Democratic Backsliding in the U.S. and Why the Rest of the West Should Care

By Joshua M.M. Portzer
2020, Vol. 12 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

‘State fragility’ comes in many manifestations, ranging from violent civil conflict to state-sanctioned corruption. Often the term is paired exclusively with the developing world. This is a misnomer. Those within the liberal world order (LWO) are not immune to such societal ills.1 Indeed, when a democratic State shows symptoms of fragility, it ought to give the West pause—a somber moment to reflect on their own democracies. The United States is providing the world with such a moment now. It is suffering from democratic backsliding.2 This paper does four things. First, it defines democratic backsliding. Second, it describes how the U.S. suffers from such backsliding. Third, it explores why the LWO has a vested interest in the U.S.’ recovery from backsliding and how it might assist Washington. Lastly, it addresses objections.

What is ‘Democratic Backsliding?’

Democratic backsliding has several definitions. At risk of sounding circular, it involves a decay of democratic characteristics possessed by a government, whereby the standards of democracy have deteriorated. This might involve a lessening degree of accountability vis-à-vis government and congressional leaders.3 For instance, a given head of state may begin to cease explaining their actions to the public by cancelling regular media briefings.4 Another way to define backsliding is in reference to institutions.5 Democratic institutions not only affect how constituents enact democracy, but also protect citizens against things such as abuse of official powers, violence, and property rights.6 Such institutions govern how the State exercises law and capacity-based tasks like taxation (enabling), keep the State accountable with checks and balances and a free press (constraining), and legitimately perpetuate the State through elections (electing). Degradation of institutions that affect these arenas of democracy would also constitute backsliding.7 For instance, purposely blockading the confirmation of a supreme court Justice in favor of a more conservative one would be an example of backsliding along the constrain axis.8 So would taking away White House access from a media correspondent due to negative press coverage.9 Democratic backsliding also may be formal (e.g. in the form of laws) as well as informal (generally acting contrary to institutional norms).10

Whether the LWO views democratic backsliding as a good or bad thing depends in part on how the LWO views State evolution. Some scholars assert that political institutions naturally decay in the face of new conditions within the State. The process might be messy, or even violent at times; however, it is necessary just as a forest may burn to make room for new flora.11 Conversely, others may view democracy as a forward, linear trajectory. Anything contrary to forward movement is then negative. Regardless of which school of thought one chooses, such backsliding can have real consequences globally. The case of the U.S. is a strong illustration in this. However, first we must describe how the U.S. has undergone democratic backsliding.

How is the U.S. Backsliding?

Washington has undergone backsliding prior to the Trump administration. In part because of the checks and balances, the judiciary component of the government results in a very slow and inconsistent approach to interpreting an enforcing law. While bribery is illegal, lobbying has deeply impacted the political process. Between the years of 1971 and 2013, (registered) lobbying firms have increased by almost 12,000.12 These interest groups have infiltrated into Congress. This has contributed to the growing hyper-partisan, polarizing two-party system within the U.S.13 Such bifurcation diminishes both efficacy and political stability.14

We might also couch democratic backsliding in terms of the three arenas previously mentioned. The election meddling by Russian actors (acknowledged by U.S. intelligence communities) presents serious concern regarding the elect arena, just as many voter identification laws unfairly discriminate against certain groups of voters (voter ID and gerrymandering have been particularly troublesome over the past 15 years).15 The adversarial and partisan nature of the media also presents issues for both the enable and constrain arenas.16

Since 2016, both congress and the Trump administration have acted in ways that particularly exemplify democratic backsliding. An Associated Press poll in 2017 found that two-thirds of Americans believe that Trump had “little or no respect for the country’s democratic institutions and traditions.”17 Since Trump has assumed the presidency, transparency of the office has diminished. This ranges from Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, to refusing to cooperate with impeachment proceedings, to attacking multiple media outlets as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.”18 Following norms (or laws) are not problematic solely for the Trump administration. Many Republicans stormed a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility with electronics in hand during the impeachment investigation—a wildly illegal act.19

Of course, while the actions described thus far make several institutional and behavioral norms seem antiquated, we must take care not to mistake attributes associated with a given election as democratic backsliding—Trump is not purely antithetical to democracy.20 However, the trend of radicalization and hyper-partisan nature of Congress has followed his lead. That factor is most troubling. Such hard-lined polarization “gives political elites incentives to seek permanent advantages within a basic domestic framework” and might even imply that they would “ignore potential threats to democracy” in order to prevent the opposing party from gaining power.21 Bending (or even breaking) the rules may be justified by these elites if the power to shape the country’s laws is at stake.22 In other words, all is fair in love and war and politics. But this mantra affects the rest of the LWO. And while woe be it upon a country to impose its will on U.S. sovereignty, those countries have a vested interest in U.S. democracy returning to centerline.

