If former US president Donald Trump’s inaugural address can be summed up in two words — “American carnage” — US President Joe Biden’s might be remembered for three: “Democracy has prevailed.”
Biden, speaking from the spot where just two weeks earlier a pro-Trump mob had stormed the US Capitol, promised that the worst was over in a battered and bruised, but resilient Washington.
However, four-and-a-half months later, the alarm bells are sounding again on US democracy. Even as COVID-19 retreats, the pandemic of Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election spreads, manifest in US Republicans’ blocking of a commission to investigate the insurrection.
Illustration: Mountain People
Meanwhile, state after state is imposing new voting restrictions, and Trump allies are vying to run election themselves.
With Republicans still in thrilled with Trump and odds-on to win control of the US House of Representatives next year, there are growing fears that his presidency was less a historical blip than a harbinger of systemic decline.
“There was a momentary sigh of relief, but the level of anxiety is actually strangely higher now than in 2016 — in the sense that it’s not just about one person, but there are broader structural issues,” said Harvard University political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, coauthor of How Democracies Die. “The weird e-mails that I get are more ominous now than they were in 2016: There seems to be a much deeper level of misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
Just hours after the terror of Jan. 6, 147 Republicans in the US Congress voted to overturn the results of last year’s presidential election, despite no evidence of irregularities.
Trump was impeached for inciting the violence, but the Republicans in the US Senate ensured his acquittal — a fork in the road where the party could have chosen another destiny.
As Trump continued to push his false claims of election fraud, right-wing media and Republican state parties fell into line. A farcical “audit” of votes is under way in Arizona, with more states threatening to follow suit. Trump is reportedly so fixated on the audits that he has even suggested — wrongly — that he could be reinstated as president later this year.
Perhaps more insidiously, Trump supporters who tried to overturn the election last year are maneuvering to serve as election officials in swing states, such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.
If they succeed in becoming secretaries of state, they would exercise huge influence over the conduct of elections and certifying their results. Last year, some moderate Republican secretaries of state were crucial bulwarks against Trump’s conspiracy theories.
The offensive is coupled with a dramatic and sweeping assault on voting rights. Republican-controlled state legislatures have rammed through bills that make it harder to vote in states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Montana. Their all-out effort in Texas was temporarily derailed when US Democrats walked out of the chamber, denying them a quorum.
“The most worrying threat is at the state level — the effort to change voting rules, which I think is prompted by the failed effort to alter the election outcome of 2020,” Ziblatt said. “The lesson Republicans have learned from that is they don’t really suffer any electoral consequences from their base pursuing this kind of thing. In fact, they’re rewarded for it. That’s very ominous because that suggests they’ll continue to try to do this until they pay an electoral price for it, and so far they don’t sense they’re paying an electoral price for it.”
Where is this authoritarian ecosystem heading?
For many, the nightmare scenario is that Trump would run again in 2024 and, with the benefit of voter suppression, sneak a win in the US Electoral College, as he did in 2016. If that fails, plan B would be for a Republican-controlled House to refuse to certify a Democratic winner and overturn the result in Trump’s favor.
Disputed presidential elections have been thrown to the House before, Ziblatt said.
“It’s not unprecedented, but in those earlier periods you had two parties that were constitutional, fully democratic parties,” Ziblatt added. “The thought of having a dispute like that when one of the parties is only questionably committed to democratic rules and norms is very frightening.”
In How Democracies Die, Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky say that democracies often come under threat not from invading armies or violent revolutions, but at the ballot box: death by a thousand cuts.
“People use elections to get into power and then, once in power, assault democratic institutions,” Ziblatt said.
“That’s [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, that’s [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that’s [former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez] Hugo Chavez and what’s distinctive about that is that it often begins incrementally. So people continue to go about their lives, continue to vote; parliament continues to meet and so you think: ‘Is there really a threat?’ But the power concentrates, so it becomes harder and harder to unseat an incumbent,” Ziblatt said.
“We shouldn’t overlook that fact that we had a change in government in January,” he added. “What that suggests is our electoral institutions do work better than they do in Hungary. The opposition in the United States is more well-organized and financed than the Hungarian opposition or the Turkish opposition, so we shouldn’t overstate that. But on the other hand, the tendencies are very similar.”
Republicans are also playing a very long game, rewiring democracy’s hard drive in an attempt to consolidate power. Trump is arguably both cause and effect of the lurch right, which takes place in the wider context of white Christians losing majority status in the US’ changing demographics.
The former president’s grip on the Republican Party appears only to have tightened since his defeat, as evidenced by the ousting of a Trump critic, US Representative Liz Cheney, from the House’s leadership and Republican lawmakers’ use of a procedural move known as the “filibuster” to block the Jan. 6 commission.
Critics have said that, in an atmosphere of partisan tribalism, the Republican Party is driven by a conviction that Democratic victories are by definition illegitimate.
Kurt Bardella , a former Republican congressional aide who is now a Democratic political commentator, said: “It’s very clear that the next time there is a violent effort to overthrow our government, Republicans in Congress will be knowing accomplices in that effort. They are the getaway driver for the democratic arsonists.”
“It has become painfully transparent that the Republican’s party platform is 100 percent anti-democratic and it is their ambition to impose minority rule on the majority going forward, because they know that when the playing field is level, they can’t win and so they have instead decided to double down on supporting a wannabe autocrat, and are doing everything they can to destabilize the democratic safeguards that we’ve had in place since the founding of our country,” Bardella said.
“We cannot underestimate the gravity of this moment in time because what happens over the next month or year could be the turning point in this battle to preserve our democracy,” he added.
The threat poses a dilemma for Biden, who was elected on a promise of building bridges and seeking bipartisanship. He continues to do so, while issuing increasingly stark calls to arms.
Speaking in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week, he repeated his “democracy prevailed” mantra, but then warned of a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy” and announced that US Vice President Kamala Harris would lead an effort to strengthen voting rights.
However, proposed national legislation to address the issue depends on a Senate currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans (Harris has the tie-breaking vote). To pass it with a simple majority, Democrats would first have to abolish the filibuster, but at least two senators, US senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have ruled out such a step.
Facing this stalemate, advocates and civil society are trying to create a sense of urgency. More than a hundred scholars last week released a joint statement, posted by the New America think tank, expressing “deep concern” at “radical changes to core electoral procedures” that jeopardize free and fair elections.
“Our entire democracy is now at risk,” the scholars wrote.
Last year’s poll was dubbed the “election that could break America” and the nation was widely considered to have dodged a bullet. It might not be so fortunate in 2024.
“We’re getting to the place where we might not be able to call ourselves a democracy anymore,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of the progressive group Democracy for Action. “That’s how dire it is.”
“It is not just the fact that there is an orchestrated, concerted effort across our country to interfere with the most fundamental right of any democracy, but that they’re doing it so blatantly, so out in the open and so unapologetically, and that there have been many attempts and there’s no easy way to stop it,” she added.
Simpson compared the Democrats’ victory over Trump to the film Avengers: Endgame and warned against complacency.
“We just defeated Thanos and everybody was like: ‘OK, let’s take a break,’ and I’m like: ‘No, we cannot take a break because the Republican Party never takes a break,’” Simpson said. “They know that we’re taking a break and that’s why they’re doing it now and so aggressively: ‘You think you won because Trump is out? Oh, we got you.’”
“At the end of the day, there is an all-out war on American voters, particularly younger voters, particularly younger voters of color, and it’s happening from Texas to Florida and it’s really causing the American people to decide whether we want our democracy or not,” said historian Ibram X Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.
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