Is American democracy breaking? How would we know?

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An election worker places a sign outside a polling station at Fire Station 3 on East Rio Grande Avenue in El Paso, Texas, just before polls open, Nov. 8, 2022.
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What does it look like when democracy breaks down? Many voters undoubtedly believe it would be a dramatic, perhaps traumatic, event. There would be soldiers in the streets, propaganda on the airwaves. Such things have transpired around the world.

And political violence has become a real concern in the United States, from assaults on individuals to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol aimed at disrupting the basic democratic process. But today the force behind democratic backsliding in America is more likely to be ballots than bullets.

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Americans concerned with the strength of their democracy would do well to look at lessons from around the world. One is a warning: It often erodes before it collapses. Another is hopeful: It has the potential for regrowth.

The danger is that the significance of the voting ritual at the center of American government – that no matter the electoral heat, one side agrees to accept losing, while the winner agrees to a vote again in a few years – might be stripped away, leaving the tradition hollow.

Thomas Pepinsky, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell University, suggests that democracy’s erosion can seem gradual and piecemeal, not cataclysmic. The key comes when elections change nothing.

“Democracy has many meanings,” says Professor Pepinsky. “Surely one of them must be your vote is free, it is counted, and the government cannot prevent a vote that doesn’t turn out its way.”

It’s December 2024. No one is entirely sure who will be sworn in as president of the United States in January.

In this hypothetical scenario, the Democrat appears to have won the national popular vote, and has narrow leads in several key battleground states. But the Republican candidate learned from former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. This time that branch of the party is ready.

Newly installed election officials in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have refused to certify some county votes due to what they claim is evidence of massive fraud in mail-in ballots. GOP-controlled legislatures in the three states have voted to support the fraud allegations. Slates of replacement Electoral College electors are waiting in the wings.

Why We Wrote This

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Americans concerned with the strength of their democracy would do well to look at lessons from around the world. One is a warning: It often erodes before it collapses. Another is hopeful: It has the potential for regrowth.

Local Democrats hotly dispute the fraud claims, as do the Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But neither the governors nor state courts have a say in the matter. Under a 2023 Supreme Court decision dealing with the “independent state legislature” theory, only state lawmakers have the power to set election rules.

Democrats have sued in federal courts, which are overwhelmed with election cases. But the conservative Supreme Court – at the top of the federal court pinnacle – has indicated it has little interest in interfering in states’ election decisions.

An update to the Electoral Count Act – the rickety 1887 law that governs Electoral College vote counting and the naming of the president-elect – could have clarified things and eliminated some loopholes. The update looked set to pass in late 2022, but it stalled after Republicans swept the House in a midterm red wave.

A bang or a whimper?

What does it look like in the real world when democracy breaks down?

Many voters undoubtedly believe it would be a dramatic, perhaps traumatic, event. There would be soldiers in the streets, propaganda on the airwaves, even fighter jets attacking the presidential palace, as they did in Chile when the armed forces ousted President Salvador Allende in 1973.

This vision may have received some promotion by Hollywood, but it does have roots in the recent past. During the Cold War, armed coups accounted for 3 of every 4 democratic breakdowns, from Chile to Argentina and Greece to Turkey, and beyond.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A man wears an "I voted" sticker on his shirt, printed with the American flag and the U.S. Constitution, after voting at Wa-Ke Hatchee Recreation Center in Fort Myers, Florida, Nov. 8, 2022.

Political violence has become a real concern in the U.S., of course. Threats to politicians and election officials and actual attacks driven by partisan beliefs have increased in recent years, from the 2017 shooting at a GOP practice for the Congressional Baseball Game that wounded House Republican Whip Steve Scalise, to the recent hammer assault on Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by rioters was violence on a different level, aimed at disrupting the basic democratic process of counting electoral votes.

But today the force behind democratic backsliding is more likely to be ballots than bullets.

Over the past 20 years, elected leaders in Venezuela, Georgia, Peru, Hungary, and other countries have subverted democracy a step at a time with “legal” means. Courts and federal agencies are packed with partisans and turned into weapons; the media and private business are bought off or cowed; the rules of politics are subtly skewed in the ruling party’s favor.

For much of the population, everyday life remains the same. Consider Malaysia, a country that Thomas Pepinsky, a professor of government and public policy at Cornell University, knows well.

Malaysia is an emerging market economy. Many people live comfortably. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly pursue crime. There is quiet dissent. There are even elections.

It is not, however, a democracy. The nonprofit group Freedom House rates it “partly free,” with limited political rights. The reason is that the country’s elections don’t change its leadership. The same political groups have ruled the country for all but a few years since independence in 1957. Among the tools they use to stay in power, according to Freedom House, are restrictive speech laws and politicized prosecutions of opponents.

That is what democratic breakdown could look like, says Professor Pepinsky. Its erosion would be gradual, piecemeal, not cataclysmic. Life would be tolerable for most groups, though not everyone. But elections would change nothing.

The significance of the ritual of voting at the center of American government – that no matter the electoral heat, it is devoted to common purpose, and that one side agrees to accept losing, while the winner agrees to a vote again in a few years – might be stripped away, leaving the tradition hollow.

