Is the American polyarchy at risk?

These are tough times in American politics. The president, along with several leaders of the Republican Party, has attempted to subvert the rules of regulated rotation of elites, or polyarchy. The American political system, with a predominance of "non-majority" institutions (the Senate, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court), in addition to the suppression and lack of clear national voting rules (among other things), is very limited. But it is a polyarchy where different political elites rotate based on the (limited) vote of the people. And it is a political system where there is freedom of expression and organization. This system has been questioned by Trump, who claims without any evidence that the results of the presidential elections were fraudulent.

Trump has failed in his attempt to overturn the election results. At the state level, Republican governors and secretaries of State have certified Joe Biden's victory (despite pressure from Trump), Trump-nominated judges have rejected the unfounded demands of his legal team and Fox News, who did much to the building of Trumpism, also recognized the Democratic victory. The Electoral College will declare Joe Biden the next president. The system has worked, the political institutions have been maintained. It seems that the threat to polyarchy is over, but is it?

The institutions have been maintained, but just pointing that out would make us lose sight of the gravity of what happened. In a recent campaign rally for the senators’ election in Georgia, Trump asked the governor of that State to revoke the result of the elections through the State Legislature. Also, recently, the press reported that armed protesters had gathered in front of the home of the Michigan Secretary of State, threatening her and falsely claiming that Trump won that State. The Washington Post has reported that only 27 of the 249 Republicans in Congress have acknowledged Biden's victory.

What has pushed segments of the Republican Party to try to break the rules of polyarchy? In Trump's case, it is clear: he is a narcissist who never had any attachment to the rules of the game. But what leads a traditional politician like Rudy Giuliani to endorse Trump's lies and participate in the now famous press conference in which Sidney Powell presented a far-fetched conspiracy theory blaming a clique of Soros, the late Hugo Chávez and Cuba, of stealing the elections? An outlandish complaint to the point that the Trump campaign had to distance itself from it.

I am thinking of two possible complementary explanations for the Republican leadership’s actions. The first is that Republican national leaders understand that if they allow the vote to expand, it will be very difficult for them to win the presidential elections. Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham have affirmed this. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections and yet won the presidency in three of them. Its power is based on the suppression of the vote and winning in the "non-majority" institutions. But if voting becomes easier and people participate more, they have good reason to fear for their ability to win the presidency. Hence the need to suppress the vote, particularly that of urban minorities, which is massively Democratic. Some commentators associate Trump with fascism, but this is a mistake. Trumpism is deeply rooted in Jim Crow and the history of political exclusion of racialized groups in America.

The second reason is that what is at stake is the continuation of the patriarchal and racist hegemonic order. Democrats have nominated Barack Obama, then Hillary Clinton, and then Kamala Harris. They are all moderate neoliberals who are comfortable with the national security system and do not threaten US imperial policies. But they represent a break from what many people understand to be the legitimate order of things: the sphere of power is a white male sphere. By opening it up to minorities and women, Democrats are threatening that symbolic order. The reaction from some of the Republican leadership is in part a defense of what Herbert Blumer called "sense of group position".

But someone may object, how can the defense of whiteness be at stake when about a third of Latinos and Asian Americans, and about twelve percent of African Americans, voted for Trump? Political coalitions are indeed complex. Many voters of racialized groups are conservative or vote following their religious convictions, many Latinos identify as white, others voted thinking about Trump's policies towards Venezuela and Cuba. But the majority of voters from racialized groups vote Democrats. And, more than the composition of the coalitions, we need to see what they represent. The republican world view is the defense of the white patriarchal order that feels threatened by cosmopolitan neoliberalism.

And why does the white working-class support Trump, who is after all a billionaire who favored the privileged sectors (and himself) with his policies? The neoliberal policies of the Democratic presidents have deteriorated their living conditions and the living conditions of rural areas. Poor whites have good reason to leave the Democratic Party. But, as W. E. B. Du Bois has already pointed out, the white working class has always chosen racial privilege over class solidarity with workers of color. That is Trumpism.

To sum up, Trump and part of the leadership of the Republican Party have tried to break the rules of the polyarchy game. This time they have failed, but they have created a strong precedent in which the loser of the election can scream fraud and not recognize the results. The result is that much of the Republican base believes they have had their elections stolen, as well as other wild conspiracy theories. Many commentators look at all of this with disbelief, believing in the intrinsic goodness and soundness of American political institutions. But what just happened shows us their fragility. Biden will be the next president, but Trump and Trumpism will not disappear from the political scene. In the coming years, maintaining the American polyarchy will not be easy.


José Itzigsohn is Professor of Sociology at Brown University. He is the author, along with Karida Brown, of The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois: Racialized Modernity and the Global Color Line, recently published by NYU Press.

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