Cross-national Parallels and Contrasts in Democracy’s Travails: America’s Trumpian Experience

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Robert M. Fishman, Carlos III University, Madrid

The near-death experience of American democracy during the Trump presidency holds extraordinary significance for all who care about the principles of equality and freedom, but also in a rather more specific way for scholars who seek to understand patterns of similarity and difference between countries in their historical trajectories of change. The recent assault on democratic norms and procedures in the United States put in place both parallels, or points of convergence, and elements of divergence between American politics and the public life of a number of polities elsewhere that previously confronted the challenge of antidemocratic movements and parties. This juxtaposition of points of convergence and divergence, along with several crucial elements of fundamental singularity in the American institutional basis for democracy, have contributed to making the American case rather difficult to understand for those lacking case knowledge. However, at a deeper level, the points of contrast and similarity between the American experience with Trump and European experiences with antidemocratic movements – or at a minimum with ademocratic politicians – can be seen as reflective of two underlying commonalities: (1) the powerful linkage between battles over the boundaries of inclusion in the polity and struggles over the fate of democracy itself; (2) the important cultural components of such battles, and of the dynamics shaping major points of inflection in the political system. Europe, like the United States, has been subject to deep and polarizing cultural conflicts over the boundaries of inclusion within democratic polities. Although such battles are often taken as normal fare within democratic systems, the triumph of exclusion can, at worst, fundamentally undermine the democratic order.

I suggest four basic lessons of the broad pattern of similarities and contrasts between the United States and Europe in the recent travails of democratic politics: (1) The fundamental importance, for democracy’s fate, of struggles over the boundaries of inclusion; (2) the cultural dimension of such battles with their focus on unwritten assumptions, forms of discourse and shifting types of practice; (3) the juxtaposition of certain cross-case shared elements with other nationally specific components of how democracies confront the challenge raised by forces of exclusion; (4) certain distinctively American elements of the recent near-death experience of democracy in the United States. In what follows, I briefly address all of these themes, beginning with components of the American experience that are especially difficult to comprehend for many Europeans who are unfamiliar with specificities of American history and institutional form.

Several elements of American distinctiveness that have come into clear view in the events of the last four years – and especially in struggles over the 2020 election – have contributed to the difficulty of understanding American politics fully for those lacking a great deal of case knowledge, whether of a scholarly or simply a practical sort. The enormous range of variation in election procedures across governmental jurisdictions in the United States quite obviously stands in strong contrast to the prevalence of national standards and procedures in Europe. The guidelines shaping electoral participation in the United States vary not only by state but also by county in so many ways that “uninitiated” observers – especially outside the United States – can easily find the empirical substance of the case to be quite confusing. But in a more consequential sense, the rooting of American electoral practice in what should be thought of as a pre-democratic Constitution (Dahl, 2001) that has been adapted to democracy – without fully expunging its pre- democratic components – underpins numerous elements of the story of the 2020 election that are difficult to fully understand without a short course in American politics. Prior to the events of January 6, 2021, Trump’s efforts to stretch the anti-democratic misuse of constitutional provisions on state involvement in the designation of electors well beyond recent precedent had already clearly established the magnitude of this recent challenge to democracy. In that sense, distinctive American components of the story point to a national disadvantage in the defense of democracy, but fortunately that disadvantage has been outweighed by other case-specific factors that have strengthened the American defense of democracy. Some features of all national histories in the struggle for democracy are at least partially distinctive, but many other factors are shared by most if not all cases.

An unmistakable lesson of the Trumpian challenge to American democracy is indeed shared with many other cases: Struggles over the bounds of inclusion – or to put the matter slightly differently, conflicts about efforts to read large numbers of citizens out of the legitimate borders of political life – impinge on essentially all elements of democratic life. Those battles often find expression in laws and regulations, but at their core they are cultural conflicts that involve often unstated assumptions and many informal types of practice. Cultural conflicts over inclusion constantly interact with major distributional struggles and essentially all other elements of democratic life, configuring the “playing field” on which political competition takes place. Although it is often both analytically and empirically useful to differentiate between different dimensions of democracy (Fishman, 2016), the way the bounds of inclusion are drawn in a democratic polity holds strong implications for all meaningful dimensions of a democracy’s existence. Rhetoric that demonizes immigrants, those born to them, and racial and religious minorities has led to systemic political consequences extending well beyond the control of the border and the behavior of police. The discourse of exclusion has promoted not only limitations on voting rights, but also actions impinging on the very viability of a system based on the free expression of citizen preferences.

Among the types of severe damage inflicted by recent flagrant efforts at exclusion is the destruction of underlying cultural grounds for mutual tolerance between political adversaries – a crucial precondition for successful democracy in the classic formulation of Robert Dahl (1971). I argue that the recent growth within the Republican Party of both direct disloyalty to democracy and what Juan Linz’s pioneering formulation would conceptualize as causally crucial “semiloyalty” (Linz, 1978), has its antecedents in longstanding struggles over the breadth of inclusion. The Trumpian effort to aggressively reverse earlier triumphs of inclusion has involved a considerable intensification of the antidemocratic potential of efforts at exclusion. The specific institutional forms taken by exclusion vary over time in the American case and between country cases, but tendencies to exclude large numbers of citizens from full rights in the system – typically rooted in a narrow and extreme version of ethno- national identity – have at their core a pervasive effort to define a country’s purported “national essence” in a way that excludes many from effective citizenship. Sociological scholarship on the cultural construction of both the national essence (Berezin, 2009) and the meaning of democracy (Fishman, 2019) has elucidated the importance of national histories for the country- specific contours of such struggles and their implications for democracy. The bounds of inclusion are reflected not only in legislation on voting rights but also in much else, including institutional practices regarding demonstrations and other forms of expression. Comparative analysis suggests how and why some country cases manage to achieve relative consensus in favor of inclusion whereas others do not (Fishman, 2019).