Why the Rest of the West Should Care

There are several reasons why the countries within the LWO have a vested self-interest in staving off democratic backsliding vis-à-vis the U.S. First, the same impetus that caused the inversion of domestic democratic norms within America is causing an inversion of international norms. NATO’s obsolescence is in question. Washington has pulled out of conflict zones without warning (Syria) and demanded allies to finance military partnerships (South Korea, NATO). Trump has walked away from both the Transpacific partnership and the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, Russia and China have flown in to fill the vacuum of U.S. presence. Russia has emerged largely the winner in the Eastern Mediterranean skirmishes, brokering agreements between Turkey and Syria.23 China’s belt and road initiative provides an alternative arrangement to aid around the world without many of the democratic strings the rest of the LWO attaches. It has been very effective at stimulating economic growth through improved infrastructure.24

Second, norms are important for international relations. Norms allow one to form expectations of what others will do in a given circumstance. This is just as true internationally as it is domestically. Norms of government supervene on institutions.25 Stable institutions, in this way, allow for predictability. Without this stability, forging international policy becomes very difficult. Partnerships are built on trust, which may be severely hampered if senior decision makers do not act with institutional norms as their guide.

Third and perhaps most importantly, watching democratic backsliding occur in a country that purportedly has the most archetypical democracy in the world is a bad look for the LWO. If the most politically advanced country suffers from the most severe form of democratic backsliding, what does that say for the sanctity of democracy?26 Democracy is just hard seems an unsavory response. China and Russia have revisionist versions of what government can and should look like. The LWO must respond in such a way that preemptively counters such revisionist narratives.

International Considerations Regarding U.S. Democratic Backsliding

There are many options available to stymy democratic backsliding in the U.S. as well as promoting a return to healthier democratic norms; however, many depart from the normative tools (such as military intervention and targeted, private economic sanctions). Diplomatic leverage is one in particular.27 Countries (e.g. within the EU) could tell the U.S. that until Washington made demonstrable improvements in the way of its transparency (like White House press briefings), countries would look elsewhere and among one another for various goods. This could be done either via track-I or -II diplomacy. Congress may not care initially about such latent threats; however, that might change if their constituents begin to feel the effects of e.g. Germany refusing to purchase U.S. automobiles, of which they currently are a major importer.28

Track-II diplomacy brings with it two advantages. First, it allows international private groups to interface with U.S. lobbying groups, which have Congress’ ear. Congress is a they, not an it. Just as lobbying groups can impart their influence in a way that undermines democratic efforts (such as high-level dealings with the NRA against possible gun legislation), similar pressurizing mechanisms could argue for more transparency within the Executive branch of U.S. government.29 The second advantage is that it bypasses overt threats of tariffs, which amount to public shaming. Threats or shaming often result in defiance, where the target country’s violation of norms continues in an effort to save face domestically and further assert dominance internationally.30 America could not persist in its current international role if it appeared to change its political behavior on the whim of trade threats (Track-I). Back channel negotiations allow for more frank discussion with relevant congressional leaders. They also offer negotiating space for political off-ramps.

Stepping back to look at the problem more generally, it might be appropriate to view the GOP and Democratic parties as two sides of a civil conflict (substituting vitriol for violence). Seemingly, they are intractably opposed to one another. There is no trust and very little common ground. Each identifies the other as an existential threat. Reframing the problem like this, how might interested parties help the U.S. undo its backsliding?

One option is to take a more Weinsteinian approach on the issue – namely that recoveries that are autonomous are stronger than those that are not, and that optimum institutions are endogenously produced. Those institutions are contractual between the parties and are strongest without international guarantors.31 Que Sera Sera, succinctly put. The problem with this option is that it can take a long time. While there is little risk that Capitol Hill will become a site of interparty bloodshed, such autonomous recoveries (i.e. a ceasing of democratic backsliding) might take a long time and the situation could worsen before it improves. From an international standpoint, time is invaluable. The longer the U.S. is pointed inward, the more time state actors like Russia and China are able to continue their respective behaviors.

Another option is to look at the problem of conflict as Virginia Fortna does–the presence of a third party helps. Third parties help to reduce uncertainty and bolster fragile trust between two other parties that are in conflict.32 They also may serve as arbiters of communication to ensure that actions are not misinterpreted such that they cause rekindled conflict. To be sure, the U.S. Senate is not Sierra Leone or Mozambique. However, viewing democratic backsliding as a result of entrenched political conflict between the two parties allows us to look at solutions that might otherwise seem completely irrelevant.