“Democracy has many meanings,” says Professor Pepinsky. “Surely one of them must be your vote is free, it is counted, and the government cannot prevent a vote that doesn’t turn out its way.”

Blame and distrust

On the brink of the crucial 2022 midterm elections, many voters are pessimistic about the state of U.S. democracy. Just 9% of Americans think democracy is working “extremely” or “very well,” according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll; 52% say it’s not working well at all.

Both Republicans and Democrats say democracy’s problems are an important issue. More than 70% of voters from both parties say it is currently “under threat,” according to a New York Times-Siena College survey.

Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
Former President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, step outside a polling station in Palm Beach, Florida, Nov. 8, 2022.

But their lack of trust in democracy’s solidity is rooted in profound and fundamentally incompatible reasons for a lack of trust in each other.

A majority of Republicans say dangers to democracy include President Joe Biden, the mainstream media, the federal government, and voting by mail, according to the Times-Siena poll. Democrats lay blame on Mr. Trump, and to a lesser extent the Supreme Court and Electoral College.

For GOP voters the essence of the problem is allegations of fraud. The Republican Party has long made claims of voter malfeasance a central issue in its push for voter ID and other vote restriction measures, despite small numbers of documented fraud cases.

President Trump’s false or exaggerated claims of fraud in the 2020 vote have turbocharged this preexisting belief, drawing on Republican suspicion of Democratic city machines and elite organizations to entrench the existence of fraud as an article of faith among the rank and file.

More than 60 court rulings held that the 2020 election was free and fair. A string of bipartisan officials, including Mr. Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, stated that no fraud was found at a level that would have changed the outcome of the vote.

Yet fully 61% of Republicans continue to believe that President Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, according to a Monmouth University poll released in September.

The legacy of 2020

Many Democrats see the GOP’s stated belief in fraud claims as evidence that the party thinks only elections in which Republicans win are legitimate.

If that is true, then we are already in trouble, says Susan D. Hyde, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Democracy depends on all teams accepting the rules of the game.

“Once you have one of our two political parties that is unwilling to accept that they lose, you’re violating democracy’s definition,” she says.

Republicans who reject the 2020 results and are running for office in 2022 exemplify this partisan split. To varying degrees, these candidates embrace Mr. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

According to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, there are 260 GOP candidates for Senate, House, state secretaries of state, or state attorneys general who have said they fully reject or question President Biden’s victory, despite the court findings and bipartisan election officials’ statements.

Some election deniers are lagging in the polls. In Pennsylvania, the latest surveys show state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who participated in efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential vote, well behind Democrat Josh Shapiro in the state’s gubernatorial race.

But most election-denying candidates – about 65%, according to FiveThirtyEight – are poised to win.

President Biden, in a Nov. 2 speech on democracy, noted that some of these candidates have not committed to accepting the results of the races they are running in.

That is a path to chaos, he said, unprecedented and un-American.

“You can’t love your country only when you win,” he said.

Tasos Katopodis/Reuters
President Joe Biden prepares to cast his vote during early voting for the 2022 U.S. midterm elections with his granddaughter Natalie, a first-time voter, at a polling station in Wilmington, Delaware, Oct. 29, 2022.

The forest metaphor

What is democracy, anyway? Is it something like a switch? A cliff? A forest?

Those comparisons may sound puzzling, but thinking of democracy via metaphors could be a way to understand its role in America and the seriousness of the problems it faces.

If democracy is an on/off switch, it is either working or not. The equivalent of “off” might be a full-blown coup or governmental collapse. If it is a cliff, it is solid but subject to erosion. The political stresses and strains of recent years could be ocean waves undercutting its face.

If it is a forest, it can regrow after a storm.

Berkeley’s Professor Hyde says the forest metaphor is a useful one.

“The thing I like about the ‘forest’ analogy is we’re not stuck on a slide with nowhere to go but down. ... It leaves us with the ability to rebuild and replenish democratic institutions,” she says.

Democracy’s flexibility, its ability to renew itself, is a strength, for instance. Authoritarian states often have no mechanism for getting rid of bad leaders. Think of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who remains in power though his invasion of Ukraine appears to have been a massive strategic mistake. Democracies can suffer under poor executives, but at least theoretically they have scheduled means for replacing them via meaningful elections.

But recently the forest has been enduring storms, in the form of election denialism. In 2020 it seemed to hold up well enough to recover, as officials of both parties across the country and the courts resisted efforts to overturn the vote via the false allegations of fraud.

The question now is whether the storm of denialism that appears likely to follow the midterms and build prior to 2024 will be powerful enough to damage the ability of the political system to renew itself with fair elections.

A big problem is that the ways people access political information in the U.S. continue to erode. Voters live in partisan news bubbles that are becoming so impenetrable that exploitative politicians can directly lie to supporters with few consequences.

“The ability to consume accurate information about politics is pretty important for democracy to work well,” says Professor Hyde.

Who counts the votes?

Election administration could be another weak point for American democracy. In key states such as Georgia and Nevada, experienced poll workers and other officials are quitting in the face of verbal abuse and threats of violence from voters convinced of Mr. Trump’s fraud charges.

