Biden Won, But Democracy's Fate Is Still Uncertain

The inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last week will help to reset an unbalanced nation. But the armed camp in which they took their oaths is testament to the precarious state of democracy in America.

The loss of democratic muscle in the U.S. over the past four years has been precipitous. It wasn’t simply the election of a corrupt and incompetent demagogue to the presidency in 2016; the degradation was a group effort. Donald Trump’s presidency hatched from the extremism of the Republican Party, and the party, freed by Trump from pretensions of conservative disposition, accompanied his descent. The nadir, for now at least, was reached with the violent attempted coup at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

There have been signs of a vigorous response. Many corporations paused contributions to Republicans who voted to advance Trump’s electoral coup. Mainstream news media appeared more willing to acknowledge the contemporary GOP’s authoritarianism. Some Republican officials, such as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, took courageous stands against oft-repeated lies.

But a democratic rebound is by no means guaranteed. And while good policy and successful governance over the next couple years might strengthen democracy’s hand, “good policy is good politics” is no longer a sure recipe, if it ever was. Tens of millions of Americans view the simplest facts through a distorted partisan lens. Many seem to prefer the opposing team’s failure to the nation’s success.

Strengthening America’s battered democracy will require continued efforts across a range of distinct yet related realms — legal, political and cultural. They will meet fierce opposition in each.

Legal reform

Most of the energy and money in democratic capacity has gone into the legal arena. The focus is understandable. From the Reconstruction amendments that sought to end the terrorization of Black Americans to the civil liberties jurisprudence of the 20th century that sought to secure individual and equal rights, law has been democracy’s sidekick — albeit not always a reliable one. Pro-democracy groups, such as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, and Protect Democracy, a Washington, D.C-based group founded in 2017 as the Trumpist threat came into focus, are staffed by lawyers and others who seek to strengthen laws and norms.

The law, said Protect Democracy executive director Ian Bassin, is “supposed to keep the lava in” and prevent political explosion.

As voter suppression and gerrymandering have become integral to Republican efforts to retain power without majority support, a legal network of partisans and nonpartisans has emerged to challenge anti-democratic laws. Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias fielded lawyers across the nation in the wake of November’s election, where they racked up dozens of court victories against Trump’s evidence-free claims. The nonpartisan League of Women Voters has become a regular party to lawsuits challenging Republican efforts to obstruct registration and restrict voting, as has the American Civil Liberties Union. By removing contests over voter fraud from the media, where news organizations have typically presented it as a disputed reality, to the courtroom, these lawyers forced the propagandists to produce actual evidence. They had none.

Democratic members of Congress, many of whom are lawyers, responded to Republican transgressions with legal remedies of their own. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed HR 1, a massive overhaul of voting rights and election administration. That bill has been revived in this Congress. It would blunt efforts to restrict voting and to gerrymander legislative districts. It calls for automatic voter registration and easier voting (including by mail), and it makes it more difficult for states to purge voters from registration lists, a tactic employed in Florida, Georgia and other states to reduce Democratic votes. To bolster voting rights against a Supreme Court that has undermined them, it calls for restoration of “protections for voters against practices in States and localities plagued by the persistence of voter disenfranchisement.”

To battle egregious gerrymandering in states such as Wisconsin, where Republicans command a large majority of seats on the basis of a minority of votes, the bill requires states to use independent redistricting commissions, with members drawn randomly from both partisan and independent pools of candidates, to draw congressional districts. The bill also provides funds for enhanced election security, and it would restructure the Federal Election Commission in an effort to make the broken commission a functional cop on the elections beat.

Another bill, the Protecting Our Democracy Act, offers a litany of defensive maneuvers against crimes and ethics violations that Trump committed. It seeks to prevent abuse of the pardon power, which Trump wielded to reward criminal confederates, and codifies the Constitution’s emoluments clause to prevent a president from, among other things, funneling domestic or foreign funds to his businesses.

The law would also strengthen Congress’s hand against a rogue executive, protecting whistle blowers and executive-branch inspectors general and codifying Congress’s power to subpoena executive personnel to investigate wrongdoing and incompetence.

Passing such laws, and others, likely requires eliminating the filibuster, which enables a minority of 41 senators to block legislation. Democrats have not reached consensus on doing so. But they may very soon face a choice between filibuster reform or failure.

Yet even a powerful federal law can go only so far. As Trump proved in office, a lawless president supported by a corrupt party with control of at least one branch of Congress (along with a pliant Supreme Court) can trample the law, again and again.