A third option is to view the polarized party system as a distribution problem. Democrats and the GOP are not ready to put aside their differences and work together towards a better democracy. Each side wants to see the other defeated and still believes that their respective outcome is in reach. 33 Expectations must be changed, and the issues at hand must be rephrased in a way that shows why compromise and bipartisanship is within the set of desired outcomes for each party.34 Currently, each side does not understand fully the consequences of further backsliding due to prolonged, entrenched partisan conflict. Through Track-II, the international community could help lawmakers see such consequences.

Objections.

At this point, it is prudent to address the elephant in the room. It sounds something like this: first, you are likening democratic discourse to civil war negotiations—these are not comparable. Moreover, you are insinuating that the LWO ought to intervene in U.S. political affairs. To that end, how is this not contributing to democratic backsliding? External actors and interference are cited as conditions of backsliding. [35] So, the solution you suggest will just further entrench the problem!

The first part of the objection deals with comparing U.S. political parties’ ideological entrenchment to violent interstate conflict. Again, there is no question that hyper-partisan clashes are non-violent and in that strict sense cannot be compared with places like Mozambique. However, if we treat the political parties as entities themselves, there are striking similarities between the issues that stagnate negotiations between parties in conflict and those we find between the U.S. political parties (as mentioned earlier).

Rhetoric is rhetoric, but on Capitol Hill it has become more incendiary over time. Americans also perceive it as potentially heightening the risk of violence.36 Peter Daou, a democratic strategist for Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, recently tweeted that the Republicans want to “eradicate the Democratic Party and destroy everything that matters to them.”37 While this is a purposely provocative tweet, it encapsulates the point. U.S. political parties have become so entrenched in their ideology and anxiety towards ‘the other,’ that the ‘bracketed solutions’ we would find in a distribution problem negligibly overlap (if at all). Each party’s platform’s success is only realized with the defeat of the other party given the hyper-partisan divides of both the House and Senate. Each party is the other’s existential threat and champions the other’s demise. Accordingly, trust does not run very deep. In this light, the problem is similar – trust, cooperation, accepting vulnerability in the face of existential threat. These are what are missing from negotiations.

To the second point, clarification is first needed. I am not proposing that the EU or other Western countries meddle in U.S. political affairs in a clandestine or nefarious manner. Hacking and trolling are not desired. I believe that the West can communicate strongly its concerns insofar as the U.S. backsliding affects the rest of the world through backchannel efforts, using the same lobbying communication paths that currently exist today. We might imagine something akin to Liberal Democracies International establishing an office in D.C. and speaking to Senators in a manner no different than how the NRA speaks to Senators. It would just be such this international lobby firm represented the voices of many of the Western democratic countries.

An objector might insist that that still is imparting undue political influence on American politics. However, to assume the case is otherwise day-to-day is naïve. Countries exert influence on the U.S. continuously, in relatively benign (at least accepted) ways. For instance, China acquired Smithfield Foods (a pork powerhouse) over six years ago.38 Consider how much lobbying the meat industry writ large conducts – particularly in the face of meat-alternatives. This is one of many examples. That Chinese company may not be threatening to forego U.S. goods on behalf of the Chinese government as LDI might do in the face of continued democratic backsliding; however, it is reasonable to assume that the Chinese company gets leverage as to where it puts its factories and administrative buildings, which means it controls a portion of U.S. jobs. Fundamentally, it is still leverage over an aspect of the U.S. economy all the same.

There are other objections. Another amounts to So What? U.S. democratic backsliding is in part causing America to focus inward and not outward. There have been periods of U.S. isolation before. Why should the other Western countries care? To this, recall that in periods past Russia and China have not been where they currently are strategically—certainly China. The world does not look the same as it did post-WWII or even during the Cold War. The LWO continues by those countries cooperating to balance revisionist powers. Further, even if the international power vacuum is not a paramount concern, the U.S.’ backsliding is still a bad look for Democracy’s brand game. The liberal world should want to minimize the points that the revisionist powers get to put on the ideological branding board.

