14 Reasons that Democracy Survived
As Biden takes power, let's recall the institutions and individuals who resisted Trump's violations
Donald Trump was a unique threat to American democracy, as confirmed by his incitement in the mob attack on the Capitol in the waning days of his presidency. But, as his term ends, we should remember more than the ills of Trump. We must recall too that, for all the acts of complicity with Trump, others mobilized to stop him.
Authoritarian populists tend to win re-election. As people who believe in liberal democracy, we should be relieved that Trump broke the trend. American institutions did hold up under attack, but this was not guaranteed. People took action—those within institutions to ensure that these functioned as they should, and those outside institutions who demanded appropriate behavior.
As a dissident Republican, I worked with Protect Democracy, which was founded to defend against Trump’s attacks on our democracy. In my position, I encountered much that troubled me. But I also found many whose work should serve as an inspiration. I offer a partial list of some whom I witnessed fighting for our democracy, and whose efforts we should acknowledge:
The American people. Through public opinion, public protests, and the largest turnout in American history, the people of this country repeatedly delivered defeats to Trump and his enablers.
Progressive groups that mobilized public pressure and increased election turnout. Elections are won by base mobilization and persuasion. Stacey Abrams is justly getting enormous credit for expanding the Democratic Party’s electorate in Georgia, and Mi Familia Vota and Mijente did so with Latino populations around the country.
Principled conservatives. Bill Kristol, Sarah Longwell, Tim Miller and others ran brilliant campaigns at Republicans for the Rule of Law and Republican Voters Against Trump, arguing that Republicans could oppose Trump on principle. The work of Defending Democracy Together was also invaluable. Republicans who changed their vote from 2016 to 2020 were a pillar of Joe Biden’s winning coalition.
Some Republican officials. Despite enormous pressure, including threats of violence to them and their families, some officials made the right decisions. Sadly, Senator Mitt Romney was perhaps the only Republican in Congress who consistently held to principles. More Republicans stand out at the state level, especially with respect to Trump’s attempts to overturn his election loss. For example, the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, withstood incredible pressure from Trump and his own party’s candidates for U.S. Senate to insist on facts. The Michigan state canvassing board member Aaron Van Langevelde cast the sole Republican vote to certify the election. Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona withstood enormous pressure from the president, the grassroots, and a state party that suggested Republicans martyr themselves for Trump.
Political appointees who held firm. Some argued there was no legitimate reason to accept a political appointment in the Trump administration. Chris Krebs—who led the agency at the Department of Homeland Security to protect infrastructure, especially election infrastructure—showed the value of protecting institutions from the inside.
Career civil servants who held firm. At the Department of Justice and other agencies, civil servants resisted pressure from the White House and political leadership. Alumni of the Department of Justice strengthened this, with repeated letters reinforcing the historic norms of the department.
Political and career officials who resigned. At key points, government officials slowed down or exposed dangerous decisions. Nora Dannehy, the number-two attorney in the investigation of the Russia investigation, stepped down over inappropriate political pressure, thereby slowing the inquiry to a crawl. Another case regards Elizabeth Neumann, a political appointee at the Department of Homeland Security, who raised concerns about the administration’s treatment of white supremacists and other far-right groups.
The press. It’s impossible to name all the reporters and outlets that did critical work. But I am reminded of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s defense of America: “Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t.…Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them in the newspapers.”
Inspectors general and whistleblowers. The federal government has a system to expose wrongdoing: inspectors general. Besides this, there were notable cases of “whistleblowing.” The first impeachment of Trump happened because Alexander Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel working on Europe at the National Security Council, reported the president’s inappropriate call with the Ukrainian president to the intelligence community inspector general. In other cases, problems only came to light through career officials directing concerns to the appropriate internal channels.
The uniformed military. They responded with unbelievable professionalism after Trump deployed the National Guard to suppress Black Lives Matter protesters near the White House, putting pressure on the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense and on the Joint Chiefs to do the right thing (after first having done the wrong thing by joining Trump in his photo op outside St. John’s Church).
Principled conservative and libertarian legal thinkers. Many battles were fought in the courts and in government bureaucracy to block actions that would have undermined our democracy. Leading conservatives at Checks and Balances who had served in senior roles in government agencies helped explain why many proposed actions were contrary to both policy and principle.
Civil-society litigators. Many dangerous actions were stopped in the courts, ranging from attempts to redefine the census, to orders issued by illegally appointed officials. Many local organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Constitutional Accountability Center and my organization, Protect Democracy, engaged in these battles.
The Center for Tech and Civic Life and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The 2020 election could have been much more problematic because the federal government did not supply adequate funding. But the Center for Tech and Civic Life provided expertise and training to run elections around the country, while Chan Zuckerberg provided funding.
Congress (when it was forced). Congress, for the most part, did a poor job. But its procedures did increase the political costs on the president, restraining some of his more extreme actions. After the Nixon administration, Congress created a way for any member of Congress to force a vote challenging certain categories of executive action. For the most part, that power was not used until 2018. But it was super-charged in 2019 and 2020, resulting in almost all of the legislation that Trump vetoed. Members of Congress are on this list to illustrate that they only did the right thing when forced.
The past four years marked a grave challenge to American democracy. If the start of 2021 is any indication, the challenges will continue. But we have seen that there are people in our institutions and in civil society around the country who proved themselves willing to stand up for our best principles.
Equally, deep wounds remain after the Trump years. They must be addressed, and our institutions must be rendered sturdier still, before they are tested again. The work is not done. Join the fight.
Soren Dayton is a policy advocate at Protect Democracy, founded by former government officials at the time of Trump’s inauguration in 2017 to fight against the degradation of American democracy.