Once a political party has deteriorated to the level of the GOP, legal constraints are not sufficient. If Democrats had not achieved a resounding victory in the 2018 midterm elections, Trump never would have been impeached. Checks on his misconduct, which were weak even under Democratic control of the House, would have been much weaker. With a different Congress, or a slight shift of votes in key states, he could have succeeded in stealing the 2020 election. The law is surely necessary. Just as surely, it’s not enough.

Party Reform

American democracy, like all other functional models, involves a balance of power among competing elites, and between elites and the masses. The U.S. has several anti-democratic checks on popular power, but they are not static. The Electoral College no longer serves as an elite check: It simply empowers some states, and voters, willy-nilly, at the expense of others. The Senate, once the cooling place for legislation, has become a deep freeze. As the U.S. population has evolved, the Senate has not. It empowers the rural and white at the expense of the cosmopolitan; it champions the 19th century at the expense of the 21st.

Parties also balance elite and popular interests. Like the Electoral College, however, their gate-keeping function has deteriorated as they’ve grown more responsive to voters.

“Collapsing democracies follow on collapsing political parties,” writes Princeton University scholar Kim Lane Scheppele, whose work on the erosion of democracy in Hungary offers uncomfortable parallels to the contemporary U.S. Observing failed and failing democracies around the world, she writes that “infighting, ideological drift, or credibility collapse” often disrupt “the ability of those mainstream parties to screen out toxic choices put to voters.”

To resist democratic decline, parties must be strong enough to resist manipulation by fringe ideologues or populist demagogues. “Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die.” As Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver, wrote at the time, Trump’s nomination by the GOP represented “the most colossal failure of an American political party in modern history.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that parties are private associations that can organize their own affairs. If parties perform their role in preventing anti-democratic forces from ascending within, those forces are pushed outside the mainstream, where it is far more difficult for them to gain traction with a broad public. If parties fail, however, allowing a demagogue like Trump to rise within, the party failure is magnified. The message sent to voters is that the demagogue is not a threat; he’s a member of the party, “one of us.”

Republican elites famously failed to stop Trump when he was running for the party nomination and capturing pluralities, not majorities, of votes in state primaries. In the Democratic Party’s nominating system, super delegates — members of Congress and other insiders — can theoretically derail a “toxic choice” and steer the nomination to a candidate who will uphold democratic norms and rule of law. Super delegates made up about 16% of the party’s presidential delegates in 2020.

The trend in both parties is to restrict elite influence. In 2020, Democrats weakened, rather than strengthened, the power of super delegates in response to anger from supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, who had railed against the party establishment’s overwhelming preference for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (while many trafficked in fantasies about their own “stolen” election). Sanders was not a threat to rule of law. But the weaker the party’s gatekeeping mechanisms, the more the party is vulnerable to someone who is.

U.S. parties are growing more, not less, amenable to populism. “The reigning reform posture has been and continues to be populist, regarding parties as just another problematic faction and empowering the grassroots to have more say in formulating the party platform and choosing nominees,” write political scientist Bruce Cain and lawyer Cody Gray.

Reforms such as ranked choice voting, in primaries and general elections, and efforts to expand the number of viable parties, are increasingly debated as political scientists and practitioners look for ways to make democracy more responsive to the electorate and also more secure against authoritarian threats.

Yet in the case of the GOP, the party is already a threat. The grassroots overwhelmingly trust propaganda outlets such as Fox News for political information. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken after the attempted coup on Jan. 6 reveals a GOP base saturated in falsehoods and supportive of authoritarian reaction.

While most Americans say there is no solid evidence of voter fraud to support Trump’s claims, 65% of Republicans say there is solid evidence, while only 25% disagree. Even more alarming, two-thirds of Republicans say Trump spoke and acted “responsibly” in the aftermath of the election, a period in which he spread flagrant lies and incited a White nationalist coup attempt at the Capitol.

The Republican Party is now locked in an adversarial relationship with fact and a dysfunctional relationship with its own base, which represents the voracious demand side of demagogy. When Cheney delivered the truth about Trump and voted for his impeachment on Jan. 13, she was not simply voting her conscience. She was placing herself squarely in opposition to an entire epistemology grounded in propaganda and fantasy. It’s possible to reform rules about party organization and nominations, to make it harder for demagogues or authoritarians to seize control of a party. But what do you do if the base of the party is delusional?

Cultural reform

America now faces a challenge posed by a conservative movement unhinged from reality, unwilling to play by democratic rules and unwilling either to cede power to its opponents or to reform itself to compete in a multi-racial society in which it earns and exercises power legitimately. Democratic culture must assert itself.

