Politics

American democracy is under threat. But what is that threat, exactly?

Leading Democrats, many academics, liberal commentators, and left-leaning activists agree: American democracy is in grave peril. It’s besieged on all sides, the threats culminating so far in Donald Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 presidential election from Joe Biden. More tumult likely lies ahead.

But there’s a surprising amount of murkiness about what, exactly, this peril entails — and what can and should be done about it.

Several dark scenarios for the future have been posed, but each is quite different. One is the threat of a stolen election — Republicans could outright steal elections Democrats won, as Trump tried to do, perhaps enhanced by mob violence. Another is the minority rule threat, in which Republicans could consistently win according to the rules but without getting a majority of votes nationwide, due to advantages in the Senate, Electoral College, and redistricting.

There has also been much discussion of the threat of voter suppression, in which Democrats worry that GOP policy changes making it more difficult to vote could thwart a majority’s will.

Another fear is less about the way Republicans win power, but is more about what they’ll do with it. Let’s call this the irresponsible party threat. For the people with this point of view, any Republican win — even one with sweeping voter majorities — is dangerous, since a faction that does not respect democracy is influential and arguably dominant in the party.

There’s a great deal of debate on just how plausible, and how worrying, each of these scenarios is. Some argue they’re all unfolding at once and are all immensely serious — and that’s part of why this problem is so difficult to solve. There’s also disagreement about root causes here, most notably, on how much of the problem comes from Donald Trump personally, and how much comes from broader forces in American society or institutions.

Too often, though, all this tends to be conflated and treated as similarly urgent in what has become a thinkpiece-industrial complex about democracy’s peril, and by a liberal establishment mostly concerned with offering reasons to vote for Democrats rather than Republicans. These threats may well have a common root, but they are distinct problems that would have separate solutions.

The threat of election theft

Many believe that the worst, most dangerous threat to American democracy by far was Trump’s conduct after the 2020 election, leading up to his supporters storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The face of President Donald Trump appears on large screens as supporters participate in a rally in front of the White House prior to marching to the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
John Minchillo/AP

In this line of thinking, the many other issues liberals care about — voter suppression laws, gerrymandering, the Senate’s rural skew, Trump’s election in the first place — pale in importance when compared to the attempted theft of 2020. Institutional biases or voter suppression might affect election outcomes on the margin. But election theft is about throwing out the results entirely. That arguably should make it the most dangerous scenario for democracy, at least in the short term, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp writes.

Though the mob at the Capitol rightfully got much attention, many experts don’t think the mob itself is the main problem. “The looming danger is not that the mob will return; it’s that mainstream Republicans will ‘legally’ overturn an election,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote at the Atlantic last year. That means stealing an election, but through institutions like election officials, legislatures, or Congress, not through brute force.

Trump tried to pressure officials at all these levels to try and throw out Biden’s wins, but his efforts failed. The question is whether he, or someone else, could succeed next time. His supporters are trying to replace various GOP officials who upheld the results with hardcore believers in his narrative of election fraud, or cynics more willing to pander to such beliefs.

If you believe this threat looms above all, then addressing vulnerabilities in the system is paramount. So Democrats should jump at Republicans’ offer to discuss reforming the Electoral Count Act, the antiquated law Trump tried to use to get Congress and Vice President Pence to throw out results. The specific details of said reforms will matter a great deal, but as Rick Hasen writes at Slate, it’s worth getting talks rolling, rather than scoffing at them, as some Democratic leaders have so far.

But the greater threat of a stolen election might come in the states — either from partisan state officials who refuse to certify rightful results, or state legislators who block the winner’s electors. If either happens, it’s not clear the courts will intervene to set things right, since many conservatives argue states have ultimate authority over their own elections.

If possible (it may not be), it would be worth trying to include protections against state election theft in Electoral Count Act reforms. But there’s no foolproof solution. The system will only work if enough people in power agree to let it work. So one key test will be in whether Republicans who stood up to Trump, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, can survive primary challenges. Retaining a core of elites in the Republican Party who respect democratic norms is crucially important. Much could also hinge on whether Trump himself runs again and wins the GOP nomination.

American democracy is under threat. But what is that threat, exactly?

