democracy is a work in progress

Threat to Democracy Coming Into Focus

Progress Update

  • Election threat comes into clearer focus

Threat to Democracy Coming Into Focus

2022-09-02T14:32:28-05:00

Recent elections in New York and Kansas have Democrats preparing to campaign on the right to abortion and Republicans rewriting their web pages to hide their more extreme views. Still, more Americans are recognizing that their choice at the ballot box this fall is between continuing as a country governed by a democratically chosen majority or giving away that right to a party dominated by people who no longer respect election results or our democratic institutions.

In our last update, we questioned the lack of leadership in combating this threat to American democracy and wondered whether the January 6 committee hearings might provide the unifying voice that pro-democracy Americans need to rally around. A mid-August poll suggests that this might be the case as 21% of respondents listed “threats to democracy” as their #1 concern, outpacing “cost of living” (16%) and “jobs and the economy” (14%). And in a national address, President Biden spoke of the threat and accused Donald Trump and MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans of embracing political violence and attacking the foundations of the nation.

Still, November is more than two months away. Anti-democracy election deniers continue their forward march to Election Day as Republican-controlled legislatures prepare to enforce recently passed undemocratic election legislation. Meanwhile, long-time Republicans remain slow to break free of party loyalties in the face of their party’s clear break with the most fundamental aspects of democracy. Likewise, mainstream news outlets and news consumers struggle to absorb and respond to the idea that we are now well beyond partisan politics and horse-race-as-usual campaign coverage and deep into a contest for the future of majority rule in the nation.

Not Yesterday’s Grand Old Party

Today’s Republican Party is not the party of principled conservatism that it once was. Richard Viguerie, considered a “funding father” of the conservative movement for his work in the mid to late 1900s, made that clear in 2004 when he and David Franke wrote, “The conservative message of limited, constitutional government has been virtually silenced, co-opted by my-party-right-or-wrong partisanship.”

Over the last 10 years, we have seen many long-time Republicans begin to wake up to the reality that their party had been taken over by extremists who abused the truth and contributed to a weakening of our democratic institutions. Often dubbed RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) by those extremists, they either left the party or became outspoken critics, and sometimes did both. The list includes Bill Kristol, conservative commentator, editor, and founder of Defending Democracy Together and Republican Voters Against Trump; Steve Schmidt, campaign strategist in 2008 to John McCain and co-founder of The Lincoln Project; and Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and co-founder of the newly-formed Forward Party.

The current wave of election deniers running for office has prompted some state and local Republican leaders to speak out as well. In Idaho, for example, two long-serving Republicans, the current secretary of state, Ben Ysursa, and former state treasurer, Lydia Justice Edwards, are not only speaking out against the GOP’s nominee for attorney general, Raúl Labrador, they have also endorsed the Democratic nominee, Tom Arkoosh. The two veterans of Idaho Republican politics are also co-chairs of Arkoosh’s state campaign.

Still, many rank-and-file Republican voters remain torn between their democratic principles and party loyalty. Beginning with Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s, they had heard repeated lies from GOP leadership about voter fraud, corruption, and un-American and anti-family/anti-child policies all directed at Democrats. So to support a Democrat is unthinkable for many, yet to accept that their own party now poses a danger to the country is to be suddenly adrift politically.

Schmidt would understand their dilemma. Early this spring he wrote that when he was a young man of 36, he did not understand the difference between integrity and loyalty. He thought they meant the same thing. He only learned the difference years later when he broke his silence about the lie his boss, John McCain, a man he had revered, had told him in order to preserve his 2008 campaign for president. At the time, Schmidt knew the lie for what it was but did his job and protected his boss, unable to recognize or foresee the future “damage it has done to many people, including me”.

The Authoritarian Threat Beyond Trump

While much of the attention regarding the state of democracy in America has focused on Donald Trump and the role his MAGA Republicans played in the January 6 attack on Congress, it is the party that supported Trump’s rise that poses the larger threat. It is that same party – and not just its MAGA members – that continues to support him and his claims, either overtly or with silence.

