IF you ask a Republican and a Democrat if the US faces a crisis of democracy, they’ll both answer “yes”. But ask them to name this crisis? The Republican may rant about stolen elections; the Democrat on the need to codify Roe versus Wade. Both would agree inflation is a mess, both would blame the other side.

There is a crisis of democracy facing America. But “We The People” can’t agree on what it is. That’s a crisis in itself.

In a speech last week, President Biden presented the crisis in stark terms: ballots or bullets. As the United States heads to the polls for midterm elections, many of us are feeling this crisis of democracy beyond our ability to define. We can describe its effects, sure. They’re all around us. But meanwhile, the crisis grows like a cancer, metastasising beyond our best diagnoses and treatments.

Maybe the actual crisis of democracy is that We The People are increasingly unable to agree on a “crisis of democracy” that exists outside our preferred ideologies and tribes. We cannot imagine a crisis of democracy outside of an “us v them” binary. Millions believe this as captives to the ideology of White Christian Nationalism. Its insidious confusion of “white” with “Christian” and “Christian” with “American” isn’t remotely new, but rather primal in America’s racist past. So is this America? After all, a crisis of democracy should involve all the people, yes? Not just our definition of “we”?

The National: According to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll, President Joe Biden may be at risk of impeachment from conspiracy theorist RepublicansAccording to a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll, President Joe Biden may be at risk of impeachment from conspiracy theorist Republicans (Image: Newsquest)

We talk about broken politics. But I wonder if Americans have become a broken people. I’m speaking as an expat. As someone who is, quite frankly, not just tired, but also furiously lamenting how we persistently tolerate a society where the answer to gun violence is guns. Where our schools provide DNA kits to parents in case their children need to be identified in a school shooting. Pundits talk of “strategic importance” of the midterms, but this pales in significance to the real lives which are swept away in the chaos of our inability to govern ourselves.

We The People have entrenched ourselves, turning what used to be common ground into No Man’s Land. Jon Haidt, author of The Coddling Of The American Mind, recently commented that Twitter, long heralded as a digital public square, has become more of a public coliseum than public conversation. We find ourselves once again sharing a place in history with Abraham Lincoln’s countrymen. He called them to remember the Scripture: a house divided against itself, cannot stand. This much we see in history: the Republic is only guaranteed for the people if it is maintained with vigilance by the people.

On the one hand, this historical grounding might comfort us. It helps us see today’s division as somewhat normal in the development of an American experiment. It’s worth pointing out, in spite of the reality-denying populism of GOP officials today, that elections in the US do have a long history of corruption and intimidation. These midterms are, in this sense, no exception. And so Democracy endures, we say.

But there will be a cost to this crisis, just as there has always been a cost. It’s just that in remembering how democracy was saved, we are also forgetting the cost of that sacrifice. One notable example was the the 1877 election of Rutherford B Hayes.

The stalemate presidential election of 1877 occurred in the wake of the Civil War. The election was ultimately “decided” by backdoor partisan dealings enforced by the Supreme Court. American politicians negotiated their own “crisis of democracy” in terms of partisan advantage and expediency, not courage. In exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the largely Democrat South. The election of Hayes ended Reconstruction and inaugurated Jim Crow America. Voting rights and social integration for African Americans vanished for nearly another 100 years.

The point being, democracy can survive, but it has come with a cost. One we are still paying.

Americans must not let our engagement with our past lull us into thinking that because democracy survived then, it did so without consequence. Or that it will continue to exist simply because it once existed.

It’s precisely and paradoxically this connection with the past which can pacify those of us who take the concerns of our neighbour seriously (for that is the true politics). This misuse of history as a balm can become fuel for a nostalgic naivety. One which leaves us unaware of the particular novel problems confronting our lives today.

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So, as the midterms approach this week, I’ve never been more suspect of “crisis of democracy” language. Not because there isn’t one, but because the rhetoric is too vague, too malleable in the hands of opportunistic partisan reactionaries and paranoid politicians. It has been so overused that perhaps it is also misused, perhaps it is broken and even dangerous.

If our politics are broken, it is because We The People are. The fact we cannot agree on a crisis which involves us all is troubling, if not damning. And so we do what we can based on what we can know. And we know politics. We trade on the crisis for political power. We derive our own sense of authority and legitimacy in wielding power from the shattered remnants of civil religion scattered across our cultural landscape.

This path of momentary gain is leading to monumental loss. We need prophets again, not politicians. Prophets who name what ails us, who force us to confront our contradictions and corrupting commitments.

To that end, President Biden has put himself in an increasingly contradictory position as “first citizen” and leader of the Democrat party. He has called out what I believe to be a real threat to democracy posed by radicalised populism. He has given two speeches on the topic over the past few months.

Yet he is also trading on the crisis in the trenches for the midterms. The messaging of Democrats has been different from Biden’s message of unity. They speak of codifying Roe by adding to the Supreme Court in the defiance of Republican opposition. The left’s “crisis of democracy” trends absolutist, just as the Republican “crisis of democracy” is populist. We can compare here, without equating. After all, in a true crisis of democracy, we should admit the reciprocal nature of our supposed common political life. A wounded foot affects the whole body, yes?

