The Democracy Endgame
- Levitsky & Ziblatt: How Democracy Could Die in 2024, and How to Save It
- Diamond: How To Secure American Democracy
- Bibbins Sedaca: How to End America’s Partisan Meltdown
The threats to our democracy did not end with the 2020 election. Authoritarian politics continue to fester, especially at the state level, and could very well return to the White House. A coordinated, long-term, and nationwide strategy is very likely needed to protect and perfect our democratic institutions.
To help write the next chapter in the grand strategy against authoritarianism, Protect Democracy invited some of the country’s top democracy scholars to an essay and discussion series titled Democracy Endgame: The Grand Strategy Against Authoritarianism in the U.S.
In this essay and discussion series, scholars propose medium and long-term strategies to protect and rebuild American democracy. They consider critical questions like:
- How should pro-democracy actors in government, civil society, the private sector, media, and academia orient their strategy over the coming years and decades?
- What are the longer-term goals when it comes to rebuilding democratic society on cultural and institutional levels?
- Are there key inflection points between progress towards a more inclusive democracy and a return to backsliding?
- What do good outcomes in the medium- and long-term look like? And what are the off-ramps for authoritarian-leaning actors, factions, and voters in the United States?
Levitsky & Ziblatt: How Democracy Could Die in 2024, and How to Save It
By Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
The greatest threat to American democracy today is the possibility of a stolen presidential election. As we argued in our 2018 book, contemporary democracies die often at the ballot box, through measures that are nominally constitutional. As horrific as the January 6 assault on the Capitol was, American democracy is unlikely to fall victim to a violent insurrection. Rather than extremist militias overrunning the Capitol, we should primarily be alert to mainstream Republicans “legally” overturning elections.
The threat to democracy in the U.S. today is worse than we anticipated when we wrote How Democracies Die. We knew Donald Trump was an authoritarian figure, and we held the Republican Party responsible for abdicating its role as democratic gatekeeper. But we did not consider the Republicans to be an anti-democratic party.
Four years later, however, the bulk of the Republican Party is behaving in an anti-democratic manner, and could very well overturn a presidential election. This scenario would represent a lethal “heart attack” for American democracy. And just like responding to an actual heart attack, it requires that we address both the acute crisis and underlying longer-term conditions that give rise to it. Working on these two fronts simultaneously are the two central tasks facing defenders of American democracy today.
Surviving the short-term threats to elections
For the first time in U.S. history, a sitting president refused to accept defeat and attempted to overturn the election results. But rather than oppose this attempted presidential coup, leading Republicans either cooperated with it or enabled it by refusing to publicly acknowledge Trump’s defeat. Leading Republicans also refused to break with the forces behind the January 6 assault on the Capitol. In the run-up to January 6, most of them refused to denounce extremist groups, which were spreading conspiracy theories, calling for armed insurrection and assassinations, and were ultimately implicated in the insurrection. Few Republicans broke with Trump after his incitement of the insurrection, and those who did were censured by their state parties.
Between November 2020 and January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define pro-democracy parties. Based on this behavior, as well as the GOP’s behavior over the last six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally.
As we argued in How Democracies Die, our constitutional system relies heavily on forbearance. Whether it is the filibuster, funding the government, impeachment, or judicial nominations, our system of checks and balances works when politicians on both sides of the aisle deploy their institutional prerogatives with restraint. In other words, they do not engage in constitutional hardball, or deploy the letter of the law in ways that subvert the spirit of the law. When contemporary democracies die, they usually do so via constitutional hardball. Democracy’s primary assailants today are not generals or armed revolutionaries, but rather politicians—Chavez, Putin, Orban, Erdogan—who eviscerate democracy’s substance behind a carefully-crafted veneer of legality and constitutionality.
How Democracies Die pointed to a troubling rise in constitutional hardball in the U.S., even before the rise of Trump. An example was Senate Republicans’ 2016 decision not to allow President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. The move was entirely legal, but in practice it amounted to stealing a Supreme Court seat. This is precisely what could happen in the 2024 election.
