The Real Threat to American Democracy
Although Democrats have problems of their own, the systematic effort to undermine American democracy is coming from Republicans.
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by Sheri Berman
In our deeply polarized times, there is at least one thing Americans agree on: more than 8 in 10 believe our democracy is under serious threat. Unfortunately, agreement stops there. When asked which party represents the greater threat to democracy today, Democrats say Republicans and Republicans say Democrats.
As proof, Democrats often point to the GOP’s tolerance of President Trump’s abuse of executive power and other illegal activities, its unwillingness to accept the outcome of the 2020 election or to condemn the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and its support for gerrymandering and for other efforts to subvert elections.
Republicans, meanwhile, have pointed out that numerous Democratic Presidents abused executive power long before Trump and that Democrats gerrymander just like Republicans. They claim that Democrats rejecting the legitimacy of the 2016 election undermined Americans’ faith in elections and that conspiracy theories like the Steele dossier do the same. Republicans also note that Trump’s 2020 refusal to concede was precedented by Stacey Abrams in Georgia.
Given such disagreements, objective criteria are needed to assess what really are the greatest threats to American democracy. Such criteria must be independent of our partisan sympathies and grounded in an academic and historical understanding of how democracy decays.
Today, particularly in more developed countries, this decay often happens gradually at the hands of elected leaders who progressively undermine democratic norms and institutions. This incremental erosion has happened to several once-promising democracies, including those of Hungary, Turkey and India.
Since democracy today is more likely to suffer a death of a thousand cuts than to be killed all at once, one way to assess which party poses the greatest threat is quantitative: the more anti-democratic infractions, the more serious the threat. But while numerous infractions are necessary for democratic decay, democracy is unlikely to be undone by disconnected or intermittent measures. Instead, the real danger comes from strategic and systemic actions explicitly designed to cumulatively weaken democratic norms and institutions.
With this insight, it becomes clear that, while Democrats have broken the democratic rules of the game, it is the Republican Party that poses the real danger to American Democracy.
It is undeniable that individual Democratic politicians have sinned against democratic norms and institutions. But these infractions have been disconnected and intermittent, neither coordinated nor consistently condoned by the party. While it is true that sections of the Democratic Party have floated concerning ideas like packing the Supreme Court, such proposals were not implemented; nor were they part of a unified party’s attempt to fundamentally change the way our elections or democratic system function. Even after regaining the presidency and Senate, the Democratic party did not engage in a coordinated, systematic attempt to undermine either faith in or the integrity of elections or democratic institutions.
Compare this to the presidency of Donald Trump and the evolution of the GOP. As soon as Trump came into office he began insisting that three million non-citizens illegally voted for Hillary Clinton. He then used this fraudulent claim as a pretext to set up a Presidential commission on voter fraud. He ended his Presidency as it began, insisting in the run-up to the 2020 election that it was likely to be “rigged” or “stolen,” and doubling down on such claims after he lost it.
If the Republican Party had resisted Trump’s continual assault on democratic norms, then the impact on democracy could have been contained. But far from rebuffing Trump’s undemocratic inclinations, the GOP ignored and even encouraged them. Then, rather than using Trump’s electoral loss as an opportunity to reorient the party, Republicans continued on their undemocratic trajectory.
At a minimum, democracy requires free and fair elections and that incumbents leave office willingly if they lose. Trump, of course, rejected the latter requirement, claiming immediately after his electoral loss that the vote was rigged. This claim then became the basis of an attack on the Capitol designed to prevent Congress from certifying the election results. Yet, even after this attack, Trump refused to concede and eight Republican Senators and 139 Republican members of the House objected to the counting of Electoral College votes. Moreover, after some initial hesitation, the Republican Party rationalized or downplayed the seriousness of the January 6 attack and demonized those like Representative Liz Cheney who refused to go along.
Since then, the Republican Party has continued to peddle lies about the security and fairness of our electoral system. These lies were used to justify sham audits of election results, frivolous lawsuits, and attacks on election officials. Now, a majority of Republican voters not only view Biden’s victory as illegitimate, but also believe that our electoral system is pervaded by fraud. As Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, notes, “when looking ahead to the 2024 Presidential election, it is remarkable that a bedrock principle of democracy—that losing candidates and their supporters accept the results—is not held by nearly two in three Republicans who say they will question the results if their candidate does not win.” And perhaps not merely “question” those results, since Republicans who falsely believe Democrats cheated during the 2020 election are more likely to say that violence is a legitimate tool for addressing future “stolen” elections.
But elected Republicans have gone even further, using lies of a stolen election to justify a systematic attack on non-partisan electoral administration and oversight. Several Republican state legislatures have passed laws giving authorities controlled by Republicans—statewide canvassing boards, secretaries of states, or even state legislatures themselves—the power to override election administrators or subvert election results altogether. We now know that some Trump loyalists hoped to overturn the election results by convincing state legislatures to submit alternative slates of Presidential electors to Congress. Had these loyalists been in positions of authority, attempts to overturn the election’s outcome may have succeeded.
There is no sign that the GOP plans to reverse course. Just last month, the Republican Party characterized the attack on the Capitol and the events that led up to it as “legitimate political discourse” and censured Congressmembers Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the House investigation of the attack. This is just the latest sign that, at least for now, those who openly condemn anti-democratic moves by Trump and other Republicans are not welcome in the party.
Given the state of the GOP, the onus of defending American democracy lies primarily with the Democratic Party. Opposition parties in Hungary, Turkey, India and elsewhere learned too late that their inability to unite behind a defense of democracy helped anti-democratic politicians and parties to undermine it. The Democratic Party must prioritize protecting American democracy ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
This means setting aside goals not finely attuned to the nature of the democratic threat or that could too easily be interpreted as partisan. For example, the Democrats’ initial “For the People Act” included a variety of measures that were either unlikely to have much impact on election integrity (like easing voter ID requirements) or that would clearly favor the Democratic party (like support for D.C. statehood).
First, Democrats should reform the Electoral Count Act, which lays out the procedures for the counting of electoral votes following a Presidential election. ECA reform should clarify that states cannot overturn election results by sending a competing slate of electors to Congress, should limit frivolous objections to Electoral College vote counts, and should specify the Vice President’s limited role in counting electoral votes. A bipartisan effort led by Republican Senator Susan Collins is working on such legislation, and Democrats should make sure this effort succeeds.
Alongside reforming the ECA, Democrats should work to pass legislation addressing other vulnerabilities in our electoral system. Among other proposals, this should involve protecting election workers from harassment and removal without cause and ensuring that the counting of votes and federal election records are insulated from fraud and partisan interference. Crucial to this effort is limiting the discretion that state and local officials have over vote-counting and certification.
While such legislation is necessary, alone it will likely be insufficient. Having failed to overturn the election from the top-down, Trump loyalists have doubled down on a bottom-up strategy focused on increasing partisan control over the state and local levels officials and authorities in order to gain more control over election oversight and administration.
Perhaps because Democrats have won the popular vote at the national level over the past electoral cycles, they have focused less on the state and local levels and the routine aspects of politics than their Republican counterparts. Ultimately, if Democrats want to keep Trump loyalists out of key state and local offices, they have to figure out how to defeat them at election time.
We are at a critical juncture in our history. The 2024 presidential election, which will be a pivotal stress test for American democracy, is fast approaching. Given the state of the Republican Party, the onus is primarily on Democrats to protect American democracy. To do so, they must unite their various factions, put other priorities on the backburner, and make election reform their priority.
Sheri Berman, a member of the Persuasion board of advisors, is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her most recent book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.