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Jonathan Bernstein

Are Republicans Really a Threat to Democracy?

Some of the party’s officials seem serious about overturning elections and obstructing the right to vote.

For real?

For real?

Photographer: Michael Ciaglo/Getty

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How worried should we be about the state of democracy in the U.S.? A group of leading political scientists who study the issue say: a lot. A whole lot. In fact, they say: “our entire democracy is now at risk.” They’re correct. If they had asked me, I would’ve signed on.

The problem is easy enough to describe. In a two-party political system, one party, the Republican Party, has in large part turned antidemocratic. That party will eventually be voted into office, and if it implements nationally the policies that some of its leading politicians have advocated — and in some cases advanced at the state level — it’s possible that it will succeed in seriously harming democracy.

On one level, this process is straightforward. After all, if former President Donald Trump had his way, Republicans would’ve overturned the 2020 election on the basis of flat-out lies about fraud. Trump wasn’t a fringe figure; he was the party’s two-time presidential nominee, and he may well be nominated again in 2024. Nor was he alone. Dozens of House Republicans voted with him, and hundreds of party actors across the country, including elected officials, supported his efforts. Even now, months after President Joe Biden was sworn in, Arizona Republicans are holding a fraudulent “audit” of the election. Trump’s supporters are barely even pretending that they’re interested in anything other than an authoritarian power grab, and they seem prepared to kick everyone who isn’t fully on board with this program out of the party.

To be sure, a lot of Republican officials and election administrators stood up to Trump in 2020. And there could be a fair amount of play-acting here, with only a small minority of the party really serious about overturning elections, and lots of people willing to cheer them on as long as it’s not really happening. But that’s hardly reassuring. The prudent thing for the rest of us is to take the threat seriously and do what’s possible to prevent it.

At the same time, the party’s various attempts to make voting more difficult are also a real threat. Scholars will remind us that the U.S. in many ways only became a democracy recently, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act brought something resembling full citizenship to all Americans and the 1965 Voting Rights Act extended the franchise. The threat to those achievements isn’t as dramatic as the possibility that Trump supporters will attempt to throw out election results. But it’s clear that many Republicans think a smaller electorate is a better electorate, and want to make it harder for some Democrats to vote. If they succeed, Black and Latino voters could become a smaller share of the electorate, which would reduce their influence and make it easier to infringe on their rights. 

Again: No one knows how serious the threat is. The decentralized, Madisonian system of politics that prevails in the U.S. makes it hard for extra-constitutional seizures of power to succeed. As Dan Drezner points out, Trump’s presidency also sparked a serious counter-mobilization, and there’s an important debate about just how deeply antidemocratic beliefs are embedded within the conservative movement. And since Trump continues to be an unusually unpopular politician, it’s possible that the problem will largely solve itself. Perhaps Trumpism will even erode the Republican Party enough that it has difficulty winning elections.

But that’s hardly certain. Friends of democracy should be doing what they can to make it a lot harder for anyone to subvert an election. The worst that could happen is that elections and voting rights wind up with extraneous protections. I could live with that. 

1.  Elizabeth Tsurkov at the Monkey Cage on the election in Syria.

2. Paul Campos on tuition.

3. Aaron Blake on Michael Flynn’s advocacy of a coup

4. Mark Z. Barabak on the California’s recall election.

5. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Michelle Leder on CEO pay.

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