Electoral hardball can be devastating to a democracy. Elections require forbearance. For elections to be democratic, all adult citizens must be equally able to cast a ballot and have that vote count. It is strikingly easy to use the letter of the law to violate the spirit of this principle. Election officials can legally throw out large numbers of ballots based on the most minor of technicalities in the voting process (e.g., the oval on the ballot is not entirely penciled in or there is a typo or spelling mistake in the mail-in ballot form). Large-scale ballot disqualification may accord with the written letter of the law, but it is inherently anti-democratic, for it denies suffrage to a large number of voters. And crucially, if hardball criteria are applied unevenly, such that many ballots are disqualified in one party’s stronghold but not in other areas, it can turn an election.
Republican officials across the country are laying the legal infrastructure to engage in electoral hardball. Since January, according to Protect Democracy, Law Forward, and the States United Democracy Center, Republicans have introduced 216 bills (in 41 states) aimed at facilitating hardball tactics. As of June 2021, 24 of these bills have passed, including in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas. The approved measures allow Republican-controlled state legislatures or election boards to sideline or override local election administrations in Democratic strongholds. This would allow state legislatures or their appointees to meddle in local decision making, purge voter rolls, and manipulate the number and location of polling places. It would also allow Republicans in Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere to do something Trump tried and failed to do in 2020: throw out ballots in rival strongholds in order to overturn a statewide result. Finally, the new laws impose criminal penalties for local election officials deemed to violate election procedure. This will enable statewide Republican officials to compel local officials to engage in electoral hardball via threats of criminal prosecution. Throwing out thousands of ballots in rival strongholds may be profoundly anti-democratic, but it is technically legal, and Republicans in several states now have a powerful stick to enforce such practices.
Republican politicians learned several things in the aftermath of the 2020 elections. First, they learned that our electoral system creates a plethora of opportunities for constitutional hardball—legal steps that can be used to overturn unfavorable election results. Trump failed at this in 2020, due to sheer incompetence, but his campaign to overturn the results revealed a variety of mechanisms that may be exploited in future elections. These cannot be unlearned. The soft underbelly of American democracy has been exposed. Second, Republicans learned that they would not be punished by their voters for attempting to steal an election. To the contrary, they learned that efforts to overturn an election would be rewarded by Republican voters, activists, local and state parties, and many donors.
The 2020 election may, in effect, have been a dress rehearsal for what is to come. All evidence suggests that if the 2024 election is close, the Republicans will deploy constitutional hardball to challenge or overturn the results in various battleground states. Recent history and public-opinion polling tell us that the Republican activist base will enthusiastically support—indeed, demand—electoral hardball tactics. And the new state election laws will facilitate them. Democratic strongholds in Republican-led battleground states—such as Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and possibly Michigan and Wisconsin—will be especially vulnerable. And if disputed state-level elections throw the election into the House of Representatives, it is likely that a Republican-led House would hand the election to the Republican candidate (no matter who actually won the election).
It is useful to compare this process to the evolution of the Supreme Court nomination process. Prior to 2016, it was almost unthinkable that an opposition-controlled Senate would simply refuse to allow the president to fill a Supreme Court seat. Indeed, nothing of the sort had occurred since 1866. And yet Republicans, secure in the knowledge that their behavior was legal, did the unthinkable: they stole a Supreme Court seat. Because the move was constitutional, there was nothing Democrats could do about it. A similar process could unfold around the 2024 election. Based on the GOP’s behavior since 2016, but especially since November 2020, there is every reason to think that Republicans are now willing to use constitutional hardball to overturn an election. And since the move would likely be deemed constitutional, there is likely nothing that Democrats would be able to do about it.
In sum, the absence of formal guardrails governing American elections leaves our democracy vulnerable to abuse. The system has faced crises before—including the disputed elections in 1824 and 1876. Given the considerable authority granted to state legislatures by the Constitution, the processes of voting, vote counting, and even the selection of electors can easily be subverted for partisan ends. It is thus critical that the electoral guardrails be hardened through federal legislation prior to the 2024 election.
