A State of Emergency for Democracy

By attacking the rule of law, Republicans are helping Putin and Xi.

A red Ionic column in the style of a fire extinguisher.
Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

About the authors: Hillary Rodham Clinton is a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for president of the United States, and a lifelong advocate for women and girls. She is the author of What Happened. Dan Schwerin is a co-founder of Evergreen Strategy Group. He has served in the White House and the State Department and was the director of speechwriting for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pines for the old Russian empire and takes Ukraine’s independence as a personal affront. But the invasion of Ukraine is not a limited regional dispute between neighbors. Putin is also motivated by a deep opposition to democracy more broadly. That is why he has waged a long-running shadow war to destabilize free societies and discredit democratic institutions in the United States and around the world. Ukraine is one flash point in a larger global struggle between democracy and autocracy—one that stretches from the steppes of Eastern Europe to the waters of the Indo-Pacific to the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

The scope of that wider struggle was on vivid display on February 4. In Beijing, the world’s two most powerful autocrats—Putin and China’s Xi Jinping—cemented their deepening alliance. In the United States, where American leaders should have been unified in championing democracy against these aggressive adversaries, the opposite happened: The Republican National Committee formally declared the violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, to be “legitimate political discourse.”

Much has been said about the assault on American democracy by a radicalized Republican Party, but its international consequences have not gotten the attention they deserve. Republican leaders are abandoning core tenets of American democracy even as the stakes in the global contest between democracy and autocracy are clearer and higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. They are defending coup-plotters and curbing voting rights while Russia tries to crush Ukraine’s fragile democracy and China menaces not only Taiwan but democracies everywhere, from Australia to Lithuania.

Putin is not just a garden-variety nationalist; he is a paranoid, chronically underestimated, implacable enemy of democracy. And while Russia poses an immediate threat to peace in Europe and to the integrity of our elections at home, it is Xi’s China that represents the greatest long-term challenge to the future of democracy. The United States faces a serious and sustained competition with China that may shape the rest of the 21st century as profoundly as our Cold War with the Soviet Union defined the latter part of the 20th century. The world is very different than it was during the Cold War, and China is bigger, richer, and more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union ever was. But the competition with China is a similarly multidimensional struggle that is economic, cultural, technological, diplomatic, military, and ideological all at the same time. That means the U.S. will have to invest and compete across all these dimensions—while bolstering democracy at home and abroad.

Deterring Russia and competing with China are different challenges, and each requires its own strategy, but strengthening American democracy is crucial to both missions. Putin and Xi understand that the promise of democracy—freedom, rule of law, human rights, self-determination—remains powerful enough to capture the imaginations of people everywhere and poses a threat to their regimes’ global ambitions as well as their grip on power at home. That’s why they are determined to discredit or co-opt the idea of democracy, including by promoting divisions and dysfunction in democratic societies like the United States, and by bragging about the ability of their autocracies to deliver better results. America and our allies should be working just as hard to prove them wrong. We need a strong democracy in the United States to win the global argument with autocracy. A strong democracy is also a precondition to mobilizing the resources necessary to deter aggression and compete economically and militarily. By contrast, a weak and fractured democracy at home will only embolden our adversaries and invite further aggression.

For all these reasons, the Republican Party is playing right into Putin’s and Xi’s hands. Trump has always had a personal attachment to Putin, which we don’t need to belabor here, and a long-standing admiration for dictators and disdain for democracy—going all the way back to his admiration for the brutal Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square decades ago. It was dismaying but not surprising that Trump praised Putin’s move to recognize and occupy separatist enclaves in Ukraine as “genius” and “savvy.” That’s what we have come to expect from Trump. But even Republican leaders who still take a Reaganesque view of America’s role in the world and talk a good game about deterring Russia and competing with China are undercutting those goals by aiding and abetting Trump’s attacks on America’s democratic institutions.

This is not just another political dispute; it’s a five-alarm national-security crisis. The hard truth is that if Republicans won’t stand up to Trump, they can’t stand up to Putin or Xi.

The failure by Republican leaders to defend American democracy is all the more tragic because many of them know better. Some may be genuinely attracted to authoritarianism and disdainful of pluralism and equality. Many others are making a Faustian bargain to preserve their own power at the expense of fundamental democratic norms and institutions—a move as cynical as it is short-sighted.

Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo declared in a major speech about China in July 2020 that “free nations have to work to defend freedom.” Yet a week after Joe Biden’s victory in a free and fair election that November, Pompeo said, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Whether or not he believed that statement doesn’t matter. Coming from the secretary of state standing at the State Department podium, it was a performance of authoritarian mendacity that would have made North Korean propagandists blush.

Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri rails often against China and has said the United States should “lead the free world” to confront a Chinese Communist Party that is “a menace to all free peoples.” Yet Hawley led the effort in Congress to overturn the 2020 election, and the image of his raised fist saluting insurrectionists on January 6 is an indelible memory of that dark day for American democracy. His reelection campaign is now selling coffee mugs with the photo for $20.

Senator Marco Rubio, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, urged his colleagues to stand up to China and “prove our democracy can work again, our system of government can function. That it can solve big problems in big ways.” Yet he helped lead a filibuster to defeat the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would have strengthened a cornerstone of American democracy, and also blocked a bipartisan commission from investigating the January 6 insurrection.

Some members of the GOP are still capable of courage. Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois are braving the ire of their party to serve on the House committee investigating January 6. Bipartisan efforts are under way to reform the Electoral Count Act and make overturning future elections, the way Trump tried to do in 2020, more difficult. Republican senators are also working with Democrats to prepare crippling sanctions in response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Some Republicans have even woken up to the fact that competing with China requires moving past the conservative economic orthodoxy that for decades starved the United States of needed public investments in innovation, infrastructure, and industrial capacity. Nearly 20 Senate Republicans supported both the $1.2 trillion infrastructure legislation that Biden signed into law in November and the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which would help America compete with China by investing billions in research, innovation, and advanced manufacturing, including the semiconductors that are in such short supply. (The House is now focused on passing its own version of this legislation, and the president is eager to sign a bill.)

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Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

But these bright spots are the exceptions that prove the rule. A solid majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress rejected the infrastructure legislation, and the party remains in lockstep opposition to important economic measures that would help America compete with China, including on clean energy and education. Those Republican leaders promising tough sanctions on Putin’s economy and inner circle seem helpless to tamp down the pro-Russian sentiment in their party ignited by Trump, fanned on a daily basis by Tucker Carlson on Fox News, and now embraced by a growing number of GOP members and candidates—as well as the continuing right-wing love affair with Hungary’s would-be autocrat, Viktor Orbán.

Cheney and Kinzinger notwithstanding, Republicans are largely going along with the Trump-led attack on American democratic institutions and legitimacy at precisely the time when we need to set an example for the world. Recall that on January 6, nearly 150 Republican members of Congress voted to overturn the presidential election just hours after the sacking of the Capitol.

One of the ringleaders of the effort to challenge the election results, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, later said what was obvious to everyone who watched the assault on the Capitol that day: It was a “violent terrorist attack.” That was enough to make him an apostate in Trump’s Republican Party, and Cruz had to beat an embarrassing on-air retreat on Fox. To regain his standing, he started pushing a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory that the insurrection may have actually been a “false flag” operation planned by the FBI. It was not.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may still be willing to call January 6 a violent insurrection, but he blocked a bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate it. More broadly, McConnell and his allies have pushed power politics to the breaking point in a way that has shredded the norms and trust that democracies need to function—most infamously with their abuse of the filibuster and preventing President Obama from filling a Supreme Court vacancy. Under McConnell’s leadership, every single Republican in the Senate—every one—continues to block legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act, while Republican-led states pass ever more draconian restrictions on voting that disproportionately affect people of color and poor people. Political scientists say that while these legislative tactics may lack the dramatic images of an insurrection or a coup, their effect on democracy can be devastating. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote in these pages last summer, “When contemporary democracies die, they usually do so via constitutional hardball.”

Levistsky and Ziblatt, the authors of the influential book How Democracies Die, say things have gotten much worse for American democracy in just the past few years. Whereas they previously saw the Republican Party as “abdicating its role as democratic gatekeeper” but “did not consider the GOP to be an antidemocratic party,” now they see “the bulk of the Republican Party is behaving in an antidemocratic manner,” including rejecting basic principles such as unambiguously accepting electoral defeat and condemning violence and extremist groups. Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude, “Unless and until the GOP recommits itself to playing by democratic rules of the game, American democracy will remain at risk.” For Putin and Xi, it’s a dream come true.

