US democracy will deteriorate regardless of the outcome, says Helmut K. Anheier

The Senior Professor of Sociology comments on the midterm elections in the United States.

Yesterday, after a turbulent run-up, elections were held for new Senators and House Representatives. Helmut K. Anheier, Senior Professor of Sociology and former President of the Hertie School, comments on what the results mean – and do not mean – for democracy in the United States, and how they could affect Europe.


While there was no 'red wave', the Republicans are poised to win the House and possibly even the Senate. Will Biden still be able to govern, or do you expect gridlock?

Of course, he will be able to govern, but the next two years will be a stress test. Republicans will do everything they can to block as many initiatives as possible. At the same time, we should keep in mind that the shift we now witness has been the pattern in all but one midterm election for over three decades, with the 2002 elections being an exception as the country was still reeling from the 11 September terrorist attacks. As presidents did before him, Biden will issue more presidential orders to bypass Congress. Also recall that some of the gridlock Biden experienced came from his own party, which led many legislative reform initiatives to be seriously delayed and watered down.


Do you expect the quality of democracy to deteriorate due to the election results?

Unfortunately, the quality of US democracy will deteriorate regardless of the election outcome. As part of the Berggruen Governance Index, we showed that the country – often lauded as the 'oldest democracy in the world' and the 'leader of the free world' – has fallen on hard times. In addition to headline-grabbing political events such as 6 January coup attempt that reveal the extent of political dysfunction in the country, data indicate that overall democratic accountability has been declining for years: On the one hand, American democracy has suffered from neglect, with low electoral participation and lack of much needed reforms to make the system more representative of the popular will, for example by doing away with the electoral college. On the other hand, the Republican party, obsessed with power, has done its best to undermine the democratic system by changing electoral laws in its favour whenever possible. The Democrats have failed to mount an effective challenge against it by not speaking with one voice. The power politics of the Republicans trump the identity politics of the Democrats.  

To save American democracy from declining even further, drastic action will be required to reverse these troubling trends. What makes one nonetheless hopeful is that the country has been at such critical junctures before and has emerged all the stronger.


What could the election results mean for Germany and Europe?

First, a Republican win could mean greater uncertainty in America’s support of Ukraine, which would strengthen Russia’s hand and make more support from Ukraine’s European partners necessary. Second, a Republican win means an even firmer protectionist stance towards Europe, which would affect the German economy negatively. But we should bear in mind that this stance would simply be a continuation of Biden’s policies that aim at repatriating supply chains. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act (which requires 75% US content for manufacturers to receive significant government subsidies that are also much higher than the EU’s) is already an important tool to re-industrialise the country. Some large German corporations like BMW and Siemens are increasing production capacities in the US in response. The Chips & Science Act and the much stricter export controls serve similar purposes. These latter measures are directed mostly against China, but Europe could be affected as well. 


See Berggruen Governance Index for an analysis of the United States in an international comparison.

More about our expert