I’ve been saying for years that Donald Trump and the party/cult he commands represent a serious threat to American democracy as we know it. Of course, I’ve been far from alone—my view of the Trumpist threat is widely shared not only among lefties but not a few traditional Republican conservatives. But now along comes another anti-Trump conservative, Ross Douthat, to say, in effect, “Hey, people, chill! It’s not really all that bad.” After all, the system held in 2020, and there’s every reason to believe that it will hold in 2024. In the crunch, Republican elites will not support another Trumpist coup attempt to overturn an unfavorable presidential election. Yes, it looks like most Republican officeholders are slavishly devoted to their cult Leader, but most of them know that he’s a jerk, and their apparent fealty to him reflects their need to pander to their base.
I’m not going to go into an extensive discussion of all the reasons that Douthat’s counsel of calm is dangerously wrong, because Jonathan Chait has already done that, very skillfully. I think Chait’s most important point is that the system held in 2020 in large part because honest Republican officeholders in several swing states refused to nullify election results. And that is precisely what GOP-dominated legislatures in multiple states are seeking to prevent from happening again. A recent “statement of concern” by 188 political scientists and historians spells it out:
…[W]e have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk….
Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes….
In future elections, these laws politicizing the administration and certification of elections could enable some state legislatures or partisan election officials to do what they failed to do in 2020: reverse the outcome of a free and fair election.”
We’re all familiar by now with the ongoing attempts by Republican legislatures to suppress voter turnout (the Texas case is dissected nicely in another fine piece by Chait) but to my mind the moves toward the politicization of election administration are even more pernicious than attempts at voter suppression. Voter suppression can and often does generate an effective backlash, but if the election result itself is subject to manipulation and reversal, democracy isn’t merely impaired; it’s nullified.
Where might this all lead? Thomas Edsall cites Brown political scientist Robert Blair, who summarizes the danger as follows:
The U.S. will not become an autocracy. Political parties will not be banned; elections will not be canceled or overturned willy nilly. But the U.S. may increasingly become a ‘democracy with asterisks,’ one in which the playing field is tilted heavily in favor of whichever party writes the rules of the game.”
What can we do? Lots of things, but they all boil down to one overriding imperative: defeat Republicans. Republican politicians who sanction the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen and who seek to subvert democracy (which is to say, the great majority of Republican politicians today) must be defeated at the polls. Our democracy is at stake.