A third objection is simply the last three years’ institutional decay is due to election results, not backsliding. It will change in 2020 if the Democrats win the Presidential election. Recall though that issues corresponding to backsliding (voter ID legislation and gerrymandering) have been going on well before Trump. Also consider that in Trump’s tenure, Congress has confirmed “two Supreme Court justices, 44 Circuit Court judges, and 112 District Court judges.”39 Those appointments are for life, and many of those judges are conservative textualists. The White House website continues to say that “President Trump’s historic appointments have already tipped the balance of numerous Federal courts to a Republican appointed majority.”40 That statement is troubling. The judicial branch should have no party affiliation. Yet such sentiment is communicated both through the White House as well as future court rulings.41 Just as “biasing judicial bodies” may strategically allow a State to cheat in elections but have long-term consequences, stacking the judicial branch to rule conservatively (or, just along Republican party lines) will too.42

Conclusion

In this paper, I have discussed the concept of democratic backsliding and made the case through citing various literature that it is occurring in the U.S. As backsliding is often coupled with State fragility, my statement begs the question is the U.S. a fragile State? Insofar as we consider many of the qualities possess by fragile States, not quite yet. For instance, despite e.g. minor corruption concerns, the U.S. State capacity is still very strong and there is no question that it has a monopoly on force. But the damage induced by backsliding might be thought of as a hairline fracture that could grow over time. The international community has a vested self-interest in seeing this backsliding rectified and reversed. I have suggested that the Western countries might aptly view congress (the targeted agent in preventing backsliding) as two sides of a protracted conflict, and argued that through unofficial ‘Track-II diplomacy’, those countries might leverage their influence to persuade Congress to re-evaluate their hyper-partisan positions. That said, there must be diligent thought concerning what comes first between the two sides. Prioritization is key, as short-term change is important (for lobbying firm funders if nothing else); but so too is an effective long game.43 Perhaps the first step is convincing both sides of the aisle that they can disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate without holding Democracy hostage.


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Endnotes

1.) By LWO, I generally mean the group of countries typically referenced as ‘the West’—those countries who share similar democratic and economic principles. Loosely typified, it coincides with the G-7 member countries, including the EU.

2.) We could make the case that the U.S. is suffering from more symptoms of fragility than just democratic backsliding. The hyper-partisan nature of congress is such that it is losing efficacy (weak institutions). There are have been multiple campaign finance violations within the administration and congress (corruption) (Taylor 2019, Guray 2018). The Mueller investigation and Russia’s meddling created a crisis of legitimacy for Trump’s presidency. However, given our scope here, we focus on democratic backsliding.

[3] Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113.

4.) Forgey, Quint. “White House Press Secretary Says Daily Briefings Aren't Coming Back Any Time Soon.” POLITICO, 23 Sept. 2019, www.politico.com/story/2019/09/23/stephanie-grisham-white-house-press-briefings-1507288.

5.) Here, I adopt a Weinstein’s definition in that institutions are “a set of humanly devised behavioral rules that govern and shape the interaction of human beings, in part by helping them to form expectations of what others will do” (Weinstein 2005).

6.) Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2005. “Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective.” Center for Global Development Working Paper 57.

7.) Jee, Haemin, Hans Lueders, and Rachel Myrick. 2019. “Towards a Unified Concept of Democratic Backsliding.” Working paper, Stanford University.

8.) King, Ledyard. “'We'd Fill It:' Mitch McConnell Blocked Obama Supreme Court Pick but Says He'd Help Trump Fill a Vacancy.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 29 May 2019, www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/05/29/mcconnell-blocked-obama-supreme-court-choice-wouldnt-stop-trump/1268883001/.

9.) Stelter, Brian. “Reporters Condemn White House Decision to Bar CNN's Acosta.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Nov. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/11/08/media/trump-acosta-press-pass-reaction/index.htmlHarwell, Drew. “White House Shares Doctored Video to Support Punishment of Journalist Jim Acosta.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 8 Nov. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/11/08/white-house-shares-doctored-video-support-punishment-journalist-jim-acosta/.

10.) Jee, Haemin, Hans Lueders, and Rachel Myrick. 2019. “Towards a Unified Concept of Democratic Backsliding.” Working paper, Stanford University.

11.) Fukuyama, Francis. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Chapters 31-34.

12.) Ibid.

13.) Ibid.

14.) Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113.

15.) Jee, Haemin, Hans Lueders, and Rachel Myrick. 2019. “Towards a Unified Concept of Democratic Backsliding.” Working paper, Stanford University. Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113.

16.) Jee, Haemin, Hans Lueders, and Rachel Myrick. 2019. “Towards a Unified Concept of Democratic Backsliding.” Working paper, Stanford University.

17.) Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113.

18.) Ibid.

19.) Balsamo, Michael. “Chaotic Scene as Republicans Disrupt Impeachment Deposition.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 24 Oct. 2019, apnews.com/a089ddade65f42978c45147aa4ec2dca.

20.) Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113

21.) Ibid.

22.) Ibid.

23.) Erlich, Reese. “Russia Is the Only Winner in Syria.” Foreign Policy, 30 Oct. 2019, foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/30/russia-is-the-only-winner-in-syria/.

