Democracy is at risk of collapse. The degree to which the United States ever enjoyed liberal democracy (or some semblance thereof) is debatable; its existence in any meaningful form is a legacy of the Civil Rights movement, rather than any heritage of the American Revolution. The U.S. system comprises democratic institutions that, while deferential above all to capital and intrinsically flawed, have proven stable—improbably so, in some respects.
Those institutions have provided a terrain for struggle that is imperfect, to say the least, and are often criticized by the left for good reason. Regardless, it is still the case that basic norms of liberal democracy—a free press, the freedom of assembly, and the modern franchise—have expanded the means by which the working class can struggle for economic democracy. The aims of those struggles remain far from realized in the United States, and have more often failed than succeeded: a measure of a deeply insufficient system.
But the death knells of that system should still gravely worry us, and they became impossible to ignore on January 6th, 2021. Liberals and centrists have been declaring grim prognoses for democracy for some time, if at times convolved with hyperventilation about Trump and Russian interference. But even under Biden, there remains a sense of decline: former President Jimmy Carter published an op-ed in The New York Times warning that the nation “teeters on the brink of a widening abyss.” Numerous editorials have emphasized precariousness or argued we need to “think the unthinkable.” The New Yorker raised the specter of encroaching authoritarianism and civil war; “Are We Doomed?” wondered George Packer in The Atlantic. “Republican gerrymandering,” read the headline of an op-ed in The Hill this week, is “putting the U.S. in Mad Max territory.” Despite some of the more absurd overstatements, real concerns about unraveling democracy are shared by analysts worldwide: a European think tank designated the United States as a “backsliding democracy” in a report that garnered widespread attention in December 2021.
Many liberal commentators have tried their hand at hypothetical contingencies of democratic breakdown, with varying degrees of wild speculation and breathless doomsaying. Centrists will decry the death of vaunted American norms and institutions, and in the process are certain to overstate the true extent and worth of U.S. democracy, while fetishizing civility and compromise. It can be difficult to tease out founded concerns from hyperbole. However, in the broad strokes, they are not wrong about the mounting threat of anti-democratic Republican power consolidation. Clutched pearls aside, there is a genuine, identifiable risk of a further slide into reaction, which will have devastating consequences for the left and the working class.
Even more measured and sober-minded thinkers seem to share a sense that the seams are coming apart. But our crop of corrupt, ineffectual Democratic elites are entirely without answers or the requisite political will to reverse these trends. The critical project of confronting this crisis cannot be left to hapless liberals and centrists. Unlike the threat of Russian interference, the right-wing attack on voting rights is not a liberal fever dream. It is an ongoing reality—and the longer we delay in confronting it, the less likely we will be to avoid worst-case outcomes.
To be clear, U.S. liberal democracy was facing a seemingly terminal illness even before Trump’s election. Its degradation is self-inflicted, having its roots in the structural advantages lent to the right by the constitutional order, as Osita Nwanevu has pointed out in The New York Times, and the innate contradictions of democracy under capitalism. Harvard political scientist Pippa Norris, speaking to the Niskanen Center, surveyed the scope of the problems: rising authoritarianism, polarization and the weaknesses of the two-party system, the degradation of voting rights and election integrity, and other structural failures, all of which will be staggeringly difficult to reform. The Senate filibuster empowers the minority party to destroy legislation at will. Partisan redistricting is facilitating the wide-scale rigging of elections; voter suppression, purges of the rolls, and all manner of corruption could fatally compromise whatever remains of free elections. The use of such tactics by the right is not novel, but the decay has been left for far too long, and the symptoms are highly advanced. Trump isn’t the architect of our decline, after all—merely its herald.
The storming of the halls of government, with the tacit approval of the sitting President and the potential aid of sitting members of Congress, crossed a Rubicon. No timid, retaliation-fearing investigatory committee will deliver true accountability. The right will continue to construe any future losses as illegitimate, and will work without compunction to engineer assured victories. A last-ditch push for voting rights reform foundered on the opposition from Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin. Without reform, the conditions are in place for future national elections to spark potentially violent contestation.
Despite their current control of the White House and Congress, the Democratic Party has failed to deliver even a modicum of what the moment demands, consistently hamstrung by dissent within its own ranks, as we have witnessed with the obstructionist intransigence of Manchin and Sinema, and the loyalties of other corporate servants. Without an expansion of social welfare or action on voting rights, Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress seems all but guaranteed after the 2022 midterms. Widespread Republican control of state legislatures ensures that they will gerrymander control of the House for the next decade—an effort already well underway. Some echelons of federal power may soon be out of reach for Democrats.
