“Democracy”? Why worry?

Some writers say that ‘both sides’ seem needlessly wound up about the health of American democracy. They’re missing the point.

Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ends in six days.

The Big Picture

Clouds loom over the Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol. Photo by Flickr user Brook Ward.

We launched this newsletter with a simple presumption: democracy in America might be in trouble. To me at least, the situation needs little elaboration; to paraphrase the inscription at Sir Christopher Wren’s crypt, if one needs to see evidence of the problem, look around.

Two scolding articles over the weekend, however, make plain that some still believe — even after the sitting president’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, his disinformation about voting, and his Republican Party’s ongoing efforts to impede or block the counting of votes — that concerns about the health of our democracy seem overwrought or even silly, and that worries about the aftermath of the election make much ado about nothing.

So let’s step back and answer a question: what’s this commotion over “democracy” about?

What’s This?

What do people mean when they voice concern about U.S. democracy? I’ll try to answer — but first, a musical interlude.

First off, law professor Jedediah Britton-Purdy (among others) has put across a pointed question we should ask ourselves: has the U.S. ever been fully democratic? That said, through the success of the political aims of the civil rights movement — through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the U.S. threw off a legacy of one-party authoritarianism in the South to achieve something closer to full enfranchisement.

Since 2000, however, progress toward a broader, more representative democracy — regarded as inevitable by many, including myself — has appeared to reverse.

Legislative gerrymandering — starting w/ former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s mid-aughts ploy in Texas, then blitzing the country through the REDMAP initiative of 2010 — skewed state and federal legislative maps such that Republican majorities could remain entrenched despite popular-vote defeats. Republicans have used the prize of power thus won — with maps protecting their majorities — to attack pillars of progressive organizing strength, such as labor unions and community organizing.

A separate development has made matters worse: the increasing semblance of disconnect between the primary tool of democratic accountability — the vote — and political power.

Donald Trump, our sitting president, took office despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. Trump is the second president of the 21st century to have done so — in a century in which, so far, only two presidents have been Republicans. Only four presidents in American history took office despite losing the popular vote. Two of those were upside-down wins; both belonged to the Republican Party, and both occurred within the last twenty years.

We can go on: control of the House, before 2018, stayed in Republican hands despite popular-vote losses. Power in the Senate still remains with a Republican majority built on a minority of voters — the Republican members hail from states with a minority of the population.

A Nightmare Before Christmas?

Melissa Ryan ably documented the growing tilt of the federal judiciary against voting rights on Monday, so I won’t belabor that. It suffices to say that recent Supreme Court rulings suggest that voter suppression and gerrymandering — phenomena that both contribute to the growing sense of democracy in crisis — may get worse before they get any better.

State courts, in theory, could provide a backstop against federal impediments to the franchise — but a look at recent shenanigans surrounding state judiciaries provides little solace. In Georgia and Arizona, Republican-led legislatures have packed state supreme courts. In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, lawmakers undertook partisan efforts to impeach supreme court justices. In North Carolina, the GOP-dominated legislature tried to throw a supreme court election to a Republican candidate. In Kansas, Republicans threatened to shut down the entire judiciary if courts continued to rule against a policy that violated the state constitution.

Now, sure: Trump may lose the election by a wide enough margin that the Supreme Court, despite Republican-appointed justices’ apparent eagerness, lacks power to affect the outcome. And yes: despite the series of counter-majoritarian election outcomes, the mounting efforts to restrict access to the franchise, and the continuing series of court rulings that whittle at both popular democracy and workplace democracy, we can’t definitively say “we’re losing our democracy.” Fine.

But as Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk noted in a piece on 2018 elections in Turkey, concerns about authoritarian creep — about democratic regression — can remain in abeyance until the trend advances too far to be stopped. So I’ll note that just this week, a Swedish study of political parties reaffirmed worries about the advance of illiberalism in the United States.

Sure, no one should expect to wake up tomorrow to the sound of boots goosestepping down Pennsylvania Avenue — although the president seemed to enjoy sending federal officers to sweep Lafayette Square over the summer, so let’s not get cocky. But the ongoing threat to democracy remains straightforward: a slow, incremental effort to skew the rules of American politics until we retain the form of a democratic process, but little of the function.

And to reaffirm what I said at the start of this essay: one-party authoritarianism — cloaked in the notional garb of democracy — is a politics the United States has a dark history with.

Let’s hope those chapters of the country’s past remain in the past, rather than serving as prologue.

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Leading The Conversation

Sam Levine and Spenser Mestel, at The Guardian: “'Just like propaganda': the three men enabling Trump's voter fraud lies.”

“The hysteria over voter fraud has reached an alarming pitch. And this dangerous moment in US democracy would not be possible without the work of these three men.”

Ezra Klein, at Vox: “The fight is for democracy.”

“But if Democrats lose the next few elections, they may lose democracy itself to a conservative Supreme Court and an anti-democratic Republican Party. In that world, the Democratic Party will have to become a different party than it is, and a different party than its voters want it to be, as it tries desperately to win over the older, whiter, more religious places that retain disproportionate political power.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, at The New York Times: “End Minority Rule.”

“Not only would ending minority rule be inherently democratic, but, importantly, it would also encourage the Republican Party to abandon its destructive course of radicalization. Normally, political parties change course when they lose elections. But in America today there is a hitch: Republicans can win and exercise power without building national electoral majorities. … As long as the Republicans can hold onto power without broadening beyond their shrinking base, they will remain prone to the kind of extremism and demagogy that currently threatens our democracy.”

Garrett M. Graff, at Politico Magazine: “‘I’m Absolutely Expecting Him to Do Something Weird’: How Trump Could End His Presidency.”

“Imagine what might happen in a post-election period when Trump — a president who has spent four years demonstrating his lack of interest in norms and practices of a democracy — retains all the powers and authority of the presidency and officially has nothing left to lose? Conversations with presidential legal experts, Constitutional scholars and national security officials identified six areas where Trump could do real damage to the country, his successor or presidential traditions.”

Joshua Zeitz, at Politico Magazine: “How Democrats Can Learn Hardball From the Republicans of 1861.”

“For well over a decade, Republican politicians at the state and federal levels have feverishly assaulted democratic norms and processes to advance a hard-hitting minoritarian agenda. … Democrats, should they earn a governing majority, may soon have an opportunity to restore and improve the institutions that a minoritarian party has broken piece by piece over so many years. If so, the lessons of the Reconstruction era are clear: You can’t achieve the ends if you don’t embrace the means.”

What You Can Do

Sign up to #ProtectTheResults next week by joining mobilizations scheduled to happen all over the country, in the event the president continues to reject a peaceful transfer of power. Find an event near you — or register a new one now.

And Now, Some Levity

Thanks for reading tonight’s newsletter. One last thought: If Jamaal Bowman keeps this up when he arrives in Congress next year, we can label the spirit of the tweet he quotes at the link above the Bowman Doctrine: when they go low, we go … er, lower.

That’s it for this issue. See you on Friday.


American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the issues and ideas that will define the Presidential transition period from Nov. 3, 2020, through — we hope — Jan. 21, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin Hendrix, Greg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Have questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most.

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