24.) Bluhm, Richard, Axel Dreher, Andreas Fuchs, Bradley Parks, Austin Strange, and Michael Tierney. 2018. “Connective Financing: Chinese Infrastructure Projects and the Diffusion of Economic Activity in Developing Countries.” AidData Working Paper 64.

25.) I read Weinstein as implying this, regarding footnote (iii).

26.) Fukuyama, Francis. 2014. Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Chapters 31-34.

27.) Bush, Sarah Sunn. 2015. The Taming of Democracy Assistance: Why Democracy Promotion Does Not Confront Dictators. New York: Cambridge University Press, Chapter 2 and pp. 226–232. Skim Chapters 1 and 8.

28.) Parizo, Christine. “United States-Germany International Trade.” International Trade between U.S. and Germany | American Express, American Express Foreign Exchange Services. 2017. www.americanexpress.com/us/foreign-exchange/articles/international-trade-between-us-and-germany/.

29.) Haberman, Maggie, et al. “N.R.A. Gets Results on Gun Laws in One Phone Call With Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20/us/politics/trump-gun-control-nra.html.

30.) Terman, Rochelle. Rewarding Resistance: Theorizing Defiance to International Shaming. Working paper, University of Chicago

31.) Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2005. “Autonomous Recovery and International Intervention in Comparative Perspective.” Center for Global Development Working Paper 57.

32.) Fortna, Virginia Page. 2008. Does Peacekeeping Work? Princeton: Princeton University Press, Chapters 1, 4, 6.

33.) Lecture by Professor M. Lee, Princeton University. 10 October 2019.

34.) Ibid.

35.) Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. 2018. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science 21: 93–113.

36.) “Public Highly Critical of State of Political Discourse in the U.S.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 31 Dec. 2019, www.people-press.org/2019/06/19/public-highly-critical-of-state-of-political-discourse-in-the-u-s/. Drake, Bruce, and Jocelyn Kiley. “Americans Say the Nation's Political Debate Has Grown More Toxic and 'Heated' Rhetoric Could Lead to Violence.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 18 July 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/18/americans-say-the-nations-political-debate-has-grown-more-toxic-and-heated-rhetoric-could-lead-to-violence/.

37.) “Peter Daou (@Peterdaou).” Twitter, Twitter, 18 May 2019, twitter.com/peterdaou.

38.) Frohlich, Thomas C., and Michael B. Sauter. “10 Classic USA Brands That Are Foreign-Owned.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 8 Dec. 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/12/08/10-classic-usa-brands-that-are-foreign-owned/3882739/.

39.) “President Donald J. Trump Is Appointing a Historic Number of Federal Judges to Uphold Our Constitution as Written.” The White House, The United States Government, www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-appointing-historic-number-federal-judges-uphold-constitution-written/.

40.) Ibid.

41.) Hulse, Carl. “Trump and Senate Republicans Celebrate Making the Courts More Conservative.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/trump-senate-republicans-courts.html.

42.) Simpser, Alberto, and Daniela Donno. 2012. “Can International Election Monitoring Harm Governance?” Journal of Politics 74(2): 501-513.

43.) Grindle, Merilee. 2004. “Good Enough Governance: Poverty Reduction and Reform in Developing Countries.” Governance 17(4): 525-548.

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2020, Vol. 12 No. 11
The United States Constitution is the longest lasting written constitution in the world, despite the fact that one of the key framers, Thomas Jefferson, believed that written constitutions ought to have a nineteen year expiration date before they... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 11
The African National Congress is widely credited as the institutional body that effectuated the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. While the formal actions of the ANC enfeebled the National Party, the political party only represents one source of... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 2020 No. 1
This research paper investigates the impact that the rhetoric of a populist conservative ethnic entrepreneur can have on ethnic conflict by analyzing the tweets of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Over the years, the emergence of right-wing... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 2020 No. 1
China’s rise as a global power has major implications for the future of free speech and media censorship both within and outside the People’s Republic. While there are numerous examples of the Chinese Communist Party employing blanket... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
The emergence of social media platforms into American life has remarkably altered the political communication landscape. Websites such as Twitter have become a prioritized communication medium for politicians looking to directly reach the electorate... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
In the 116th United States Congress, women hold 23.2% of House seats and 25% of Senate seats. Down the ballot, across state and local elected offices, women are underrepresented in their communities. This continual disparity presents a fundamental... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
Political polarization in the United States has been one of the main issues at the forefront of American politics. Studies show that political parties have in fact become more divided ideologically than ever, and more Americans that belong to one... Read Article »

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