January 29, 2022

Democracy in Crisis

Guest Opinion
By Tom Gutowski | Dec. 4, 2021

In their 2018 book, “How Democracies Die,” Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say that nowadays democracies seldom die abruptly. Today’s aspiring authoritarians use mostly legal methods abetted by occasional violence, or threats of violence, to slowly hollow out the system, leaving a shell of democracy without the substance.

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, wannabe autocrats can be identified by four behaviors: rejection of established norms, denial of the legitimacy of opponents, encouragement of violence, and desire to curtail the civil liberties of opponents and the media.

Donald Trump has exhibited all four behaviors. He pushed birtherism, reveled in chants of “lock her up,” urged then-Attorney General Bill Barr to arrest Joe Biden, attacked the press and the judiciary, claimed the last election was rigged before it was even held, talked about tightening libel laws so he could go after his critics, refused to concede, encouraged his supporters to beat up protestors, heaped praise on dictators, and encouraged the Jan. 6 insurrection. And, of course, there’s the megalomaniacal “only I can fix it” thing.

Whether or not Trump runs in 2024, Trumpism maintains a firm and tightening grip on the new, radical GOP. Moderate Republicans have resigned in droves rather than get primaried from the right. We now have Republican Q-anon supporters in the House of Representatives, while Liz Cheney was removed from a leadership position for telling the truth about the 2020 election. Few GOP leaders have the courage to stand up to Trump or to the conspiracy theorists. 

Part one of the radical GOP strategy for regaining the White House consists of focusing almost entirely on culture-war issues: mask and vaccine mandates, what gets taught about race and racism in K-12 schools, immigration, and police reform. The purpose isn’t to generate constructive dialogue, but rather, to stoke enough fear and outrage to send their voters running to the polls, and to demonize Democrats — because if you can convince your base that your opponents are out to “destroy the American way of life,” there's no limit to what you can get away with. Even a violent coup attempt begins to seem reasonable and patriotic.

Part two is obstruction. If Democrats are for it, the GOP is against it. When Republicans are in power, they routinely raise the debt ceiling, but when a Democrat is president, they’re horrified by the very idea. Republicans wanted an infrastructure plan while Trump was President, but once Biden passed one, some Republicans called the plan communist and asked minority leader Kevin McCarthy to punish the 13 GOP Representatives who voted for it. Several of those 13, including Michigan’s Fred Upton, even received death threats. Jack Bergman voted against the bill despite the substantial benefits that it will have for Michigan.

This obstructionism isn’t just gamesmanship; for the radical right, it’s a strategic imperative. Anytime you admit that anything your opponents do is good, you risk diminishing your ability to demonize them. Ideally, the other side has to be all wrong, all the time, with no exceptions.

Part three is voter suppression, using methods that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities and favor Republicans. The excuse — the lie that the 2020 election was stolen — has been thoroughly debunked. Nevertheless, under the guise of protecting election integrity, hundreds of bills in multiple states aim to reduce the use of mail-in ballots, stiffen ID requirements, reduce the number of drop boxes and polling places, curtail registration drives, and intimidate election officials with threats of criminal prosecution for minor technical violations.

For example, one of the bills in Michigan would ban in-kind contributions to election clerks. This innocent-sounding provision would end the use of donated election sites, like churches, which could reduce the number of polling places in Michigan by an estimated 20 percent.

This and other provisions could become law despite not having majority support and despite Gov. Whitmer’s veto; if enough voters sign the deceptively named “Secure MI Vote” petition, Republican legislators can bypass Whitmer and approve the laws. Voting rights advocates say that if they succeed, the result would be one of the most restrictive sets of voting laws in the country.

Part four of the plan is to drive out honest and experienced local and state election officials, Republican as well as Democrat, and replace them with party activists who parrot the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. In a few states, the legislatures are also trying to take power away from election officials and vest it in themselves. The officials who are being systematically removed or disempowered functioned as the guardrails of democracy in 2020. By 2024, much of the electoral machinery may in the hands of people far more interested in getting the outcome they want than ensuring the fairness of the process.

One of the forces driving out honest election officials is intimidation. Some officials report being on the receiving end of a veritable barrage of threats. Nationwide, one-third of all election officials report feeling physically unsafe, and no wonder. According to a recent poll, 80 percent of Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen, and 30 percent say they’re willing to use violence to “save” America.

For American democracy to die, all that’s required is for enough citizens to assume that its survival is inevitable. It isn’t. If you’ve been on the political sidelines, watching, now is the time to get actively involved. Maintaining a healthy democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

Tom Gutowski earned a PhD in History from the University of Chicago before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired a few years ago.

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