Voters Still Matter (mostly)

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This is admittedly an odd title for a post about a democratic country, especially one that has traditionally regarded itself as the leader of the free world. The idea that voters matter is one of those things we should not have to say, like Black Lives Matter or human rights matter. But since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, many serious and well-informed people have warned us that American democracy is not as secure as we might think.

Four years ago, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book called How Democracies Die. They pointed out that in recent decades, most breakdowns of democracy have occurred not through military coups, but through democratic election of leaders who used the power of their office to promote authoritarian rule. All societies produce an extremist demagogue from time to time. In the most democratic countries, they usually don’t get elected. The threat to democracy arises when “fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream….” First those established parties fail to stop them from being elected; then they fail to stop them from violating democratic norms.

Levitsky and Ziblatt warned that Donald Trump looked like such an authoritarian leader, and they did so two years before the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol and the serious attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The House committee investigating those events has made a strong case that the defeated president and his associates resorted not only to legal court challenges—which they lost for lack of evidence—but also to illegal means like pressuring state election officials to “find” more votes, arranging for fake electors to come forward, persuading the Vice President to exceed his legal authority by refusing to accept certified state results, and sending a mob to the Capitol to impede the certification process.

These events raised legitimate concerns that having failed in 2020, election deniers could win control of key positions in battleground states, putting them in a position to interfere with the 2024 election. They could use unfounded rumors of election fraud as an excuse to suppress votes in heavily Democratic areas or reject the results if the Democrat won the state. Once back in power at the national level, who knows what other measures MAGA Republicans could take to weaken democratic institutions and consolidate their power. I have not been as pessimistic about American democracy as some, but I certainly shared these concerns.

Democracy held

I am relieved to report that the voters blocked the worst outcomes in most cases. In races for governor, prominent election deniers went down to defeat in Pennsylvania (Doug Mastriano), Wisconsin (Tim Michels) and Arizona (Kari Lake). In races for secretary of state, they lost in Michigan (Kristina Karamo), Nevada (Jim Marchant) and Arizona (Mark Finchem). Although election deniers did win some races, they were generally in solidly red states where Republican candidates could win fair elections anyway.

The 2022 midterms were the third big loss for Trump and MAGA Republicans. They failed to win the presidency or either house of Congress in 2020; they failed to overturn the results of that election; and they failed to set the stage for the subversion of future elections, at least for now.

Another reason to be hopeful is that the voting and ballot counting went much more smoothly than many of us expected. Many of the losers conceded, and few besides Trump called the process corrupt. No angry mobs appeared at polling or counting places.

Many Republicans are now blaming Trump and his minions for costing them the big midterm victory they expected. We hear a lot of talk of “moving beyond Trump.” The response to his announcement of another campaign for the presidency has been less than enthusiastic, and his prospects of winning another term seem to be getting dimmer all the time.

Dangers ahead

Threats to democracy remain, however, especially at the state level, and those threats also affect the strength of democracy at the federal level. Gerrymandering remains alive and well in many states. The narrow Republican victory in the House of Representatives is probably due less to persuading more voters to vote Republican, and more to redrawing voting districts to squeeze more seats from the voters the party already had.

Consider my own state of North Carolina, which is one of the most gerrymandered states. The state has a nearly evenly divided electorate and a divided government: a Democratic governor but a Republican-controlled legislature. Donald Trump narrowly won the state in 2020 with 49.9% the vote. Republicans have been working for years to turn their legislative advantage into permanent control of the state. They have succeeded in redrawing election districts so that they can get about two-thirds of the seats even if they win only half of the overall vote. This remains true even though the state Supreme Court rejected their latest—and probably most extreme—redistricting based on the 2020 census.

In the midterms, NC Republicans hoped to win a supermajority that would enable them to override any vetoes coming from the more democratically elected governor. They succeeded in the state Senate, but fell just short in the House. But they did win a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court, which makes that body less likely to interfere with gerrymandering in the future. If that weren’t enough, NC Republicans have also brought a case before the Supreme Court of the United States arguing that state courts do not even have the authority to review legislative decisions relating to voting. This “independent state legislature theory” has not convinced the high court in the past, but appears to have gained support since Trump appointees have joined the court. (Oral arguments for Moore v. Harper are scheduled for December.) Despite being an evenly divided state, North Carolina is perilously close to establishing one-party legislative rule, without the normal executive or judicial checks and balances we associate with democracy. Arizona and Wisconsin are other states teetering on the edge of authoritarian rule. Florida may have already gone over the edge.

Even if election deniers have lost in most statewide races, they have often won in House districts, especially those gerrymandered to favor Republicans. The Washington Post counted 150 election deniers among the roughly 220 elected House Republicans. On January 6, 139 Republicans voted against certification of Biden’s election. One can easily imagine an even larger number doing so next time.

As welcome as it would be, the departure of Donald Trump from the scene would not necessarily turn the Republican Party into a defender of democracy. Even if the party does not need him as its leading voice, it still needs his supporters, many of whom were well on their way to being radicalized by right-wing media long before Trump rode down the escalator in 2015. MAGA supporters will constitute the largest and most aggressive bloc within the Republican-controlled House. They can exert great pressure on their leaders and more moderate members to cater to their anti-establishment impulses, perhaps by impeaching President Biden or his cabinet members, conducting endless investigations and hearings based on unfounded conspiracy theories, shutting down the government by refusing to pass a budget, or forcing the government to default on its obligations by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. What a majority of voters would actually like Congress to do might count for little in this scenario.

Voters have narrowly warded off the most immediate threat to democracy, but much remains to be done. American democracy requires two parties (at least) willing to engage each other with honest debate on issues, compromise when necessary to achieve a result the majority can live with, and accept defeat gracefully. The temptation will always exist to resort to undemocratic means to have one’s way, but responsible leaders will resist it. The voters must have the information they need to identify politicians who do not respect the rules, as well as the voting power to defeat them.

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