A coup d’etat with tanks rolling in the streets? Or a civil war that rages as soldiers and guerillas fight for political power?
Such scenes probably come to mind when thinking of a country where democratic institutions and norms are in peril. But a better representation may be what is currently under way in the United States.
There, it is not military generals hatching plots against elected officials, but politicians seeking to change laws to restrict voting rights.
From the states of Florida to Iowa, state legislatures that are controlled by Republicans have passed bills into law that restrict both mail-in and in-person voting.
Democratic decline is also found in the completely legal, yet partisan, election audits that are taking place in the states of Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. According to those on the political right who are leading these efforts, there is a need to verify the results of the 2020 election.
Really, it is not about verifying anything, but about casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Biden presidency. And let’s be clear – we are still waiting for substantive proof that the Democrats, in any way, fixed the 2020 election so Biden could be president.
More to the point – this is how democracy is dying, through these coordinated efforts to mould the American political system to favour one party.
Such dynamics are afoot in what is supposed to be the bastion of democracy, as anti-democratic forces progressively eat away at institutions that uphold the rule of law and norms of toleration.
It was nearly 25 years ago when Fareed Zakaria popularised the notion of “illiberal democracy” when referring to dynamics taking place in Russia, Venezuela, and certain countries in Eastern Europe.
His idea is that in these countries, elections took place where a majority of a population participated, yet constitutional protections for the rule of law and individual rights were weak.
In such environments, elites moulded the populations’ preferences, motivating people with feelings of racism or extreme nationalism to exclude specific groups. Then, leaders in these countries would persecute dissent with mass support as they put themselves and their parties above the rule of law.
While similar, illiberal democracy in the US is taking on additional features.
First, it is not so clear that elites are driving the push to undo democratic institutions. True, there is former President Trump and his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats.
If we were just speaking about an election, then perhaps this narrative would make sense. After all, voting is a single-shot event that takes little effort. But no, the undoing of democracy is far deeper and way more protracted.
Simply check out the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol building in Washington, DC. At that event, you had thousands of people mobilising from around the country who believed that the 2020 election was illegitimate.
Was the insurrection a single, strange occurrence? Some fringe element that cries lunacy from the corners of American political life?
No, not in the least.
According to a CNN poll conducted in the first week of September of this year, a clear majority of Republican voters – 61 percent – still support Trump, with 59 percent believing that the election was stolen from him.
It is not just Trump.
Larry Elder, who ran and clearly lost in the recall bid to oust Democrat Gavin Newsom claimed voter fraud before ballots were even counted.
Let’s also remember that voter fraud has been a red herring on the political right for years. Supporters of the right-wing presidential candidate and Texas representative Ron Paul, nearly 10 years ago, were organising to stymie same-day registration efforts.
Mind you, the chances of finding actual cases of voter fraud is as likely as getting struck by lightning. Multiple studies, conducted by an array of newspapers and non-profit organisations, have found that since 2000 real instances of voter fraud have numbered in the dozens.
There have also been the partisan gerrymandering efforts throughout the country, for years, that have effectively been cases of politicians picking their electorate rather than the other way around.
But to hold up such facts misses the point.
What is really expressed, not just by Trump and his supporters, but by others who have for years been searching out cases of voter fraud when there are none, or working on crafting districts for partisan gain, is the desire for power.
Power is not necessarily a bad thing; the problem is when organised actors see their party and priorities as providing the principles upon with the country should stand. From the anti-abortion rights stance to cutting taxes, the idea is to work solely with the viewpoints of one group of people to craft the way of life for everyone else in the country.
This is why, as legal efforts at overturning election results take place, the local, non-partisan officials who oversaw the polls receive death threats and intimidation. The insurrectionists from January 6 felt so empowered that they would risk anything for their views, including the democratic process.
Such legal and illegal actions are connected by that same underlying current – power.
America is in a dark place. There are no simple ways forward or easy solutions that could bring people together.
What is critical is for people to realise, if for just a moment, how dug into their respective corners they have become. It is not just on the right, but the left as well, where the outright dismissal of contrary views shows a lack of empathy and humility.
People don’t have to agree on everything. In fact, to push for that is part of the problem. For the sake of democracy, we need to recognise differences where they exist without seeking to extinguish them.
Unless that simple, yet hard realisation is embraced by folks now, America’s dark days will only become dimmer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.