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Stresstest for Democracy: The US after its Midterm Elections

What do the results of the recent mid-term elections in the USA tell about the current state of the American democracy? Does it pass the current stress test?

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Foto Andrey Demidov
Dr. Andrey Demidov
Project Manager
Foto Anna Rachel Heckhausen
Anna Rachel Heckhausen
Junior Project Manager


These questions were the topic of the second-round table discussion in the series ‘Demokratie im Stresstest’, held on November 10, a collaboration between the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s project ‘Democracy and participation’ and the Berlin-based think tank Zentrum Liberale Moderne.

After a welcome by Dominik Hierlemann, the round table featured our colleague Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook and Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States of America as the main speakers. Following their analysis a diverse audience from science, politics, business, and civil society participated in the discussion.

A good night for the Democrats but a vulnerable time for democracy

The Democrats won crucial states in the Senate race and, as became clear later, secured the majority in the Senate. The much feared ‘red wave’ never materialized and, different to what many feared, there is no public questioning of the election results by the less successful contestants. Overall, the Democrats have come out largely unscathed and with the smallest losses in the history of their mid-term performances. Now the return of Donald Trump to power looks less certain as earlier, the financial aid to Ukraine will be sustained at its current levels, and voters clearly expressed how they view recent controversial policy moves such as the Supreme Court decisions on abortion. The ones concerned can finally breathe out.  

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Contested norms, eroding electoral democracy and shredding civic fabric.

These optimistic results should not blind, though. Both speakers warned against several clear risks and threats. American democracy, always heavily dependent on big normative narratives, is seeing an intense process of their contestation. While ‘the skeleton’ of institutions still holds up, the bone marrow is eroding’, stressed Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, pointing at how the so-called election deniers and the media are infusing nihilism and relativism into public discourse, thus, undermining the credibility of the system.

The stability of the US electoral system is also shaken. The time leading to mid-terms will be remembered by active gerrymandering, filibuster, legal contestation of the electoral results, the inflow of ‘dark money’ (crypto money) into electoral campaigning - a new menu of challenges for the US electoral democracy.

Finally, these mid-terms took place in an atmosphere of unprecedented polarisation, culture wars, growing animosity among social groups and the fight between two visions of what it means to protect democracy: via sticking to the rules or, strangely enough, being prepared to defend imaginary ‘stolen elections’ with openly carried guns.

 Abuse of institutional loopholes, contestation of ground norms and oftentimes deliberately orchestrated cultural and societal disconnection and polarization – the ‘challenges menu’ for the US democracy remains diverse. 

The prospects: citizens are the good news, yet the system is still under pressure

Both speakers also agreed that the resilience of the US democracy comes from its citizens. It has been American voters who, at the end, being enormously worried about the extent of electoral manipulations and cultural wars, survived disconnecting media and candidates’ rhetoric, mobilised, and came to the polls. The current mid-terms saw the unprecedented voter turnout and an especially active participation of the gen Z, as noted by Rachel Tausendfreund.  

The overall prognosis for the future was still careful. Trump may not be coming back to power, but the Republican party is rather united than divided. Societal divisions are there to stay. The aid to Ukraine, though secure for now, can become a serious issue of contention and, perhaps, needs to be re-negotiated. The Democrats secured their victory, yet, more work needs to be done on cementing the cracks in the US democracy.