To save democracy, democratize it
Beyond the acute crisis facing American democracy, however, is a deeper problem: the radicalization of the Republican Party. Unless and until the GOP recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk. Each national election will feel like a national emergency. Therefore, the de-radicalization of the Republican Party is a central task for the next decade.
Normally, in a two-party democracy, if one party veers off course, it is punished at the ballot box. Electoral competition is thought to be a natural corrective for political extremism: Parties that stray too far from the average voter’s positions lose votes, which compels them to moderate and broaden their appeal to win again. When a professional sports team loses, it fires its coach, acquires new players, and regroups. The same should hold for political parties. Indeed, if you ask moderate or Never Trump Republicans what will get Republicans back on course, they will almost invariably answer “devastating electoral defeat.”
They may be right. There is a hitch, however: Competition’s effects are being undermined in the U.S. today by what political scientists call countermajoritarian institutions. We believe that the U.S. Constitution, in its current form, is enabling the radicalization of the Republican Party and exacerbating America’s democratic crisis. The Constitution’s key countermajoritarian features, such as the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate, have long been biased toward sparsely populated territories. But given that Democrats are increasingly the party of densely populated areas and Republicans dominate less populated areas, this long-standing rural bias now allows the Republican Party to win the presidency, control Congress, and pack the Supreme Court without winning electoral majorities. Consider these facts:
- Republicans have won the popular vote for the presidency only once since 1988, yet have governed the country for nearly half of that period.
- The Democratic and Republican Parties each control 50 seats in the U.S. Senate, even though Democratic senators represent 40 million more voters than do Republican senators.
- The three justices who most recently joined the Supreme Court were appointed by a president who did not win the popular vote—and were confirmed by Senate majorities that did not represent a majority of Americans.
Countermajoritarian institutions shield Republicans from genuine competition. By allowing Republicans to win power without national majorities, this constitutional welfare allows the GOP to pursue extremist strategies that threaten our democracy without suffering devastating electoral consequences. Most Americans oppose most of the Republicans’ current positions. But if we do not reform our democracy to allow majorities to speak, expecting the GOP to change course would be naive.
Americans tend to view countermajoritarian institutions as essential to liberal democracy. And some of them are. In the United States, the Bill of Rights and judicial review help ensure that individual liberties and minority rights are protected. But many of our countermajoritarian institutions are legacies of a pre-democratic era. Where they pervade the electoral or legislative arenas, they do not protect minority rights so much as empower partisan minorities and, in some cases, enable minority rule.
To save our democracy, we must democratize it. A political system that repeatedly allows a minority party to control the most powerful offices in the country cannot remain legitimate for long. Following the example of other democracies, we must expand access to the ballot, reform our electoral system to ensure that majorities win elections, and weaken or eliminate antiquated institutions such as the filibuster so that majorities can actually govern. Congress is considering limited democratizing reforms, such as banning legislative gerrymandering. But those proposals pale in comparison with the extent of the problem.
Serious constitutional reform may seem like a daunting task, but Americans have refounded our democracy before. After the Civil War and during the Progressive era and the civil-rights movement, political leaders, under pressure from organized citizens, remade our democracy. Always unfinished, our Constitution requires continuous updating. American democracy thrived because it allowed itself to be reformed. Given the scale of the threat, reforming our democracy over the next decade is among the most pressing challenges we face today.
Diamond: How To Secure American Democracy
By Larry Diamond
To read this essay on American Purpose click here.
Any strategy to repair and secure America’s teetering democracy must begin with a clear analysis of the causes of our predicament. At the surface, I suggest two: a level of partisan political polarization not seen in more than a century and a serious erosion in public commitment to democratic values and norms. Beneath these are the familiar social and economic drivers: steeply rising social and economic inequality, to levels that should be considered morally intolerable; the intense pace of globalization, with its relentless displacement of manufacturing jobs and continuing flows of immigration from diverse parts of the globe; partly as a result, the increasing racial diversity of the United States, with the foreseeable prospect of its becoming a majority-minority country; the growing cultural gulf between racially diverse urban, professional, and coastal populations and predominantly white, culturally conservative, more religious heartland and southern populations; and the corrosive impact of social media on truth, trust, tolerance, and mutually respectful discourse.
