Will U.S. Democracy Survive? Here’s How to Figure That Out

Are we living in 1858 or 1968?

That is, are America’s divisions so profound and political institutions so crippled that we are poised for a breakdown akin to the Civil War? Or is the current polarization the product of conflicting social forces that can be gradually reconciled or redirected into more healthy electoral competition?

In this more hopeful scenario, even if we undergo 1970s-style economic malaise and the odd trauma like Watergate, we re-emerge and enter a phase of comparative national health and even greatness.

There have been signs of normal, if imperfect, political life in the 11 months since Joe Biden and the scant Democratic majority in Congress took office. But polarization only seems to be getting wider. In Congress, even what should be routine matters — like lifting the debt ceiling — continue to blow up into potential crises for no reason.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court appears willing to undermine its legitimacy by reversing Roe v. Wade. Such a ruling would not only unleash an intense and protracted national struggle over abortion rights, but also lead to a deeper questioning of whether the court itself is fulfilling its function as a protector of fundamental rights.

Not very far in the background, Republicans at the state and local level are setting out to elect officials who might well acquiesce in Donald Trump’s claims that an election he lost was stolen from him. If those officials were prepared to invalidate the results of legitimate democratic elections — and the candidates seem to be undergoing selection with that goal in mind — then the national political crisis could become existential.