The Republican “crisis of democracy” is really paranoia of tyranny. There are 185 candidates standing for election in the American midterms who deny or have actively contested the results of the 2020 election, known as “the Big Lie”. A key component of this conspiracy theory is invasive and pervasive Democrat interference. When instead, foreign actors like China and Russia have more often than not exploited or sought to influence election outcomes through other means. In total, Five Thirty Eight estimates 67% of these election denial candidates have a higher than 90% chance of being elected. The persistent embrace of widely disproven election fraud among conservatives and their candidates has led to radicalisation. In this climate, we can expect to see election intimidation at the polls in the name of “election integrity”.

In the wake of the Capitol Insurrection and persistence of conspiracy theories, right-wing organisations across the country have spent the past two years mobilising thousands of Americans to poll watch.

There have already been sobering previews of this threat. Chuck Broerman serves as the Republican clerk for El Paso County in Texas. He told Reuters that poll watchers observing a county wide recount for a midterm nomination race prayed for “evil to descend” on the “election team”. Reuters also reported the poll watchers engaged in intimidation, pounding on the glass and recording poll workers with their phones.

Election denialism affects the voting process. It also shapes the long-term consequences. For example, a recent survey from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 68% of Republican voters expect a potential GOP-led House to impeach president Joe Biden. At the state level, it’s easy to see how candidates running on debunked election fraud claims may be motivated to ensure the 2024 presidential election is “fair” on their terms.

One state race to watch is Kari Lake running for governor of Arizona. She has leveraged her public doubts, distrust and denial of Biden’s election as a crucial part of her campaign strategy. She is practising a radicalised form of paranoid politics which is galvanising to her conservative base.

The National: Arizona hopeful Kari Lake, pictured, is an example of the sort of people rocking a broken United States of AmericaArizona hopeful Kari Lake, pictured, is an example of the sort of people rocking a broken United States of America (Image: Newsquest)

Last week, Lake told a group of supporters: “The truth is, Joe Biden did not win the election with 81 million votes. If you believe he did, then you are the conspiracy theorist.”

Laughs and applause followed. She’s also preemptively refused to accept the results of her own race. When asked by CNN if she would accept a loss, Lake responded: “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.”

This isn’t so much confidence, as persistence in the fabricating (and increasingly fascist) style of Donald Trump.

I use the term “fascist” with some hesitation. Like “conspiracy theorist” and “crisis of democracy”, these labels can work as powerful weapons in an increasingly polarising political climate. But more than anything, we need to name and define the crisis. Words matter. And “fascist” is a potent descriptor. I use it precisely because rhetoric has become radicalising to the point of violence. This leads us back to our initial tension: we feel America is in a crisis of democracy but are struggling with words to accurately name what ails us. Partly from unbelief – “this can’t happen here” – and partly from shock.

Last week, a self-described conspiracy theorist broke into the home of Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco home. He was looking to interrogate the Speaker with a hammer. He assaulted her husband instead. The reactions from Republicans traded on this political climate rather than challenge it. Glenn Youngkin, GOP governor of Virginia, recently apologised for public comments made where he asked where Nancy was the night the news of the assault broke, and that it was his goal to “send her back to be with him in California”. In this climate and crisis, there’s no takebacks, only fuel to the fire.

We The People also find ourselves increasingly incapable of seeing how this crisis, and the violence it engenders, engulfs both parties. Not only are we witnessing this sort of conspiratorial violence against elected officials on the right – not to mention the travesty of January 6 – but we should also recall the vandalism and violent threats towards “pro-life pregnancy centres” in the wake of the Supreme Court returning Roe v Wade to the state legislatures.

The National: Nancy Pelosi's husband Paul (right) was attacked by an intruderNancy Pelosi's husband Paul (right) was attacked by an intruder (Image: Newsquest)

We find ourselves in a position where our political zeal, like a blazing wildfire, is burning away the common ground where our culture can cultivate a place where we can commit to a healthy process of moral deliberation and development.

There's much at stake in these midterms, no doubt. They will shape the political landscape looking ahead to the unknowns of the 2024 presidential election. But I cannot help but wonder and, yes, even worry, if – in our zeal to save America – we are becoming the sort of people who are not up to that task.

It would seem to me that politics in its truest, most noble and most desirable form functions for the good of others. This politics demands we become a certain sort of people. We have relied on politics to make us moral people, when in reality, the practice of politics itself is a test as to whether we are true, good and noble. The crisis of democracy is more than our parties, our constitution and institutions.

Perhaps the crisis confronts us with a decision: whether we will be a people for the other, rather than a people organised by fear of the other. We cannot sustain a politics that demonises others without dehumanising ourselves. This politics trades on the fact our enemies exist all to justify what we do as “right” and verify what we say as “true”. This is a crisis beyond the ballot and the bullet – it is a crisis of belief and becoming.