Democrats would need to win every single election… to prevent the destruction of democracy, while Republicans only need to win one. And the American system is set up so that Republicans will win sooner or later, whether fairly or by cheating. — David Atkins, Washington Monthly, December 4, 2021
It is an axiom of international politics that the first democratic election is easy. It is the second that is difficult.
The descent into authoritarianism in many of the countries carved out of the former Soviet Union and in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe proves that axiom. Most held fairly democratic elections as they threw off the yoke of the commissars. It was the second, or third, or fourth elections that were either fixed, manipulated, or simply not held because those in power refused to cede control through the democratic process.
This sad history is now playing out in the United States after more than two centuries of elections in which the losers recognized their obligation to hand the reins of power to the winners. The two-party system, which has served America well since its creation in the 1790s, no longer functions effectively because one of the parties is no longer committed to majoritarianism. The Republican Party has become an antidemocratic organization willing to use extreme tactics to remain in power.
The Republican Party has few policy ideas. Instead, devotion to the cult of Donald Trump and a commitment to furthering his “big lie” have become the core of Republicanism. The decision of the vast majority of Republicans in Congress to vote against impeaching and convicting Trump for his part in the January 6 insurrection and their unwillingness to investigate the riot demonstrated that the party’s raison d’être is its desire to cling to power. To do this, Republicans at the state level are busily stacking the electoral deck by drawing legislative maps that give new meaning to the term gerrymandering while passing laws disenfranchising Democratic-leaning groups of voters. The undemocratic structures in the U.S. Constitution — an upper chamber of Congress based on equal state representation and the Electoral College — are institutional aids to the GOP’s nefarious ploys.
The Republican Party may win a congressional majority in next year’s midterm elections and the presidency in 2024 fairly because of the tendency of the electorate to blame those in power for problems out of the direct control of government. Gas prices, for example, are influenced by the rise and fall of crude oil prices, not political policy. (Gas prices are especially problematic for the administration in power because roadside signs advertising the price of a gallon are a constant reminder of high costs.) The refusal of millions of Americans to get vaccinated or wear masks is the major contributor to the continuation of the pandemic, yet those who are not vaccinated and go unmasked join their representatives in Congress in blaming the administration of Joe Biden for any spike in cases of COVID-19. Economic fluctuations owe more to the vagaries of international trade, the rise and fall of stock prices, and consumer demand, yet in bad economic times the voters want “to throw the rascals out” while seldom rewarding those in power for booms. So, regardless of responsibility, everyone “knows” where the blame falls.
But — and this is the scary part — Republicans are not pinning their hopes only on the voters, which brings us back to the tactics Republicans are using to tilt the playing field in their favor. Laura Thornton, who is the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, recently wrote in The Washington Post that the attempted hostile takeover of elections in Wisconsin by Republicans is “shocking in its brazenness.” Last month, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson told The New York Times: “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect them [Democrats] to follow the rules. And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.” Aside from the fact that Johnson offered no proof of Democratic cheating, his solution to a nonexistent problem is mind-boggling: Abolish bipartisan oversight of elections and give Republican legislators control over elections in which they are participating. (Excuse me, Officer, I’ll be the judge of whether I was speeding!)
Thornton — who has worked overseas for two decades to advance democracy — says if what Johnson is proposing were promulgated in any country that receives U.S. aid, that nation would be condemned roundly by Washington for undermining democracy. Yet, despite a spate of news stories at the time Wisconsin Republicans proposed their power grab, Americans largely ignored this threat to democracy. It certainly does not appear to have given impetus to Democrats to pass legislation guaranteeing voting rights, an indication that we Americans do not hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others.
Thornton points out that a nonpartisan (or bipartisan) election body is one of the best ways to ensure fair elections and guarantee democratic outcomes. “The U.S. aid agency’s own guidelines on elections emphasize the importance of neutral and independent election management,” she writes. Yet, a high-ranking politician — Ron Johnson — is proposing that Republican politicians run his state’s the election process. Johnson says the Republican-controlled legislature should “reassert its power.” (I wonder what Johnson would say if Democrats were to win control of the state legislature, an unlikely event given the lengths to which Republicans have gone to gerrymander election districts in Wisconsin.)
What is astounding is that Republicans are so open about their attempts to manipulate and steal elections. In most countries, political parties trying to control elections usually hide their machinations. Not in the United States, where a senator publicly brags about proposals to grant his party sole authority over the electoral process! But, again, why be surprised about any of this? Former President Donald Trump barely has hidden his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, and he and his minions are laying plans — clear to anyone who looks — to steal the 2022 and 2024 elections if Republicans do not win outright majorities.
Yes, American democracy is in danger, and it may not survive. Inevitably, as David Atkins notes, Republicans will win an election, fairly or not, and it may well be the last free and fair election held in what is, as of now, the world’s oldest democracy.
Posted December 7, 2021