Only rarely in our history has American democracy confronted such a formidable combination of challenges to the survival of our Constitutional experiment. Managing these threats will require carefully conceived and energetically mobilized campaigns with three aims: to defend and reform elections, to empower democratic majorities, and to build a broad pro-democracy political coalition.
Defending Democratic Norms and Processes
The most crucial imperative in the short term is to defend the integrity of the electoral process against partisan – Trump Republican – efforts to capture control of electoral administration and certification. These functions should not rest with partisan actors—not with state legislatures and not even with elected secretaries of state, who in most states run as partisan candidates. Rather, they should be entrusted—at the state, country, and local levels—to career non-partisan officials. The problem today is that Trump’s loyal followers have identified these vulnerable stress points in the system of organizing elections, and they are going after them. We need a broad national coalition—including diverse leaders of business, labor, and civic institutions—to defend impartial electoral administration as a foundational principle of our democracy.
Next in urgency is fighting Trump Republican efforts to make it more difficult for people to register and vote. Where state legislatures are pursuing these initiatives, the efforts clearly have the effect and the apparent intent of targeting racial minorities, poor people, and other Democratic constituencies. In a democracy, voting rights should never be sacrificed—however partially—on the altar of partisan advantage, which is why we so urgently need the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The “For the People Act” (HR1/S1) would move more ambitiously not only to defend and extend voting rights but also to modernize voter registration, eliminate partisan gerrymandering, and reduce the disproportionate influence of big money in politics—all immensely worthy goals. My one reservation is that the bill’s provision for a six-to-one match of small donations may favor more militant primary candidates who motivate large numbers of fervent followers to make these small donations, further polarizing our political system.
The most promising strategy in the near term to reduce partisan polarization—one that could be, and is being, adopted at state and municipal levels—is to shift current plurality elections to Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), as Maine, Alaska, and New York City have recently done. We need a national state-by-state campaign to win the adoption of RCV. Congress should pass the Voter Choice Act, sponsored by Senators Michael Bennet and Angus King and Representative Dean Phillips, which provides $40 million in funding to help state and local governments change over to RCV.
In partisan primaries, RCV would attenuate polarization by requiring nominees to win a majority of the vote in order to be nominated, making it more difficult for politically extreme candidates to win by simply mobilizing their parties’ most militant voters. For similar reasons, RCV favors more moderate candidates in general elections, while also giving voters more choice and control and, since no votes are “wasted,” allowing a third party or an independent a greater chance in the contest: If a voter’s first choice doesn’t win outright and no one wins a majority of first-preference votes, the first-choice vote is transferred to the voter’s next choice. Particularly intriguing is the “Top Four” system adopted by Alaska voters in November, 2020. Beginning in 2022, Alaska will hold a single “blanket” primary – advancing the top four finishers to the general election, in which RCV determines the winner. This system will make it much more difficult for a party’s extreme wing to defeat a broadly appealing moderate – like incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski: The Alaska reform appears to have emboldened her in her moderation. Some reformers favor a “Top Five” final round to further enlarge the circle of competition.
Other reforms are needed to make American democracy fairer—that is, more reflective of the wishes of the majority rather than the minority. There is very little prospect of Constitutional amendments in the next decade or two to address major defects – for example, by eliminating the Electoral College and reducing the disproportionate power of small states in the U.S. Senate. But we should push for legislative solutions wherever possible. An innovative approach that would probably survive a Supreme Court challenge, a National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would award the presidency to the winner of the national popular vote by requiring states that pass the enabling legislation to award their electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes nationwide, no matter who wins the most votes in each individual state. But the compact can take effect only when states that make up a majority of the Electoral College (at least 270 votes) have passed the legislation; at the moment, the movement is 95 electoral votes short. A simpler reform would make the Senate more representative by granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. National legislation could also make the House more diverse (and congressional delegations more representative of the partisan balance in each state) by dividing medium-sized and large states into multi-seat districts of three to five members each. After this division, the reformed system would use proportional representation, administered through RCV, to choose winners in the new multi-seat districts, as provided in the Fair Representation Act. By creating bigger, more diverse congressional districts, the new system would also render gerrymandering largely irrelevant.