From the highest levels of GOP leadership to the trolls on social media, the Republican Party is closing in on the endgame of a strategy to achieve and retain political power. Already successful in populating the Supreme Court and lower courts with justices and judges selected for their views on key issues and gerrymandering key states to make it easier to win future elections, the party is now

  • Running election deniers for state executive positions where they can exert as much partisan control over election outcomes as they can get away with;
  • Proposing and passing legislation that gives them more opportunities to subvert election processes, suppress votes, and intimidate long-serving election administrators and poll workers; and
  • Encouraging an increase in intimidation of election workers and their families with false and misleading claims of election fraud and vote stealing;
  • Recruiting election deniers to run for local offices and volunteer as poll workers, and training them on how to challenge voters and other election workers – preliminary results from research conducted by Protect Our Election, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, indicates that in Pennsylvania alone, 12% of candidates running for local election positions are election deniers; and
  • Arguing against one person, one vote in support of minority rule by claiming that “egalitarianism threatens our republic” with “the potential excesses of democratic majorities”.

This last bullet quotes from a report from the Heritage Foundation, a leading architect of Republican intellectual theory. Echoes of the report, entitled “America Is a Republic, Not a Democracy”, can be found throughout comments on social media (including The American Leader’s Facebook page, from which the example below is taken).

Facebook comment screenshot

Weakening Democratic Institutions

Election workers have experienced an increase in the volume and degree of threats received since the 2020 election. Many long-time workers have cited such intimidation as the reason they have resigned their positions. Election security expert David Becker reminded those of us who were on a call with him in July that such attacks on civil servants are consistent with fascist and authoritarian movements. He added:

“When [the civil servant] class gets weakened, the institutions and the rule of law are weakened. It’s something that worries me a great deal, and it’s happening right in front of us.”

Eliminating the Red-Blue Divide

After decades during which the racist, nativist, and religious fringe of American society quietly accumulated standing and power within the Republican Party, more moderate Republicans and Democrats, and news producers and consumers are struggling to adapt to the new political landscape.

Today’s United States is clearly one nation openly divided by two distinct visions of what it should be: an inclusive democracy where all eligible citizens are given an equal vote to determine who decides how the country is governed, or a one-party state controlled by elites who have turned their back on more than 200 years of voting progress. Contrary to what Republicans will claim, this is not a partisan accusation aimed at gaining an advantage in the contrived red v. blue political debate. It is a rejection that the red-blue competition defines this moment in our politics.

It is a recognition that for us to move forward as a nation, we need to set aside the exaggerated differences that stir the red-blue conflict and focus again on the wealth of common ground that unites us, beginning with our passion for truth and justice in service to the greater community.

The truth is clear: In 2006, with the GOP controlling both houses of Congress at the time, only 33 Republicans voted against the extension of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, Republicans have shown no interest in passing voting rights legislation and repeatedly passed legislation that makes it harder, especially for people of color, to vote.

And now, Republicans continue to deny the results of the 2020 presidential election and seek to infiltrate the government and the voting process with people and laws that disregard the fragile trust that democracy relies on to thrive.

For those Republicans who believe preserving democracy is more important than winning elections, there no longer is room for blind party loyalty. Although they have stuck with the party for its support of reduced taxes, smaller government, and social change, they have done so at a devastating cost. GOP leadership has shown a willingness to sacrifice civility and respect for the norms of democratic governing to obtain the political power they have sought. It’s time to recognize, as Steve Schmidt did, the difference between loyalty and integrity.

For Democrats and institutional reformers on both sides of the aisle, the way forward demands acknowledgement that conflict and confrontation, not bipartisan governing, is the priority for the Republican Party as constituted in 2022. The moderates in both parties would well serve the cause of democracy if they set aside their differences to collaborate on a new direction for the country that is based on solving the problems that most Americans want addressed, i.e. climate change, access to healthcare, and, of course, voting rights.

And for the news media, and especially the mainstream news media, who are supposed to be the watchdogs of democracy, it is long past time to abandon so-called journalistic neutrality to consistently call out the only major political party in this country whose members refuse to accept election outcomes and abandon all anti-democracy and anti-government speechmaking.

Government is not the problem. An authoritarian Republican Party is.

What can you do?

Defending Democracy Together:  Join Republicans, former Republicans, and conservatives who are committed to protecting every American’s right to vote.

The Union: This coalition of pro-democracy organizations has almost 60,000 members who are committed to setting aside past differences to “preserve our Union, our Republic, and our democracy.” The Union is an initiative of The Lincoln Project.

Author: George Linzer
Published on September 1, 2022

Feature image: George Linzer, from images by cottonbro on Pexels, Wikimedia Commons, and Library of Congress on Unsplash

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