What do we imagine will happen when the 118th Congress is gavelled into session this year? With a resurgent Republican majority (and with only 21% of the Republican base believing that the 2020 election was legitimate), there is little telling to what lengths they’ll go. Impeachment of Biden is a one feasible outcome, with Senator Ted Cruz already calling it likely. An increasingly radicalized Republican caucus could command a majority, and will continue to purge their ranks of the scant few voices of dissent. If only to satisfy their base, they will have little choice but to wield their power like a sword, and to treat their political opposition as traitors.
This is to say nothing of the destabilizing stresses that are portended by looming climate change. Climate catastrophes—some of which are, at this point, unavoidable—would test even the strongest system. U.S. institutions, already weakened, have been further ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is becoming next to impossible to envision that democratic norms will remain intact during the coming metaphorical and literal storms.
The untrammeled accumulation of wealth by the elite, the continued immiseration of the working class, the decline of organized labor, the erosion of the few remaining public goods, resurgent revanchist racism and white backlash, total capture of the judiciary by the right, the steady erosion of the franchise and representative institutions—a reversal of the democratic decline catalyzed by these forces now seems to lie at the outer edges of possibility.
What will we face? The cries of looming civil war may seem overheated, and indeed, many conceptions of it are. Overt secessionism is unlikely; there is, after all, little reason for states to do so in a system in which federal power is continually weakening. But there will be stresses, and whether the system breaks under them—and, importantly, whether resistance proves strong enough to deter further erosion—is crucial. As political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon has observed, the military’s response to future power contestations will be a significant litmus test; a contingency in which generals follow illegal orders (or refuse legitimate ones) is chilling, particularly given the widespread participation of current and ex-military in the January 6th coup attempt. Just as worrisome are reports on the scale of white supremacist infiltration, as well as broader right-wing radicalization, of the military and police. Even former generals have warned against expecting the military to defend democracy—a conclusion with which few on the left would argue.
Rising political instability will likely entail an escalation of political violence. A state of ‘civil strife’—which the United States is already experiencing—can easily escalate into outright conflict. However, it’s important to note that any such “civil war” would closely resemble the asymmetric warfare of “The Troubles,” a far cry from the term’s connotation of the regimented armies of the Union and Confederacy. Regardless, agents of violence, organized in groups like the Oath Keepers, are already in place.
In the worst-case scenario, political dispute could devolve into tit-for-tat violence between informally organized political actors or paramilitaries, with possible collusion between armed groups and state and federal law enforcement agencies. We could also see the growth of subtle but unmistakable connections between political parties and armed wings; arguably, this is already the case with the Republican Party and numerous militias and paramilitary groups.
In response, state repression will increase. As Brendan O’Connor, an expert on the far right, recently argued, the abandonment of the illusion of majoritarian rule and the embrace of minoritarian diktat have necessary conclusions: restrictions on rights (a process already highly advanced) and a “regime of political violence that is enforced by the state and by para-state actors.” Sustaining the conditions for capitalist profit will require increasingly coercive measures, as O’Connor also notes—a necessity which will only deepen in parallel with national crises.
We have little choice but to prepare for the possibility of a world in which basic institutions of liberal democracy are severely compromised, with no certainty as to what will replace them. Given the mounting risk of democratic collapse, it’s fair for trade unionists to ask the one question that matters: what is to be done?
Avoiding this worst of futures will require the deep commitment of the labor movement. In the months leading up to the 2020 election, reports suggested that elements in labor were preparing to mobilize in defense of the election results, if needed; organizers laid out road maps for potential avenues of resistance. It’s hardly a novel role for trade unions: in 2021 alone, organized labor took action against coups and autocratic seizures of power in Myanmar, Sudan, and Tunisia, and Korean trade unions mobilized in opposition to the military coup in Thailand. In 2020, Bolivia’s trade union movement was a key actor in ensuring free and fair elections. In unstable democracies, political and general strikes are common weapons used to protect voting systems: working people mobilize to strike and protest in demand of free and fair elections, with the implicit warning of more disruption should elections be subverted.
We can’t wait for election results to sound the alarm—like Bolivia’s trade unions, we have to mobilize preemptively to signal the demand for democracy and warn against attempts to undermine it. Preparation should involve educating members about the stakes. We must make clear that our interest is not only in preserving democracy, but strengthening it. The horizon of struggle must be a deeper democracy, freed from untrammeled corporate power—regardless of whether capitalist interests are vectored through Democrats or Republicans. Marches, demonstrations, and rolling strikes, if necessary, should all be on the table. Defending election integrity will demand strident and concerted action, particularly in states where voting rights have been curtailed.