Breaking the Cycle of Dysfunction
Yet, the forces tearing the country apart are such a potent mix that they cannot be relieved by institutional political reforms alone. Unless the United States addresses the social, economic, and cultural drivers of these forces, polarization will persist. And a growing body of academic analysis shows that under conditions of extreme political polarization—when contending political forces see one another as existential threats to transcendent values—political leaders will be willing to pursue – and their followers, including ordinary voters, to endorse — undemocratic measures meant to enable them to get and keep political power come hell or high water.
This dilemma has not been confronted honestly enough by Democrats, democrats, and progressives struggling to defend the democratic order. On the one hand, the vicious cycle of democratic dysfunction and populist reaction can be broken only by empowering democratic majorities to address the fundamental challenges of wiring, greening, rebuilding, and renewing the American economy and leveling our current grotesque degree of inequality through better provision of public services and more just taxation. But the steps needed for this kind of empowerment – in particular, eliminating the Senate filibuster—may themselves be further polarizing. Such steps can also make it easier for another authoritarian-minded president to aggrandize and abuse his executive power. In other backsliding democracies, the ability of an autocratic executive to command reliable parliamentary support has been a major factor in the democracy’s decline or demise.
To make America governable again, the filibuster should be eliminated, or at least made much more difficult to invoke and much easier to overcome. But further empowering Congressional majorities also requires constraining the ability of unified party control of the White House and Congress to erode democracy. Applying this kind of constraint requires bolstering the independence of the judiciary, law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Secret Service, and other institutions of accountability and oversight—like career prosecutors and departmental inspectors-general—to make it much more difficult for a corrupt, power-aggrandizing president to politicize or remove them.
The most important long-term reform that could strengthen the political independence of the judiciary would be to restructure the Supreme Court by imposing fixed terms for justices. I favor 18-year term limits, while giving presidents the ability to nominate justices in the first and third years of their presidential terms, with the Senate required to vote the nominations up or down within 120 days – or else the nominees would be automatically confirmed. The system would be phased in: The Court would be temporarily enlarged until the current justices retired. Then, under the new system, the size of the Court would decline to its traditional nine-member size. Because the proposed legislation (H.R. 824) does not force any sitting justice off the Court or pack it with a single tranche of balance-shifting nominees, and because it would give predictable Court appointments to future Republican and Democratic presidents alike, it would not be a partisan court-packing effort of the kind that FDR tried and failed to pull off. But it would still be contentious – and nearly impossible without a serious national conversation about depoliticizing the Court.
We should also try innovative ways to enrich civic participation while reducing partisan polarization. One promising prospect is “deliberative democracy,” in which diverse citizens come together in an atmosphere of civility to weigh arguments for and against contending policies. This method, when bolstered by the science of stratified random sampling, can supplement traditional democratic decision-making (or, too often, decision non-making) by bringing together a highly representative microcosm of a city, a country, or even an international group. The randomly selected citizens, informed by balanced briefing papers, would deliberate; afterwards, they would be polled. The results can tell us how an entire society would decide some issues if it were able to consider them under what my Stanford colleague James Fishkin calls “good conditions.”
In our 2019 experiment “America in One Room,” the method produced dramatic reductions in partisan polarization on both specific issues like immigration and the economy and “affective polarization”—the emotional gulf between Democrats and Republicans. If it were scaled up to involve a broader degree of participation—with participants recruited, for example, through schools and community organizations—the process might diminish our explosive partisan divides, by beginning to generate mutual understanding and even empathy among citizens who now inhabit almost entirely separate social, cultural, and political worlds.