Sometimes it seems as if Liz Cheney is the only prominent Republican able to connect the dots between these domestic challenges and our international standing. “Attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure,” she noted in a speech last year.

This is not a new insight. During the Cold War, prominent anti-communists supported the civil-rights movement because, as Harry Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson put it, discrimination and segregation threatened “the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.” The Justice Department’s amicus brief in Brown v. Board of Education argued that “racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” And Chief Justice Earl Warren said, “Our American system, like all others, is on trial both at home and abroad … The extent to which we maintain the spirit of our Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, will in the long run do more to make it both secure and the object of adulation than the number of hydrogen bombs we stockpile.”

It’s still true today. Chinese and Russian propagandists jump at every opportunity to denigrate American-style democracy as leading not to freedom and opportunity but to gridlock, instability, and ultimately national decline. By contrast, they claim that their authoritarian systems—which they describe as the “true” democracies—produce better results. For example, to counter Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December, the Chinese Foreign Ministry put out a report that promised to “expose the deficiencies and abuse of democracy in the US,” and specifically highlighted the January 6 insurrection. “The refusal of some US politicians to recognize the election results and their supporters’ subsequent violent storming of the Capitol building have severely undercut the credibility of democracy in the US,” it crowed. The Foreign Ministry also published a white paper titled “China: Democracy That Works.” And the Chinese and Russian ambassadors published a joint op-ed assuring the world, “There is no need to worry about democracy in Russia and China,” while warning that “certain foreign governments better think about themselves and what is going on in their homes.”

The autocrats know we are in a global debate about competing systems of governance. People and leaders around the world are watching to see if democracy can still deliver peace and prosperity or even function, or if authoritarianism does indeed produce better results. This is more than a popularity contest. It’s a debate that could well determine whether Ukrainians, Poles, and Hungarians save their fragile democracies or slip into an authoritarian sphere of influence dominated by the Kremlin. It could lead countries across Asia and Africa to reject China’s financial coercion and maintain control of their resources and destiny. Or it could result in Beijing remaking the global order to its own design, writing rules of the road that suit its ambitions for new technologies like artificial intelligence and erasing universal human rights long enshrined in international law.

These are the stakes of the argument between democracy and autocracy. And when Republicans undermine American democratic institutions and trash our democratic norms, they make it harder to win that argument. They make it harder for the United States to encourage other countries to respect the rule of law, political pluralism, and the peaceful transfer of power. Those values should be among America’s most potent assets, inspiring people all over the world and offering a stark contrast with authoritarians whose power depends on squashing dissent and denying human rights. Instead, America has shown the world the ugly sneers of the insurrectionist and the conspiracy theorist.

On a practical level, a strong democracy at home is also necessary for us to mobilize the resources and sense of national mission needed to compete with a rival that’s bigger and richer than any we’ve ever faced. Xi doesn’t need to painstakingly cobble together legislative coalitions to make investments in infrastructure and innovation, or to reorient his military around new weapons systems—he just does it by fiat. Biden’s job as the leader of a raucous, restless democracy is much harder. But the United States must find a way to shake off its paralysis and make those investments. We can’t afford for our political system to be hopelessly polarized, poisoned by conspiracy theories, weakened by disinformation, or left open to interference from foreign rivals.

Only with a healthier politics, strong democratic institutions, and some measure of national unity will we be able to deliver the results we need to compete. That’s the only way we’ll be able to meaningfully reduce the inequality that saps our cohesion or build the resiliency to withstand the effects of climate change or future pandemics. A well-functioning democracy that can balance interests and make hard choices is necessary to do the work of refocusing our military budget and posture away from the global War on Terror to the very different contests unfolding in the seas and skies of the Indo-Pacific, and in outer space and cyberspace. To stay strong in the world, the United States must be able to negotiate—and ratify—treaties, either to cement new alliances or defuse threats like the Iranian nuclear program. Right now, with one major party devoted to division, not unity, more focused on stoking the culture war than strengthening national security, none of this looks likely anytime soon.

