Under the U.S. tax code, Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan group. That means we do not work to advance the success or failure of any political party or partisan candidate for office based on their party.
But that legal standard does not adequately describe our values and strategy, nor does it explain what is happening to our system of government.
Democracy in the United States, and around the world, is under threat from a resurgent political creed — authoritarianism — that is disconnected from any healthy political divide, whether conservative vs. progressive, left vs. right, or Democrat vs. Republican. Indeed, authoritarianism has emerged from different corners of society in different countries and across time. In Venezuela and Nicaragua, authoritarianism currently uses the language of the left, and in Hungary and Russia, it most recently comes from the right. Some countries have endured both left- and right-wing authoritarianism within living memory.
Because authoritarianism can arise from any part of the political spectrum, our mission does not map neatly onto the traditional framework of American partisan divides. Participants in a healthy functioning democracy should compete over different values, priorities, and policies. But they should operate within a shared set of rules and institutions that allow the people to select their representatives in government and that uphold the rule of law and basic freedoms. Authoritarian approaches, in contrast, seek to impose centralized, unquestioned authority that places the ruler outside the law and unaccountable to the people. This is true of authoritarian factions whether their actions are the result of an intentional ideology or are incidental to an effort to secure and hold power. There have always been authoritarian strands in American history and authoritarianism is especially prominent in a faction of one of our national political parties today. But authoritarianism as an ideology operates as an alternative to, rather than within, a functioning political and party system.
Our cross-ideological strategy
Defeating the authoritarian threat requires building a coalition that cuts across the usual divides, putting policy and politics aside to defend a system that allows for and peacefully manages political disagreement.
This is what has happened in countries like the Czech Republic, where a wide range of parties banded together in 2021 to defeat an illiberal-minded prime minister, offering what The New York Times called a “road map for toppling strongmen.”
This is Protect Democracy’s strategy — to build a coalition of progressives, moderates, and conservatives who believe in defending the principles of democratic government and the rule of law.
As such, we are willing to work with leaders and citizens on the left and right, and we oppose actions that threaten our democracy no matter which party or actor is responsible. In criticizing, advocating against, or bringing legal action against anti-democratic behavior from any side, we do not wait to find equal targets from differing parties or ideologies in the spirit of nonpartisanship. If a Democrat robs a bank, we don’t need to also find a Republican bank robber before we can take action. And in our research and policy work we seek to implement new reforms and rebuild institutions so they can constrain anti-democratic behavior and minimize the autocratic threat, wherever its origins.
Our cross-ideological track record
- Our staff has included progressives, moderates, and conservatives who have served under elected officials from both major parties; and our boards of directors and advisors similarly have included high-profile former aides and advisors to presidents, legislators, and politicians from both major parties.
- The National Task Force on Election Crises, which we formed and support, brings together the country’s most prominent elections experts from the left, right, and center, including people who served under George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
- Our litigation has represented a wide variety of cross-ideological actors, including Republican voters and former electeds, Democratic Senators, public officials, and Trump campaign staff and supporters. And it has challenged actions by Democratic and Republican government officials.
- VoteShield, our election monitoring team, supports election officials across the country from both major parties and was nominated for an innovation award by Secretary of State Paul Pate (R-IA).
- Protect Democracy has organized thousands of former Department of Justice officials, who served under presidents of both major parties, to protect independent and nonpartisan law enforcement.
- Our policy positions remain the same regardless of who is in power. For example, we have worked to constrain presidential emergency powers under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
- Our legislative team works constructively with anyone who can help advance policies that will strengthen our democracy — including those who have harmful views or mixed records on our mission.
Protecting democracy is not always bipartisan
Importantly, while our strategy is cross-ideological and our mission is staunchly nonpartisan, it is not always bipartisan. Because “bipartisan” means including the two major parties as institutions. And at present, a powerful faction within one of our two major parties fails to meet the three basic tests that political scientists have established for political parties to be considered pro-democracy.
First, healthy actors in a democratic system must unambiguously accept electoral defeat. Second, they must eschew violence. And third, they must be willing to break with extremists in their own ranks who violate the first two principles. There are countless individual Republicans who pass these tests — but a powerful faction within the Republican Party has violated all three.
Although there are authoritarian and illiberal factions on both the left and right of the electorate in the United States, at present, the primary threats to democracy have come from a faction on the right, and from within the Republican Party specifically. We refuse to ignore the grave implications of this situation, and we will never commit to bipartisanship for its own sake. We have and will continue to work with members of either party to advance the goal of keeping our republic healthy and strong.
The bigger picture
The United States is in a moment of profound political transition. Just as in past moments of rapid social and political change, as globalization and the information revolution change social structures, so too are old political alignments giving way to new ones.
The old partisan paradigm of Democrat and Republican, left and right — which many of us have grown to take for granted as immutable and fundamental in American politics — has given way to a new divide of democracy and authoritarianism.
Thankfully, unlike the old paradigm, American voters are not evenly polarized into these two poles. Indeed, only a quarter of the U.S. population seems to genuinely believe in authoritarian values. But, unfortunately, the aspects of our electoral system that systematically advantage authoritarianism — combined with the residual stickiness of the right vs. left ideological frame — means that the authoritarian faction has a plausible path to power in any given election. They have done so before, and they could do so again.
Our goal is to ensure that democracy as a form of government, based on free and fair elections, the rule of law, free expression, and individual rights, endures in the United States. The surest secure way to meet that goal is to return to having at least two pro-democracy parties, if not more, with political disagreements again safely constrained within the rules of democracy.
But even if that does not happen — especially if that does not happen — the coalition in support of liberal democracy must prevail. We must find a way, whatever the partisan makeup.
There is no alternative.