Building a Broad Coalition
The strategy of bridging divisions actually has a place even in electoral battles. In what Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq have described as “near misses” in other countries’ battles with creeping authoritarianism, the best way to arrest the decline of democracy is to defeat the authoritarian party at the polls. Such defeats are harder, though, if an authoritarian party can change the rules and defy the popular will to guarantee its victory. Even if elections are honest, defeating authoritarian populism requires fashioning a broad coalition to deflate the populist strategy of creating and exacerbating polarizing divisions. Defenders of democracy won’t win at the polls simply by denouncing their opponents’ betrayals of democratic norms; they must peel away populist supporters through inclusive messages that address these voters’ economic and cultural anxieties and show real respect for their dignity and worth. As the party in power now, Democrats must deliver on their promises to improve economic fairness and opportunity for lower- and middle-income Americans, including those in rural areas; they must also show they are serious about combatting crime and illegal immigration. These requirements fly in the face of left Democrat demands to “defund the police” or simply accept illegal immigration. Moreover, a democratic coalition cannot indulge white supremacist sentiment or ignore police discrimination or brutality against people of color—indeed, it must combat racism in all its forms. Thus, the path to forging an electoral majority substantial enough to survive any state Republican administrative efforts to obstruct or nullify it will involve a delicate balancing act. Irrespective of what “should” be done in the abstract, a sharp turn to the left by Democrats on cultural issues is likely to guarantee an Electoral College victory by a Trump-like Republican in 2024—and, then, an escalating assault on the pillars of our democracy.
Too many Americans dismiss the experiences of other countries as irrelevant to our “exceptional” national story. Today, however, American democracy is exceptional only in its proximity, among advanced industrial democracies, to failure. Both history and recent experience teach us that democracy is a precious, hard-won gift that can be lost and that in its hour of maximum danger, people who believe in it must rally across political and ideological divides to make its defense their first priority.
Larry Diamond, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He coordinates the democracy program of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. This essay is co-published with American Purpose.
Bibbins Sedaca: How to End America’s Partisan Meltdown
by Nicole Bibbins Sedaca
To read a version of this article in the Dallas Morning News, click here.
Perhaps surprisingly, polarization in U.S. politics has actually increased public engagement in democracy. A majority of Americans contribute money to candidates, attend political rallies, or work for political or civic campaigns. Voter turnout reached an all-time high in 2020, with multiple demographic groups raising their participation. Even political leaders are increasingly speaking about the importance of the country’s democratic institutions.
While this trend is important, political activism will not necessarily translate into a stronger democracy—unless and until Americans recognize that how they engage is just as important as whether they engage in public affairs. In short, Americans must be just as dedicated to maintaining and upholding the integrity of our democratic system as they are to advancing their partisan interests.
Winning at all costs
Engaged Americans actually risk weakening our democracy if they bend rules to advance their views, deny the right of others to hold opposing views, or refuse to accept the legitimacy of democratic processes when they dislike the results. On a daily basis, we see examples of such behavior from politicians as well as civic leaders reflecting their supporters: from the drafting of laws that make it more difficult for some Americans to vote to the gerrymandering of congressional district maps, from threats to pack the Supreme Court to using “cancel culture” to silence others’ views. These leaders are undermining the very foundations of our democracy, often while arguing that they are trying to save it.
Numerous studies have indicated that ordinary Americans are also increasingly willing to compromise democratic norms and institutions for the sake of their political goals. A 2020 survey by Yale University’s Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik showed that only about “3.5 percent of voters will defect from a candidate whom they otherwise support, but who does something destructive of democratic norms.” According to a 2020 Pew study, “Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly say it is very important for elected officials in the opposing party to treat officials from their own party with respect. They are much less demanding when it comes to members of their party treating the other side with respect.”
We are losing sight of the responsibility of each American to uphold our democratic institutions and principles, not just secure victory for Democratic or Republican agendas.
It may seem strange to highlight this challenge at a time when the country is contending with more pressing and dramatic affronts to its democratic order, namely the denial of the 2020 presidential election results and the related January insurrection at the Capitol. While our nation has unquestionably been shaken by these phenomena, we must recognize that they are only the most extreme manifestations of a much broader erosion in democratic norms. There is no moral equivalency between violent insurrectionists on the one hand and peaceful partisan activists on the other, but we cannot pretend that addressing political violence alone will restore the health of American democracy.
