Americans are facing a choice between government by a frequently shifting set of powers that are reliant on a constant framework for rulemaking (“democracy”) and one immoveable power that bends the rules at will to suit its needs (“authoritarianism”).
When my daughter sought her first full-time job out of college, in January 2018, she had a choice between doing research for Domini, an investment company focused exclusively on socially responsible funds, or Freedom House, one of the leading defenders of the world’s democracies. When we discussed the pros and cons of each, a year into Donald Trump’s presidency, I joked that one was in an industry on the rise and the other was in an industry in decline. The punchline: she chose Freedom House (much to her credit).
On this first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection that story now conveys something different: My feeble attempt at humor derived not from over-imagining what would happen to American democracy as a consequence of Trump’s actions, but from a clear observation of the direction he was taking us. The “joke” was really a reflection of my own hesitation to put my full faith in what I saw. Authoritarianism was – and is – on the rise. Government by the people is at risk.
This should not be news to anyone. The media today is filled with talk of a slow coup and polling data regarding the growing numbers of Americans who are leaning in to the cult of personality often found in authoritarian countries. One poll reported that 75% of Republicans believe there was enough fraudulent voting to steal the election from Trump; another poll showed that 60% of our fellow citizens on the political right believe that the people who stormed the Capitol were defending the country from a fraudulent election. They believe this despite the complete lack of evidence to support claims of widespread fraud and the overwhelming body of evidence that supports the election results and that the people involved in the attack are guilty of sedition and insurrection.
Evidence given to the House committee that is investigating the January 6 attack – a committee that is famously not supported by GOP leadership – is suggesting that Trump administration officials were aware of plans for violence that day and did not intervene. The former president may even be implicated. At the very least, it’s clear he sat and watched the mob on TV for hours, ignoring several pleas that he urge them to disperse.
Since last January, Republicans have proposed dozens of changes to state election laws that would threaten the independence of election officials and the integrity of our elections. When I interviewed election security expert David Becker a month before the 2020 election, I asked him about the level of concern regarding potential interference. His response was reassuring. He put his faith in “the people who are doing the nuts-and-bolts work of election administration” in the states and local communities, and he pointed out that it was they, and not the politicians, who would make the critical decisions that would preserve the integrity of the election. In the end, he was correct: the frontline administrators held their ground despite intense pressure and threats of violence.
More than a year later, however, Republicans in at least four states – Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, and Kansas – have enacted laws and changed rules to give themselves the authority, potentially, to replace or overrule the very people that Becker put his faith in. And where they haven’t changed the laws, Trump loyalists are campaigning for the elected positions that oversee the voting process. The authoritarians are positioning themselves to claim victory no matter how the people vote in 2022 and beyond.
Right now, our two best options are for Congress to pass comprehensive voting rights and election process reforms and for major corporations to take a firm stand against abuse of the electoral system. Unlike my daughter’s situation, ours is not an either/or choice between democracy and corporate social responsibility. We can and should choose both.
To pass voting rights legislation, the slim Democratic majority will need to alter Senate rules to permit a filibuster workaround, because too few – if any – Republicans will support such a bill. And to change the rules, at least two Democratic senators will need to be swayed by public opinion, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Getting big business to oppose Republican efforts to exercise partisan control over election results is also vital to successfully thwarting an authoritarian takeover by Trump or any of his stand-ins. If nothing else, corporate shareholders should recognize such a frontal assault on democracy would be bad for the free market in general and bad for any business not plugged in to Trump’s view of the world. One company, Dominion Voting Systems, learned this first-hand when the Trump team began to publicly accuse it of conspiring to “fix” its voting machines to throw the election to Joe Biden – even though there is no evidence supporting the accusation. Dominion has since filed a number of defamation lawsuits against the Trump campaign and media outlets that helped spread the falsehoods.
An unfortunate truth about our system is that money wins elections. Last year, immediately following the January 6 attack, some of the country’s most powerful companies pledged to stop giving campaign contributions to the 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the election results. Astonishingly, some of the most prominent objectors – Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Texan Ted Cruz in the Senate, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in the House – still ended up with record fundraising totals in the first three months of the year.
Now 10 months before the midterms, those companies and many others need to do more: They need to immediately stop giving to all Republican candidates who do not publicly disavow Donald Trump, who are silent in the face of the lies he has spread about the electoral system, and who do not actively denounce the suppressive and partisan laws newly enacted in Republican-controlled states. Incumbents who do not vote for voting rights and election reform legislation this year should also be cut off from further corporate investments.
For more than three decades, many of us have too passively accepted the concept of a culture war being fought in our homeland. Now we should all recognize what’s at stake and demand that our political and business leaders act responsibly in support of the Constitution. Each of us should be deeply concerned and highly motivated to take whatever action is needed to stop the emerging coup in its tracks. And then, we must prepare ourselves for what we will do if and when fair election results are overturned by zealous anti-democratic politicians who are calling themselves Republicans.