America has a growing democracy problem, and the 2022 midterm elections could be the moment where it all collapses.
Experts, elected officials, and even a titan of industry have been ringing the alarm bells about what they see as a real threat of civil war as voters lose faith in America’s electoral system and, subsequently, the legal authority of their leaders.
Billionaire Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater, the world’s biggest hedge fund, took to LinkedIn to warn that moderates would lose seats while extremists and populists in both parties will gain them in the upcoming election.
“Hopefully, but not certainly, we will get through this election with the election rules prevailing without a fight over them,” he wrote.
But that seems increasingly unlikely.
A record-breaking 440-plus bills with provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions, according to New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. The bills range from allowing any citizen to conduct new election audits to imposing criminal penalties on election officials for making unintended errors. During the first two weeks of this year alone, another 96 bills have been introduced and pre-filed that would make it harder to vote in 12 states, a 39% increase from this time last year.
“Equally worrying, lawmakers also aim to increase partisan interference in election administration. Legislators in 13 states have pre-filed or introduced 41 such bills,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, wrote in the report. “Some would give the state legislature the ultimate power to reject election results. Others threaten election officials with civil or criminal penalties or place partisan actors in charge of vote counting.”
A recent ABC News/Ipsos poll found that just 20% of the public is very confident about the U.S. election system’s integrity. The poll was released one year after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, when supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the outcome of the presidential election, resulting in the deaths of five people and numerous injuries. And while more Democrats, 30%, say they’re very confident in the election system overall than Republicans at 13%, the numbers are remarkably low for both parties.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, meanwhile, lost much of its power in 2013 when the Supreme Court ended its ability to vet proposed voting changes and to correct state election laws and redrawn congressional maps that could suppress or dilute minority votes. This week, the Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, ruled 5-4 to reinstate a gerrymandered Alabama congressional map that created only one district that is expected to elect a Black representative, overruling a lower court ruling to suspend it. This means that the map will be used for the state’s upcoming primary, and likely for the whole 2022 election cycle as the legal challenge continues.
Trust in election outcomes is vital to retaining a functioning democracy, the assumption of an honest voting system and an acceptance of leadership is the key pillar of the compact made between the U.S. government and its citizens, said Dalio.
“When winning becomes the only thing that matters, unethical fighting becomes progressively more forceful in self-reinforcing ways. When everyone has causes that they are fighting for and no one can agree on anything, the system is on the brink of civil war/revolution,” he wrote.
And while the concept of a civil war may feel extreme to some, talk of a cold civil war has become common in mainstream media. Late last year three retired U.S. generals wrote a Washington Post column warning that another effort to overturn election results like the one on Jan. 6 “could lead to civil war.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il.), said on CNN Tuesday that it would be naive to think a civil war is not possible. Even President Biden has alluded to the growing tensions between Americans. “At this moment, we must decide,” Biden said this January in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, which the Jan. 6 rioters had stormed the previous year. “What kind of nation are we going to be? Are we going to be a nation that accepts political violence as a norm?”
A recent Harvard Youth poll of Americans 18 to 29 found that 52% believe that democracy is either “in trouble” or “failing.” This concern is echoed in the fact that 35% of respondents anticipate a second civil war during their lifetimes, and 25% believe that at least one state will secede.
“No one wants to believe that their beloved democracy is in decline, or headed toward war,” wrote Barbara Walter, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specialized in civil wars, wrote in her recent book, How Civil War Starts. “If you were an analyst in a foreign country looking at events in America—the same way you’d look at events in Ukraine or the Ivory Coast or Venezuela—you would go down a checklist, assessing each of the conditions that make civil war likely. And what you would find is that the United States, a democracy founded more than two centuries ago, has entered very dangerous territory.”
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