Who will say no?

Photographer: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-Democracy Republicans Can Counter Trump

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump's accusations claiming that millions of people "voted illegally" in the election were quickly and definitively shown to be false. So why didn't the truth settle the issue? The answer demonstrates how Trump's habit of publicizing conspiracy theories could be a danger to the health of U.S. democracy during his presidency.

Remember, most citizens don't pay close attention to the news. But they do hear things a president (or president-elect) says, and if he says elections aren't honest, then many citizens will believe him. The less people trust the basic integrity of elections, the less they are likely to believe in democracy.

False claims of illegal voting have already been used as a pretext for making it harder to cast ballots in several states, and it's possible that Trump will try to restrict these rights further.  

Several prominent Republicans quickly challenged his accusations on illegal voting. This pushback was better than none, even if the president (or president-elect) will always have the biggest megaphone. Unfortunately, none of those objecting were Republican members of Congress -- the ones who are best positioned to rein him in.

For all the talk about how strong the presidency has become, almost everything presidents do now that they didn't do in, say, 1933 is not a sign that they have become more power hungry. Mostly it shows that Congress has abdicated its responsibility. 

And right now, the incentives for members of Congress to use their powers are mixed, as the New Republic's Brian Beutler points out. The incoming House and Senate majority is hoping to see long-held Republican proposals adopted, and antagonizing their thin-skinned president-to-be might threaten that goal.

But there's no reason to believe that the occasional opposition of a half-dozen or so Republicans on selected issues would slow down passage of a large tax cut, for example, or confirmation of a conservative Supreme Court nominee.

Not all Republicans support turning back the clock on voting rights. Even some (most?) of those conservatives who have supported marginal ways of making voting harder have not demonstrated an opposition to democratic norms in general. 

They should remember that major events such as wars, recessions and scandals are what mainly determine a president's and a party's approval ratings, not congressional attacks on the administration. 

In the end, members of Congress tend to do what their constituents want. This means that protecting democracy is, broadly, in the hands of those who can influence those legislators -- from the big-money donors to the activists and all the way down to vocal individual citizens.

Many voters who supported Trump because they backed most of the normal conservative agenda will have no use for his anti-democratic tendencies. If they make their voices heard -- by pressuring their congressional delegations or by organizing in ways to amplify their influence -- members of Congress will listen. 

  1. Trump also incorrectly characterized his Electoral College victory as a "landslide." While there are no rules for what counts as a landslide, the count, which will apparently be 306 to 232, will be somewhat closer than usual. Of the last 10 elections, only two had narrower Electoral College margins. 

  2. And beyond the specific topic, it's damaging to democracy to have elected officials making false claims without any evidence whatsoever. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net