Preventing a race to the bottom
Across the political spectrum, leaders and citizens are justifying their own undemocratic actions by citing the real or imagined abuses of their opponents. Breaking this cycle of blame shifting is particularly difficult given that so many people in one party—today’s Republican Party—have clearly embraced the fallacious denial of the 2020 election results, ignored or downplayed the reality of the January violence, and pursued flawed voting restrictions at the state level. This lopsided culpability has left many centrists and left-leaning leaders with fewer democratic partners on the right, and with a fairly strong case as to why they would be justified in a less-than-democratic response. While the imbalance is real, there is nonetheless no justification for either side to take shortcuts that undermine democratic norms and institutions.
Consider the cost of undemocratic measures to advance one party’s interests. If the party in power in a given setting unilaterally changes election rules in its favor, for example, it can expect the same treatment whenever and wherever it is in the minority, raising the stakes of each contest and creating new incentives to win by any means necessary. This is the path to instability, violence, and authoritarian rule.
Ending a majority party’s use of such undemocratic measures to advance their platform is unquestionably the right thing to do for a healthy democracy. But it is also in the self-interest of all parties to pursue such a strategy in the short and long term, given that each will undoubtedly shift from being in the majority and minority over time.
Respecting democratic norms and political pluralism does not mean agreeing with opposing views, nor does it require excusing or remaining silent in the face of ideas that are undemocratic, racist, or extremist. It simply means rejecting illiberal practices in one’s reactions to them, and relying on democratic processes to address the country’s daunting challenges.
Unfortunately, even the notion of what is democratic has become entangled with partisan identity. For many Americans, any action that advances what they agree with is perceived as democratic and legitimate, and any action that advances the agenda of the other party must therefore be undemocratic and illegitimate.
To reconnect with the true meaning of democratic principles, we must acknowledge and protect those institutions and norms that provide space for a range of views and policy options, including those with which we disagree. Democracy supporters are distinguished by their commitment to fair structures, rules, and processes—regardless of whether they are dissatisfied with a given short-term outcome. Once they begin to recognize one another on this basis, believers in American democracy can work together to protect and improve our system, even as they continue to debate and compete on other matters.
What democracy looks like
So how can Americans contribute to the important work of reversing partisan polarization and strengthening democratic institutions?
Political leaders must be willing to critique colleagues in their own party when they violate democratic principles and codes of behavior, underscoring the fact that the rules are meant to be applied impartially and universally. Rather than defending gerrymanders in one state while denouncing them in another, for example, they should work – ideally across party lines – to end the practice altogether.
Elected officials must also oppose structural or legal changes that might benefit them in the short term while degrading the system in the long term, weakening checks and balances and damaging public faith in democracy as a whole. In the case of Supreme Court reform, rather than engaging in tit-for-tat attempts to entrench an ideological majority, democracy supporters should reach consensus on a rule-based solution that would restore predictability, fairness, and integrity to the appointment process.
More broadly, lawmakers and chief executives must regularly and vocally acknowledge the fundamental rights of their political opponents, even as they express disagreement with a particular view. Journalists must report on politicians’ adherence to democratic principles, consistently and regardless of party, and must do so as a regular course, not just around elections. And voters must ultimately hold their leaders accountable, supporting candidates based on both their platform and their commitment to a level playing field.
These sorts of actions may seem unlikely in the current climate, and progress will undoubtedly be challenging. But it remains eminently possible.
Americans have the opportunity and responsibility to show that they are committed to both our democracy and their interests.
A story from not so long ago reminds us what this could look like.
In 2008, rivals John McCain and Barack Obama were in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. At a town hall meeting, a Minnesota woman said to McCain, “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not… he’s not… he’s an Arab.”
Immediately and decisively, Senator McCain rejected the false information, along with the undemocratic notion that someone’s ethnic heritage would make them unfit for leadership. McCain affirmed these democratic basics while pivoting to the different policy approaches that he and Obama were presenting to voters.
He said very simply, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That’s what this campaign is all about.”
That is also what democracy is all about, and we must choose to fight for it.