Conditions of Democratic Erosion: Has U.S. Democracy Reached a Tipping Point?

Christian Tubbs


For more than half a century, academics have expressed unease over the erosion of democratic governance in the United States and abroad.[1] Scholars have regarded American democracy as a critical stabilizing force in new and emerging democracies as well as those under threat from authoritarian rule.[2] There is a growing concern—both from within and outside the United States—that American democracy is not functioning effectively, as its political system is increasingly polarized and deadlocked and showing “signs of ill health.”[3]

Peru, Hungary, and pre–World War II Germany provide historical examples of democratic erosion. In these historical cases, there is evidence of conditions that became tipping points toward erosion. The conditions, or tipping points, are often intertwined and include conditions such as economic inequality, phobias, and perceived threats from outsiders.[4] These tipping points have led some leaders to take actions such as rejecting or weakening the commitment to democratic rules, challenging the legitimacy of political opponents and institutions, tolerating violence, and reducing or eliminating civil liberties of opponents.[5]

Scholars of democracy consistently agree that these conditions are present in the United States.[6] These scholars and researchers suggest that these conditions are being used as a basis to reject or weaken commitment to democratic rules, challenge the legitimacy of political opponents and institutions, tolerate and even encourage violence, and reduce or eliminate civil liberties of opponents. Validating the presence of these conditions may provide the United States an opportunity to prevent these conditions from becoming tipping points and a threat to the erosion of our democracy.

Using Mayring’s sequential model of qualitative content analysis, the research utilized a three-step analytical procedure of summarizing the data; explaining, clarifying, and annotating the material; and finally structuring the material. The research analyzed these conditions in Peru, Hungary, pre–World War II Germany, and the United States. The findings then categorized, by country, the tipping points of economic inequality, phobias, and the perceived threats from outsiders. Each tipping point was explained and characterized in the context of the events occurring at the time of the tipping point’s presence. Each finding was structured so as to remove non-relevant elements and then analyzed and interpreted.

The research found clear evidence in U.S. history of policy changes made through a democratic process related to the conditions of economic inequality, phobias, and fear from outsiders. There is also historical evidence that these conditions in the past have, in some cases, led to rejecting or weakening the commitment to democratic rules, tolerating violence, reducing or eliminating civil liberties of opponents, and challenging the legitimacy of political opponents and institutions. However, to date and to the extent that they have occurred, these actions have either been accomplished through the democratic legislative process or, when challenged, adjudicated and subsequently incorporated into public policy. As a result, the evidence suggests that none of these actions have led to the erosion of American democracy under the current administration—though Americans should remain diligent in oversight and analysis.

Scholars warn that most democratic failures occur as a result of slow erosion, or retrogression, often at a speed that is barely perceptible. Moreover, the research suggests that small changes, which may at first appear rational, can lead to democratic erosion. Most notably, people who deem these actions necessary or logical often give political consent to such changes, which ultimately lead to some form of democratic erosion.[7] But how those actions are taken is of constitutional consequence. The United States has long debated various national policies and determined that many actions have violated constitutional law; however, ultimately, these actions have been adjudicated through a democratic process that ensures none of the three branches of government exerts unilateral or undue control and retains the necessary balance of power.

Leading constitutional law professors suggests that a constitutional crisis exists when one or both of two fundamental elements are violated: “when important political disputes cannot be resolved within the existing constitutional framework . . . [or] if important political actors no longer [believe] themselves bound by the constitutional rules.”[8] In the cases of Peru, Hungary, and pre–World War II Germany, the national leadership of these countries took actions that violated these two fundamental elements, which led to the erosion of democracy. They serve as a kind of a template for the United States to signal the eroding of democratic procedural minimums.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights were students of the human condition and were intimately aware that the tendency of those in power was to accumulate more power. Therefore, they endeavored to build a framework for governance that recognized those in power would pursue self-interest at the expense of the people.[9] The framers believed deeply that the government, as a steward of the people, ought to protect their right to self-determination and liberty, recognizing that governments historically abused this responsibility.[10] The case studies illuminate examples of governments abusing power. Each case shows the ways in which the rights of the people were abused as well as the consequences of those actions. Pre–World War II Germany serves as an extreme example of the abuse of the people’s power. In each case, the national leaders leveraged conditions to take actions that ultimately facilitated their consolidation of power, which resulted in an erosion of democratic procedural minimums.

Though this thesis found evidence in the United States of conditions similar to those in Peru, Hungary, and Pre–World War II Germany, to date there is no evidence that any U.S. president has used those conditions to consolidate power. However, today there is evidence of increasing partisan division within the United States, which research has shown warrants concern. While disagreement is unavoidable, how the United States handles the differing viewpoints is critical. If the ideological divide in the United States becomes so severe that government leaders are no longer able or willing to collaborate and compromise, the nation will likely find itself in a constitutional crisis. As John Dickinson noted in 1768, “A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country and themselves.”[11]



[1] Alan I. Abramowitz and Kyle L. Saunders, “Is Polarization a Myth?” Journal of Politics 70, no. 2 (April 2008): 542–555,

[2] Larry Diamond, “Facing up to the Democratic Recession,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 2 (January 2015):152–153,

[3] Diamond, 152. The following authors share the same (or similar) views: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 1st ed. (New York: Crown, 2018); and Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 1–19.

[4] Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 53–71.

[5] Levitsky and Ziblatt, 53–71.

[6] Alfred Stepan, ed., Democracies in Danger, 1st ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown, and Reequilibration (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978); Gero Erdmann and Marianne Kneuer, Regression of Democracy?, 1st ed. (Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag, 2011); Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, 1st ed. (New York: Crown Publishing, 2012); Edward Luce, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, 1st ed. (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017); Fathali M. Moghaddam, The Psychology of Democracy (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2015); Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” Foreign Affairs 76, no. 6 (December 1997): 22–43,; Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is . . . and Is Not,” Journal of Democracy 2, no. 3 (2008): 75–88, https://doi.
org/10.1353/jod.1991.0033; and Larry Jay Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, eds., The Global Divergence of Democracies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

[7] Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 92–93.

[8] Keith E. Whittington, “The Coming Constitutional Crisis?,” Lawfare (blog), July 21, 2017,

[9] Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes, The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country—and Why It Can Again (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), loc. 32–264 of 4153, Kindle.

[10] Lane and Oreskes, The Genius of America, loc. 72–103; and Mike Lee, Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America’s Founding Document (New York: Penguin, 2015), loc. 2755–2784 of 3819, Kindle.

[11] Lane and Oreskes, The Genius of America, loc. 275.

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