Over the years, Republicans have often invoked Ronald Reagan’s Cold War dictum “Weakness only invites aggression”—usually to argue for less diplomacy, bigger defense budgets, and more military intervention. Yet they seem blind to how their attacks on American democracy make our country look to our adversaries.

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Getty; Paul Spella / The Atlantic

Whether Putin continues testing NATO’s resolve, and whether the trajectory of our competition with China veers toward conflict, will in part be driven by Russian and Chinese perceptions of America’s decline or resilience. When our democracy looks weak, our country looks weak, and as Reagan said, that only invites aggression.

At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Chinese leaders watched carefully as the financial crisis devastated the U.S. economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drained American resources and resolve. For decades, Chinese foreign policy had been constrained by Deng Xiaoping’s direction to “hide capabilities and bide time,” waiting for the “international balance of power” to shift toward China and away from the United States. With America on its heels, President Hu Jintao announced in 2009 that China was no longer content to hide and bide but now would aim to “actively accomplish” its goals. It started making more aggressive moves in the region, testing how hard it could push—accelerating a naval buildup and asserting claims to wide swaths of water, islands, and energy reserves in the South and East China Seas. At a 2010 regional summit in Vietnam that I attended as secretary of state, we organized many of China’s neighbors to stand up to Beijing and insist on freedom of navigation in the contested waterways. The Chinese foreign minister was livid and warned his counterparts: “China is a big country. Bigger than any other countries here.” At the time, it seemed like the foreign minister was venting the frustration of an aspiring regional hegemon that had underestimated the staying power of the United States and pushed too far too fast. Today, the minister’s warning reads as a precursor of the “wolf-warrior diplomacy” that China now uses to intimidate its neighbors.

China’s belligerence in the region and beyond has accelerated greatly under Xi, along with a lurch toward tighter authoritarian control and persecution at home. Xi’s aggression not only reflects his personal ambition, but also stems from a perception of accelerating U.S. decline. Rush Doshi, a scholar who has closely studied decades’ worth of Chinese Communist Party documents and pronouncements and now serves on Biden’s National Security Council, has observed that the combination of Brexit, Trump, and the coronavirus pandemic convinced Chinese leaders that the time was right to challenge the U.S.-led international order like never before. Doshi argues in his book, The Long Game, that the January 6 insurrection helped convince Xi that, as he put it shortly afterward, “time and momentum are on our side.” The sack of the Capitol, and the democratic disarray it represented, reinforced the notion of a “period of historical opportunity” for China to seize the mantle of global leadership.

After the election, when Trump was whipping up his followers to reject the results and oppose the peaceful transfer of power, a senior Republican official explained to The Washington Post why party leaders were doing nothing to stop him: “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” With the United States competing against a powerful adversary adept at playing the long game, Americans cannot afford to be so painfully short-sighted.

Vigorous debates and hard-fought campaigns are healthy, but building a new bipartisan consensus around protecting our democracy is a national-security imperative. We must put patriotism before politics. When I was secretary of state, people around the world asked me how I could serve with President Obama after the long, difficult campaign we had waged against each other for the 2008 Democratic nomination. People were especially surprised in countries where losing an election might lead to exile or prison, not a seat in the Cabinet. My answer was simple: The good of our democracy comes first.

Republican leaders who care about democracy and are serious about competing with China and deterring Russia must stand up to Trump, stop promoting the Big Lie about the 2020 election, and embrace efforts to provide accountability for January 6. They should start taking domestic white-nationalist terrorism as seriously as they do international violent extremism, abandon their war on voting rights, and pass crucial reforms they have so far opposed, such as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. State and local Republican officeholders responsible for administering elections, from secretaries of state to members of county canvassing boards, will have to steel themselves against the mounting pressure they are already facing from Trump and his allies. Republican donors who don’t want to live in a banana republic should put their mouth where their money is and declare that they’ll only contribute to candidates who support democracy.

Ultimately, it’s voters—all of us, really—who must be democracy’s last line of defense. This isn’t just about the next presidential election. Democracy will be on the ballot this year as well, in state, local, and congressional races across the country. If Americans fail to rise to this challenge, and our democracy continues to come apart at the seams, the consequences will be felt far beyond our own borders. We must come together to strengthen our institutions, protect our elections from foreign interference, and defend civil rights for all. That will send a powerful message that will resonate not just in Washington but in Moscow and Beijing.