President Donald Trump and then-Sen. David Perdue at Nationals Park in Washington, DC, on October 27, 2019. Trump has endorsed Perdue in his campaign for governor of Georgia over incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp after bitterness over Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia.
Tasos Katopodis/AFP via Getty Images

The threat of minority rule

Yet many Democrats, activists, and academics aren’t just worried about elections being outright stolen. They’re also concerned that Republicans could consistently win elections while lacking a majority of overall votes nationwide. This, they argue, is an affront to the core democratic principle that a majority should prevail, and to the idea that some people’s votes shouldn’t be worth more than others.

Lately, many United States’s electoral institutions have given the GOP an advantage. “The GOP has dropped any pretense of trying to appeal to a majority of Americans,” writes Ari Berman of Mother Jones. “Instead, recognizing that the structure of America’s political institutions diminishes the influence of urban areas, young Americans, and voters of color, it caters to a conservative white minority that is drastically overrepresented in the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandered legislative districts.”

In 2020, Biden won the popular vote by more than 4 percentage points, but only barely eked out a win in the tipping point Electoral College state. The median states were even a bit more tilted toward the GOP, suggesting the party has a 4- to 6-point advantage in competition for the Senate. Gerrymandering will likely continue to give the GOP a narrow advantage in the House of Representatives and far greater advantages in some swing state legislatures. And we shouldn’t forget the conservative-dominated Supreme Court, which has three justices appointed by a president who never won a majority of the nationwide vote.)

This is a frustrating state of affairs for Democrats, but is it a fundamental threat to democracy comparable to that of stolen elections? The US has never had a system where the popular vote dictated these outcomes. Republicans (including those who criticized Trump’s attempt to steal the 2020 election) argue that they have been playing by the long-established rules of the game, and that Democrats are simply upset that they are losing. Democrats argue back that the rules are unfair because they disadvantage nonwhite voters.

Whatever the arguments, there are few plausible solutions. The party’s filibustered election bill would have reformed House gerrymandering, but it left these other institutions untouched. Other proposals preferred by some on the left, such as adding new states to the Senate and packing the Supreme Court, didn’t even make the cut. The most popular idea for reforming the Electoral College — a “compact” among states to give their electors to the popular vote winner — isn’t going anywhere unless Democrats seize power in many more swing states.

There are some arguments that these problems are surmountable without big reforms. The current round of redistricting probably won’t be as bad for Democrats as many expected in the House (some state legislatures are another story, though). And the Electoral College bias is hardly set in stone — Democrats had a slight advantage in it compared to the popular vote in 2004, 2008, and 2012. Democrats’ woes there, as in the Senate, are in large part a Trump-era problem brought on by a sharp increase in the polarization of the electorate by education.

Yet reversing that trend would likely require a change in the party’s political coalition. They’d have to get significantly better at appealing to the non-college-educated voters, particularly white voters, whose power is amplified by these institutions, as Democratic data guru David Shor has argued. For the foreseeable future, the conversation about reforming the Electoral College or the Senate is a dead end — no constitutional convention is coming to save us. Democrats’ only option is to try to win despite their disadvantages.

The threat of voter suppression

Another threat that’s gotten enormous attention from Democrats, advocates, and experts this year is voter suppression. They argue that Republicans have a longtime practice of trying to effectively trying to distort the electorate, making it harder for certain voters (especially young, poor, nonwhite, and immigrant voters) to actually cast their ballots, so the GOP can have a better shot at winning.

This effort accelerated in 2021 with a set of new laws in GOP-controlled states. Some toughened voter ID requirements, some are reduced the time in which mail ballots can be requested, some limited drop boxes, some made it easier to “purge” voter rolls. Republicans claim they’re simply rolling back pandemic expansions or trying to combat possible fraud, but occasionally a Republican admits these measures are aimed at helping their party win.

American democracy is under threat. But what is that threat, exactly?

Protesters rally in Washington, DC, on August 28, 2021, to demand protection for voting rights on the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Biden and others have compared these laws to the old Jim Crow laws of the South. “We feel if they can do these voting rights laws and other voting rights laws, we will never have a majority,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently told the Washington Post. And the provisions of certain new laws that could enable partisan election subversion — election theft — could be quite dangerous.

