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96 Foreign Aff. 20 (2017)
Is America Still Safe for Democracy: Why the United States Is in Danger of Backsliding

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Is  America

Still Safe for

Democracy?

Why the United States Is in
Danger of Backsliding

Robert  Mickey,   Steven  Levitsky,
and  Lucan   Ahmad Way


        he election of Donald Trump as
        president of the United States-a
        man who  has praised dictators,
encouraged violence among supporters,
threatened to jail his rival, and labeled
the mainstream media as the enemy-
has raised fears that the United States
may  be heading toward authoritarianism.
While predictions of a descent into fascism
are overblown, the Trump presidency
could push the United States into a
mild form of what we call competitive
authoritarianism-a system in which
meaningful democratic institutions exist
yet the government abuses state power
to disadvantage its opponents.
   But the challenges facing American
democracy  have been emerging for

ROBERT  MICKEY  is Associate Professor of
Political Science at the University of Michigan
and the author of Paths Out of Dixie: The
Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in
America's Deep South, 1944-1972.
STEVEN  LEVITSKY is Professor of Govern-
ment at Harvard University.
LUCAN  AHMAD   WAY is Professor of Political
Science at the University of Toronto and a
co-author, with Levitsky, of Competitive Authori-
tarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War.


decades, long before Trump arrived on
the scene. Since the 1980s, deepening
polarization and the radicalization of
the Republican Party have weakened
the institutional foundations that have
long safeguarded U.S. democracy-
making a Trump  presidency consider-
ably more dangerous today than it
would have been in previous decades.
   Paradoxically, the polarizing dy-
namics that now threaten democracy
are rooted in the United States' belated
democratization. It was only in the early
1970s-once  the civil rights movement
and the federal government managed to
stamp out authoritarianism in southern
states-that the country truly became
democratic. Yet this process also helped
divide Congress, realigning voters along
racial lines and pushing the Republican
Party further to the right. The resulting
polarization both facilitated Trump's
rise and left democratic institutions more
vulnerable to his autocratic behavior.
   The safeguards of democracy may
not come from the quarters one might
expect. American society's purported
commitment   to democracy is no guar-
antee against backsliding; nor are con-
stitutional checks and balances, the
bureaucracy, or the free press. Ultimately,
it may be Trump's ability to mobilize
public support-limited if his admin-
istration performs poorly, but far greater
in the event of a war or a major terrorist
attack-that will determine American
democracy's fate.

WHAT   BACKSLIDING LOOKS LIKE
If democratic backsliding were to occur
in the United States, it would not take
the form of a coup d6tat; there would
be no declaration of martial law or impo-
sition of single-party rule. Rather, the


20    FOREIGN AFFAIRS

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