerly adopted the principle of elections and majority rule, giving them the legitimacy to act in democracy’s name to advance undemocratic values.
In 2016, for example, shortly before the election that brought Trump to power, political scientist Nancy Bermeo described how, just as democracy is put together piece by piece, it can be taken apart the same way and with broad popular support. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt described it in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die”: “There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance. This is how most democracies die today: slowly, in barely visible steps.”
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Levitsky and Ziblatt note the importance of shared democratic norms on both sides of the political barricades. When the identity rift becomes deep and the moderating forces on each side are silenced, the agreed-on rules of the game might be sacrificed to the cause.
In such a world, today’s democracies indeed don’t die in violent revolution but because people choose of their own free will to kill it at the polling station – in the United States, Europe and also here in Israel. The electoral map that’s coming together in the United States and the recent elections in Israel show how far we are from solving a problem that will only worsen whether or not Trump remains in the White House.