But whatever Republicans’ malign intentions or Democrats’ fears, the real-world effects of voter suppression provisions on election outcomes seem likely to be considerably less dramatic. “There is very little that politicians can do to alter election administration in such a way that it would have a permanent, obvious effect on turnout or the composition of the electorate,” MIT political scientist Charles Stewart told my colleague Ian Millhiser last year.

There simply haven’t been big variations in state election outcomes based on how much early or mail voting states have — it just doesn’t seem to matter much, because people largely adapt to the new rules. Study after study has found that voter ID laws have little effect on outcomes. And it isn’t the case anymore, if it ever was, that high-turnout elections are self-evidently bad for Republicans, given the parties’ changing coalitions and recent voting patterns.

Some political scientists are still worried. Charlotte Hill, Jake Grumbach, Hakeem Jefferson, and Adam Bonica write that it’s “not at all clear” that voter suppression policies have little impact. They posit that perhaps outcomes don’t change “because grassroots groups have invested ever-greater resources” to overcome barriers to voting, and such investment might not be sustainable.

Furthermore, expanding and standardizing voting accessibility can be a worthwhile and important thing to do regardless of its partisan effects or impact on outcomes. Provisions of these laws, like the Georgia one that bans giving away food and water to people waiting in line at a polling place, can be cruel and arbitrary. And if an election is close enough, even policies with very small effects could theoretically tip the outcome. But major transformations of the electorate in these states from policies of this kind seem unlikely.

The threat of the irresponsible party

Finally, some liberals would define the threat to democracy in even more worrying terms. It wouldn’t just be a stolen election, or a Republican win without a majority of votes — any Republican victory at all is a threat, because of what the GOP might use its powers to do next time around.

“There’s something deep to confront about the aberrant nature of this particular faction and political formation that is the primary problem that all others flow from,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently argued on The Ezra Klein Show.

American democracy is under threat. But what is that threat, exactly?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, center, and other members of the House Republican Conference arrive for a news conference outside the US Capitol on July 29, 2021.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Trump’s actions, and the willingness of so much of the GOP to excuse or accommodate them, indeed go a long way toward making the case that the GOP may well not respect future election results if it’s in power. The more difficult question is what can be even done about this. “What do you do in a two-party system if one coalition is not fully committed to democracy?” Hayes continued.

The solution Democrats would prefer, of course, is that everyone should just vote for Democrats. But as recent election results and polling numbers suggest, that likely won’t work. The Republican Party is going to stick around and remain competitive in the future, at the state level and nationally. The grand, final defeat of Trump or the GOP, either electorally or legislatively, is a pipe dream.

Some have mused about electoral reforms like a top 5 ranked-choice system, which perhaps could give GOP moderates a path to the general election. But the forces pushing the GOP in extreme directions, such as identity-based polarization and media dynamics, are broad and unlikely to be solved by policy tweaks.

So for those who believe the Democratic Party and the forces of democracy are permanently locked in combat with an extremist GOP, there’s not a comforting prescription. Whether this will change depends on the GOP itself.

But at least when it comes to election theft, there’s a counterargument that the party isn’t yet lost. In particular, key Republicans with positions of authority to affect the results largely didn’t use their formal powers to help Trump steal the election. Swing state governors, state officials, state legislative leaders, GOP-appointed judges, Senate leaders, and Justice Department leaders let Biden’s win through. Many in the party postured irresponsibly, some sought to use their power corruptly, but it’s not the case that the GOP is a well-oiled election-stealing machine: at least not yet.

If Trump is deposed or retires, and is replaced by a less conspiracy-addled, norm-breaking, boundary-pushing party leader, that could help. If the party accepts that they’re making gains among nonwhite and other low-propensity voters and stops trying to suppress their turnout, that would be nice. If high-ranking members of the party who oppose election theft and respect democratic norms manage to hold on to their positions, rather than being purged, that would be encouraging.

Trump’s coup last time around was stopped, in large part, because Republican elected officials stopped it. Whether they will do so again is not really something Democrats or liberals can control. They can only hope for the best — and fear for the worst.


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