This gets at a core principle that labor must be made to understand: civil resistance entails resistance. Strongly worded statements or carefully circumscribed protests will not be enough, nor will industrial actions that stay within the severe constraints of American labor law. Protests, occupations, and strikes—including illegal ones—will be necessary. If democracy is functionally stifled, the thin scraps of workplace democracy afforded to workers will quickly follow; indeed, voting rights and union rights should be rightly understood as deeply interwoven. An alliance of an entrenched right-wing regime and unfettered capital will make it one of their first ambitions to annihilate what remains of U.S. labor protections.
We do not lack for examples of labor’s potential role in democratic defense. Militant unionists, led by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, helped bring territorial governance to a halt in Hawaii in 1954 with a wave of general strikes and protests. The territorial regime—which was dominated by the Republican Party—collapsed, losing power in the 1954 election. Through a campaign of organizing, protest, and strike action, Hawaii’s working class, aided by a popular front of communists and liberals, toppled a rump government. There are lessons to be found in how this was accomplished: an interracial labor alliance utilized economic weapons and aggressive civil disruption to topple the political puppets of Hawaii’s planter elite.
Further measures can be taken, beyond a cycle of protest centered only on the halls of power—and the failure to move decisively can have dire consequences. Indeed, such measures were contemplated during the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, as organizer and strategist Jane McAlevey first detailed in 2012’s Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), and later reiterated in an article for Jacobin prior to the 2020 election. The AFL-CIO ultimately decided against more widespread mobilization in defense of the Florida recount. The right certainly saw fit to do so—the “Brooks Brothers riot” saw Republican operatives pressure the recount to shut down, providing a template for January 6th, two decades later. The ramifications of the riot and the Supreme Court decision that handed the election to Bush echo in the present day: labor’s trust in the courts proved to be catastrophically misplaced, and the shadow of Bush v. Gore looms long over two decades of subsequent democratic decline.
Taking even the smallest of these actions will challenge labor institutionally, and will generate considerable friction among the labor rank-and-file. Political strikes are not an aspect of American political life or a meaningful facet of the American labor movement; moreover, few unions are truly “strike-ready,” even for more traditional labor actions. Memberships are divided, and it is certain that a large fraction will oppose mobilization, whether due to hesitation or political disagreement. Even if labor mobilizes to defend democracy—not any one political party—much of the rank-and-file is conditioned to expect that unions are largely partisan institutions, and will interpret action accordingly.
But if we genuinely believe that the continued existence of democracy is under threat, and that a precipitating event or upheaval could cast its future into doubt, then the normal political calculus no longer applies. Democratic decline always entails a continued erosion, or the outright ban, of union rights specifically, and workers’ rights generally. We would court far greater disaster by a failure to act.
The dire warnings may sound hyperbolic. The sheer farcical absurdity of the Capitol incursion may make the trespassers seem more like hapless fools than brownshirts. A Trump rally blaring Kid Rock is a far cry from the terrible pageantry of Nuremberg. But the low-level enforcers of fascist violence in interwar Europe also appeared like little more than buffoonish thugs playing dress-up; they were subjects of ridicule, until the joke stopped being funny. The new fascism’s foot soldiers wear Fred Perry polos or camouflage and watch Tucker Carlson. They have already committed murder, and—especially given Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal—will do so again.
In any case, the overarching danger extends far beyond street goons—it is rooted in the political restructuring perpetrated by capital and the radicalized Republican Party. The power they wield against labor and the electorate is already very real. It is buttressed by right-to-work laws, attacks on public sector bargaining, decades of mass incarceration, and numerous other injustices, often with bipartisan consensus. Capital and its conservative and liberal handmaidens are precipitating destabilization in defense of a political project that is deliberately destructive to democracy, and deliberately pitted against the interests of the American working class.
We need to take this all into account. Between stunningly blasé attitudes toward the rise of fascism and limited conceptions of protest rests a strategy appropriate to the scale of the threat, the enormity of the task. Examples both historical and contemporary show us that the trade union movement is a critical bulwark against assaults on democracy, and that defenses against seizures of power often live or die upon the strength of labor’s resistance.
It should go without saying that defending the present system does not entail any illusions that it is sufficiently democratic, let alone sufficient in and of itself to create a better world. But even our compromised liberal democracy provides a terrain, however skewed, for class struggle. No such struggle is possible in a society in which the full, unmediated weight of capital and state power is wielded for naked repression, and in which there remains no avenue to power either on the shop floor or at the ballot box.
The first year of the Biden presidency has been in line with what many suspected: more akin to a Weimarian interlude than a restoration of “normalcy.” It is abundantly clear that Biden and the Democratic elite are woefully ill-equipped to meet the moment. As the 2022 midterms fast approach, so too do further polarization, democratic erosion, and, potentially, violence. Those on the left and within labor must disabuse ourselves of any remaining illusions about the stakes of the upcoming fight. We must be prepared to meet them. ♦
C.M. Lewis is an editor of the labor publication Strikewave and a union activist in Pennsylvania.