The United States is considered the world’s oldest democracy with a constitution effective since 1789. However, it has not always proven to be the most stable one. Since 2016 potential threats to it have increasingly been put on the political agenda and are now more than ever a predominant issue in American politics.
From the denial of election results and gerrymandering (the manipulation of voting district boundaries in favor of a political party) to biased electoral reforms and debates about election integrity, the U.S. political landscape faced plenty of challenges in an election year like 2022.
The midterm elections are held halfway through the president’s period of office and can thus be seen as the first serious verdict on the incumbent administration.
On November 8th, 2022 American citizens voted on all 435 deputies of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress, and on 34 out of the 100 Senators, with the Senate being the upper chamber of Congress. The elections also included 36 state governorships, as well as municipal run-offs and decisions of state laws.
The Democratic Party held control over the Senate as well as the House for the past two years and experts predicted a so-called red wave, landslide victories of the Republican candidates, in this year’s midterms.
The Republicans did gain control over the House with 222 seats versus 213 Democratic seats, speaking of a red wave, however, would be exaggerated. Democrats maintained the Senate with 51 out of its 100 members.
The majorities traditionally shift after a president’s first two years in office, as voters punish the power-holding party for sluggish legislative action. Midterm elections are therefore often considered to do more harm to the U.S. democracy than good. Most policymaking takes longer than two years, but an administration can hardly drive forward its plan of action and keep electoral promises when having to govern with a split Congress.
Then, during the next general elections only another two years later, an opposing party president might be voted into office and since it has become a power-play tradition to withdraw any policies passed by the former legislation, bills, laws, and amendments barely make it past their infancy.
This time, however, voters did not punish the Biden administration in the midterms, even though the country finds itself in times of crisis with inflation, international tensions and debates about border control on a constant rise.
Controlling the House, Republicans will try to block Democrats’ law-making to full extent. Governing with a split Congress is extremely demanding, but with the Senate being the more powerful chamber of the two, Joe Biden and his secretaries might be able to move forward with their political agenda.
The electoral success of the Democratic Party concerning the Senate was mainly due to significant victories in key swing states. John Fetterman defeated the celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, flipping the state for the Democrats. Incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock beat the controversial Republican nominee and ex-American football player Herschel Walker in a run-off election in Georgia.
This year’s most significant result, however, was the re-election of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, scoring a clear victory with more than 59% of the votes and branding himself as a promising presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2024.
Ex-president Donald Trump had just announced his application to run for a second term, triggering little euphoria even among members of his own party. The majority of the candidates he had endorsed during the midterms lost their elections and his announcement speech barely made the news. The New York Post, a newspaper part of Murdoch’s News Corp that supported Trump immensely in gaining popularity, only devoted a tiny headline to his application, stating, satirically, “Florida man makes announcement“.
In addition to that, rumors have started to spread that Trump might want to use his status as president to avoid prosecution of the five charges pressed against him, which are currently under revision. Once such speculations have been put on the public agenda, it is hard to still consider his application a symbol of strength and confidence.
The midterms are over, but the fight and debates over gerrymandering and voting rights are not. Both, Republicans and Democrats, use this measure to their advantage, bending and redistricting jurisdictions has become a bipartisan sport.
The fight for voting rights is fundamental and threatening to the U.S. democracy, because what is at stake is anything but trivial, but the attempt to cut back basic rights and limit election integrity.
The debates are especially present in Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
An extreme example in Ohio only allows drop boxes for ballots at a single election office in the respective county. This legislation equally applies to counties with a few thousand residents and the county of the state capital Columbus, Franklin County with 1.3 million inhabitants. This way, urban residents’ access to drop boxes is highly restricted. Democrats criticize this matter, as the majority of urban voters are Democratic.
Former felons in the U.S. also face a hard time casting their ballots. As their probation periods are remarkably long, Minnesota’s Democratic legislature is working on a quick reestablishing of their voting rights.
A measure implemented to facilitate elections is automatic voter registration. In this non-mandatory process, eligible individuals are automatically registered to vote when interacting with a government agency. Their information is then transmitted to election offices and a new voter record is created. Voters can always opt out of the registration, but eventually, this measure was designed to overcome confusion concerning elections. Republicans aim to repeal this law in some key states, most probably leading to a further decline in voter turnout.
Apart from the fact that the two-year cycle of national elections in the U.S. prevents effective policymaking, why could these midterms prove to be a threat to the country’s democracy?
Some of the 2020 election deniers have won their secretary-of-state races. Monae Johnson, who ran in South Dakota, refused to affirm the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s electoral victory in an interview in October 2022. Wes Allen from Alabama backed the effort to have the Supreme Court overturn the result. Indiana Republican Diego Morales wrongfully described the 2020 election as a fraud and questioned the outcome in an article written by himself.
As Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives and former Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped down, the House held elections for its new speaker on January 3rd. This can usually be considered a formal act, the winning party’s candidate is typically assigned to lead its majority.
However, this year’s election was different. Republican former minority leader Kevin McCarthy, who was repeatedly accused of not staying true to his own statements in the past, had immense trouble gathering the necessary votes within his party. He called back Republican members of the House, who had left Washington D.C. for personal reasons, to vote for him. The election was repeated multiple times until McCarthy was finally named speaker. There was no sign of unity within the Grand Old Party.
In contrast, the Democrats elected Amason Kingi as speaker of the Senate unanimously.
McCarthy’s election is another example of how democratic processes in the U.S. turn ineffective and how disputes and polarization in Congress overshadow policymaking.
But the threat to the American democracy does not stop here. According to a Quinnipiac poll, 58% of U.S. citizens believe democracy is in danger of collapse. Additionally, more than half of the Americans (53%) regard another incident like the one on January 6th, 2021 as possible.
Donald Trump’s application for presidential candidacy is set and rumors of Joe Biden aiming for another term are spreading. If the Republican Party selects its former president as candidate for 2024, the world might witness another battle of two old white men wanting to lead the politics of a global superpower. How this can be reconciled with a future-oriented democracy remains unclear.