To a remarkable degree, it has. The Women’s March that greeted Trump’s first days in office was a show of democratic prowess, and it fed a powerful democratic resurgence. Whatever their political engagement before Trump’s presidency, millions of Americans met the threat to democracy not by “bowling alone” but by canvassing and fundraising together. National groups such as Indivisible corralled atomized activists. Local groups emerged seemingly overnight, self-organizing to back local causes and candidates. Black Lives Matter propelled millions of Americans of all races into the streets — and not only big-city streets — in a largely peaceful democratic outpouring.

The 2018 election was a democratic surge. The 2020 election, in which more than 155 million Americans cast votes, was a reflection both of the high stakes for democracy’s survival and the capacity to rouse a majority to defend it. Republican turnout soared alongside Democratic turnout. Grassroots contributions to Democratic candidates reached, in more than a few cases, preposterous heights.

Amid Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, democratic pressure increased. Major law firms were publicly shamed out of advancing Trump’s baseless claims in court, leaving him reliant on hapless conspiracy mongers. Companies — even entire trade groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers — censured Republican legislators who voted to overturn the election, promising to withhold financial contributions. After Twitter canceled Trump, experts discerned a sizable decrease in the transmission of misinformation.

This is cancel culture in service of democracy and rule of law. More of it is necessary if anti-democratic forces are to be defeated and the Republican Party is to emerge from its long, dark night.

Democratic culture must become more muscular to defend itself. No company should be able to advertise on Fox News or other propaganda outlets without suffering severe reputational damage. No company should donate to any Republican who advanced Trump’s lies without experiencing blowback across the political and corporate spectrum.

The tech platforms — Facebook and Twitter above all — that did so much to advance Trump’s propaganda pose a range of dilemmas. There are not always easy answers about how to identify and regulate falsehood. But what the Trump era revealed is just how easy some lines are to draw.  

Trump was a massive generator of confirmed, documented lies. The QAnon cult that occupies a dangerously relevant position in the contemporary GOP is a vehicle of mass psychosis. Parsing claims that Democratic leaders dine on children does not require rarefied corporate scruples or calibrated ethical judgment. Tolerating pathology breeds more of it.

Boycotts are part of the fabric of American democracy and one of the best tools in the democratic kit. They have been used to desegregate public transit and pressure private enterprise to treat workers and the environment better. Given the large numbers of consumer businesses that continue to support anti-democratic politicians, they are also underused.

Consumer behavior can support democratic behavior. Groups that encourage that link, such as Color of Change, Sleeping Giants and the newsletter writer Judd Legum, deserve a wider audience and more institutional support to broaden their reach and impact. 

“What’s clear in every sector is that the old playbooks of addressing this country’s challenges are insufficient, from philanthropy to corporate America to government,” said Maria Torres-Springer, vice president for U.S. programs at the Ford Foundation, which funds democracy groups across the country. “The multiple crises of this year, I think, have made that plain.”

Government can play a stronger role in combatting disinformation as well. However fractured the media environment, the White House remains the most powerful soapbox in the U.S. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the Office of Facts and Figures countered Nazi propaganda. Faith in government today is low. But plain, meticulous, factual debunkings of conspiracy theories and other info-junk could still be a useful government exercise, forcing a persistent reckoning with falsehood, identifying regular sources of misinformation and putting liars on the defensive.

At the same time, liberals must recognize that ideological opponents such as Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney, along with Republican groups such as the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, are taking vital stands to defend democracy. They deserve praise and, when feasible, support. Conservatism is the yin to liberalism’s yang. A broken Republican Party won’t lead to perpetual liberal dominance; it produces instead a persistent authoritarian threat.

The goal should be a healthy conservative party that channels conservative energy in democratic ways and renounces the ethno-nationalism of MAGA. Shame can’t be the only thing on the public menu for authoritarian Trumpists. Democratic redemption must also be available.

The White rage at the base of Trumpism can be soothed only so much. Biden’s inaugural address, which explicitly cited the terror of “White supremacy,” called for unity but not surrender. What Trump’s core supporters desire most — dominance by White Christian conservatives — is not a negotiable demand. There may be no cure for MAGA resentment over changing social hierarchy and racial and sexual status anxieties except time — lots of it.

If democracy is going to thrive, White rage will have to be more productively channeled, and what can’t be channeled must be effectively contained — by law, politics and the larger culture. Until something better comes along, democracy is all we’ve got. If it breaks, we all do.

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

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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