Newly elected or appointed Trump supporters could replace some of these workers and be more amenable to pressure to tilt things his way. Some state laws passed since 2020 might also make election subversion easier. In Georgia, for instance, a new law that allows the state to take over county election boards and install new administrators has some Democrats worried about the possibility of subversion in Democratic-majority locales.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Loretta Myers fills out her ballot at her polling place, the New LIFE Worship Center Church of God, in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, Nov. 8, 2022.

Then there is the independent state legislature theory, which holds that a literal reading of the U.S. Constitution gives state legislatures the final say in regulating votes for federal office, unchecked by governors, state courts, or provisions in state constitutions.

The Supreme Court is hearing a case this term, Moore v. Harper, that could make this theory the law of the land.

The most extreme reading of the independent state legislature doctrine would upend U.S. elections, allowing state lawmakers plenary power to draw districts, set voting rules, and even locate polling places and design ballots.

There would still be legal limits – Eliza Sweren-Becker, counsel in the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, says, “It’s not a license to coup.” But some legal experts worry it could be a smokescreen under which some state legislators could try to insert themselves into the vote counting and certification process.

Taken together, these weak points mean that a more successful version of the 2020 attempt to overthrow election results can’t be ruled out.

There is another possibility too, writes political scientist Jonathan Bernstein this week in Bloomberg News: democratic erosion that does not result in full authoritarianism. There could be more barriers to voting, more outbursts of political violence, more threats to election workers, and more gerrymandering.

Republicans would not have anything close to an absolute grip on power, but “they might acquire substantial, enduring advantages not at all compatible with a robust republic,” writes Mr. Bernstein.

U.S. history, unvarnished

One way to get an idea of what backsliding in America’s democracy might look like is to peer into its past. In some ways we have already been there.

The mythic vision of the U.S. is that it was founded in freedom and has steadily expanded democracy ever since. That’s not what really happened, says Manisha Sinha, professor of American history at the University of Connecticut who studies slavery and Reconstruction.

“If you study U.S. history you realize that it has never been linear, it has always been challenged, and we have backslid at many points,” she says.

The U.S. was founded as a democratic republic, of course – but with limits on who could vote. It varied by state, but the franchise was generally limited to property-owning white men. That meant only about 6% of the population chose the nation’s leaders.

Morry Gash/AP
"I voted" stickers are seen at a polling place during the midterm elections, Nov. 8, 2022, in Milwaukee.

After the cataclysm of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution extended the vote to formerly enslaved Black males, theoretically. But Southern white people fought back fiercely against something they saw as a direct challenge to their social and political status.

Armed vigilantes watched polling places, something that is echoed today by right-wing activists guarding ballot drop boxes in what they say are efforts to prevent fraud. Political violence to prevent Black citizens from voting exploded across the former Confederacy.

After federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877, Reconstruction ended. Despite the Constitution, the U.S. became a semi-democratic nation, with Southern one-party authoritarian enclaves where much of the population was excluded from voting or intimidated into staying home on Election Day.

Seen through this lens, it was not until the civil rights era, with the end of Jim Crow separate-but-equal laws and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that the U.S. began to approach its democratic promise.

“I think it’s really important for us to know that history, to understand that American democracy is not necessarily something that progresses on its own unimpeded,” says Professor Sinha. “It requires work to move forward.”

A procedure for disagreeing civilly

Malaysia is not alone. There are regimes all around the world that tilt the playing field toward themselves when holding elections. Prior to Russian parliamentary elections in September 2021, President Putin dispelled the notion of competition by imprisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny and branding his followers as extremists, notes the latest report from Freedom House on freedoms around the world.

The authoritarian government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega took similar steps to quash competition prior to a November 2021 presidential vote, arresting seven potential opposition candidates and pulling the legal status of 50 civil society organizations.

Why do such regimes hold elections at all? Perhaps because the ritual itself has meaning, says Professor Pepinsky of Cornell. Without elections in the U.S., citizens would feel unmoored.

“Dictators are very aware of this as well,” he says.

While U.S. voters may be unhappy about the state of their democracy, elections per se remain popular, and a bit more than 60% of Americans disagree with the idea that the country should have a strong leader who does not bother with a legislature and elections, according to World Value Survey data.

That said, the number of citizens who might accept such a strongman is perhaps surprisingly large for a country founded on the words “all men are created equal” – and it appears to be growing. It has risen from about 25% of respondents to 38% since the late 1990s, according to the same World Value Survey data series.

Too many Americans may judge democracy and elections on the outcome of whether preferred candidates win or not, says Professor Pepinsky. Their real value is as a procedure we use to disagree on politics without having a fight.

The agreement we have is the losers accept their loss, knowing they will have a chance to try again within a few years, and the cycle will repeat over and over.

“What is missing is the broader conception of adopting this convention – this miracle,” Professor Pepinsky says.

Editor's note: In a paragraph referencing the end of Reconstruction, a sentence mentioning the Know-Nothing party has been removed, for chronological accuracy.

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