Cultural and political struggles over the bounds of inclusion in the polity – and in that sense over much of the substance of democracy – have assumed great importance in the United States and Europe in recent years. These struggles take on their nationally specific features, embedded in references to specific histories, but at the same time, they have much in common. This dimension of American democracy’s near-death experience is inescapable, but the significance of cultural conflicts over unwritten assumptions regarding inclusion has not been limited to the Trump years, or to the United States. Just as the United States has long been subject to efforts of the far-right to exclude large groups from full citizenship on the basis of race, religion or ideology, so too have many European polities suffered from de facto attempts to place large segments of their citizenry outside the bounds of recognized and legitimate political life.

Although many Europeans view Trump as a curiously and almost unintelligibly American anomaly, in fact his challenge to inclusion – and to basic norms of tolerance – have strong parallels in Europe. Crucially, those parallels are to be found not only in the antidemocratic far right but also among other political forces. In the Spanish case, mainstream political actors on the center right – and even some closer to the center of the ideological spectrum – have supported proposed changes to the electoral system that would leave distinctively Basque parties without representation in the most important parliamentary body in Madrid, thereby drastically undercutting the ability of Spain’s representative democracy to successfully incorporate national minorities such Basques and Catalans. In political conflicts over the largest of Spain’s nationally distinctive regions, Catalonia, the exclusionary understandings of a major tradition in mainstream Spanish politics have badly complicated potential pathways to the solution of the Catalan problem within the Spanish state, creating severe strains for Spanish democracy (Fishman, 2019; chapter 6).

During the Trump presidency – and especially in its waning days – the United States appears to have come closer to a full breakdown of representative democratic politics than at any other point in the modern era, thus transforming the country’s politics in a fashion that holds points in common with the grim history of periodic democratic failure experienced by a number of continental European polities such as Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy and others. But many of the elements of near breakdown in American democracy have been substantially different from those experienced by European democracies. The small far-right militias and extremist groups of the January 6 attack on the Capitol in Washington look far different from the typically more coordinated and unified forces of the European far-right in episodes of democratic collapse or near breakdown. If we focus instead on hyper-nationalism, as opposed to democracy’s fate as such, the US never gave a majority of the popular vote to the standard- bearer of extreme nationalism, whereas that has been the case in several European instances, including the triumph of Brexit in the UK and several cases of right-wing populist success in Eastern Europe. Both in the twentieth century’s interwar period and in the recent instances of hyper-nationalist assaults on democratic or liberal principles, the forces of anti-democratic nationalism have been crucially, even if only marginally, weaker in the United States than in many other polities.

The inability of the Trumpian far-right to win more than 46.9% of the national vote even at what, as of now, stands as its electoral high- water mark in the 2020 election (surpassing Trump’s 2016 popular vote in both absolute numbers and percent, albeit obviously not in the Electoral College thanks to the increased unity of the forces of inclusion in 2020), places the American case in an interesting comparative light. Trump’s increase in support should be understood through the lens provided by extensive scholarly work that demonstrates the considerable advantage conferred by presidential incumbency – a factor that would be expected to increase Trump’s electorate in his 2020 campaign from the White House. The now classic model of political scientist Steven Rosenstone estimates the magnitude of the incumbent effect as a full 8% in added votes for an occupant of the White House seeking reelection (Rosenstone, 1983). One crucial component of the American story concerns the country’s (growing) demographic diversity and the way in which competing political forces have framed that underlying reality either as the basis for inclusion or exclusion. However, another fundamental question involves the resolve of those who favor the principle of inclusion to unify around the strongest defender of that principle. A crucial difference between the elections of 2016 and 2020 concerned precisely that question – the degree of unity achieved by the political forces favoring a politics of inclusion. The explanation for outcomes such as this one, that is 2020’s increased unity of pro-inclusion forces in support of the Democratic nominee, are often to be found in the movements of relatively small pieces of the electorate. In the American case, that involves the role of suburbanites and of specific religiously-defined groups such as liberal Protestants and Catholics, along with many other segments of the national electorate. The extraordinarily complex constellation of factors shaping electoral outcomes in the United States held huge systemic implications in the election of 2020 – as will remain the case in the aftermath of that historic election.


Berezin, Mabel. 2009. Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Robert. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert. 2001. How Democratic Is the American Constitution? New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fishman, Robert M. 2016. “Rethinking Dimensions of Democracy for Empirical Analysis: Authenticity, Quality, Depth and Consolidation.” Annual Review of Political Science 19: 289-309.

Fishman, Robert M. 2019. Democratic Practice: Origins of the Iberian Divide in Political Inclusion. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Linz, Juan, 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown and Reequilibration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosenstone, Steven. 1983. Forecasting Presidential Elections. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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