The Trump presidency has brought American democracy to the breaking point. The president has encouraged violent extremists; deployed law enforcement and other public institutions as weapons against rivals; and undermined the integrity of elections through false claims of fraud, attacks on mail-in voting and an apparent unwillingness to accept defeat.
In this, he has been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has fallen into the grips of white nationalism. The Republican base and its white Christian core, facing a loss of its dominant status in society, has radicalized, encouraging party leaders to engage in voter suppression, steal a Supreme Court seat in 2016 and tolerate the president’s lawless behavior. As a result, Americans today confront the prospect of a crisis-ridden election, in which they are unsure whether they will be able to cast a ballot fairly, whether their ballots will be counted, whether the candidate favored by voters will emerge victorious and whether the vote will throw the country into violence.
Yet if American democracy is nearing a breaking point, the crisis generated by the Trump presidency could also be a prelude to a democratic breakthrough. Opposition to Trumpism has engendered a growing multiracial majority that could lay a foundation for a more democratic future. Public opinion has shifted in important ways, especially among white Americans.
According to the political scientist Michael Tesler, the percentage of Americans who agree that “there’s a lot of discrimination against African-Americans” increased from 19 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2020, driven in the main by changes in the attitudes of white voters. Likewise, a Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of Americans who believe that the country needs to “continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with whites” rose from 46 percent in 2014 to 61 percent in 2017.
Polls also show that Americans overwhelmingly reject President Trump’s positions on race and that they increasingly embrace diversity. Last year, about two-thirds of Americans agreed with the statement that immigrants “strengthen the country,” up from 31 percent in 1994. And according to Pew, the percentage of voters who believe that “newcomers strengthen American society” rose from 46 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020.
America’s emerging multiracial democratic majority was visible this summer in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The killing set off what may be the biggest wave of protest in United States history. An estimated 15 million to 26 million Americans took to the streets, and protests extended into small-town and rural America. Three-quarters of Americans supported the protests in June, and large majorities — including 60 percent of whites — supported the Black Lives Matter movement. These numbers declined over the course of the summer. As of September, however, 55 percent of Americans (and 45 percent of white Americans) continued to support Black Lives Matter, levels that were considerably higher than ever before in the movement’s history. This is why Mr. Trump’s efforts to resurrect Nixon’s “silent majority” appeals appear to have failed. The majority — seeking not a heavy-handed return to America’s racially exclusionary past but steps toward its multiracial democratic future — continue to sympathize with the protesters.
Not only do most Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Trump is handling his job, but an unprecedented majority now embraces ethnic diversity and racial equality, two essential pillars of multiracial democracy.
Yet translating this new multiethnic majority into a governing majority has been difficult. Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.
Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.