The next few weeks will likely answer the most crucial question that emerged from last year’s insurrection by supporters of Donald Trump: Can one political party defend American democracy on its own?
In the days after the January 6 attack, it appeared possible that many Republicans would join Democrats in a cross-party coalition to defend democracy against the autocratic threat. But instead, Trump has consolidated his control over the GOP, led a movement to purge Republican elected officials who resisted his unfounded claims of fraud, and solidified the belief among the party’s voters that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president. Rather than renouncing Trump’s discredited claims, his Republican allies have cited them to justify passing dozens of laws in multiple red states reducing access to the ballot and increasing partisan control over election administration and tabulation.
Since the Capitol attack, nothing has shaped the ongoing struggle over the fate of American democracy more than this refusal by almost all elected Republicans—and such GOP constituencies as national business groups and social conservative organizations—to lock arms in a cross-party “popular front” or “grand alliance” to defend the basic rules of democratic society.
“I think the succumbing of the Republican Party to the Big Lie just swamps everything else,” Bill Kristol, the longtime conservative strategist who has become a leader in the Republican opposition to Trump, told me. Although it was possible last January to believe that the GOP would “repudiate” Trump, Kristol said, his dominance endures. To Kristol, it’s hard to make the case that the Republican surrender to Trump’s antidemocratic impulses “is a passing cloud, even a very big and unpleasant cloud. It’s going to be part of the scene for a while,” he said.
Trump’s consolidation of control means that arguably for the first time in American history, the dominant faction in one of the nation’s major political parties is displaying the willingness to rig the rules of electoral competition in a manner reminiscent of the authoritarian parties that have undermined democracy in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela. The Republican Party, even with some remaining dissent, has “mostly been turned into a pro-autocracy party or an illiberal party, a party where the leadership and a lot of the base … think it’s more important that they be in power than constitutional rights and liberal protections be valued,” Susan Stokes, the director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, told me.
The refusal of almost all elected Republicans to take a stand against Trump’s assault has left Democrats in the precarious position of seeking to reinforce the basic pillars of democracy on their own. The next few weeks will mark a crucial test of whether they can muster the unity and determination to do so. “Those of us in support of democracy are up against a national coordinated effort to dismantle democracy from within, and that requires a national response that is just as coordinated and just as focused if democracy is going to survive,” Jocelyn Benson, the Democratic secretary of state in Michigan, told me.
Voting-rights advocates and academic students of democracy see two key tracks to that potential response. One is legislative. The best lever Democrats have to resist the threats to democracy is their capacity to pass legislation through Congress that establishes a nationwide floor of voting rights and restores federal oversight of changes in state electoral laws that disenfranchise minority voters. The Democratic-controlled House last year passed separate bills incorporating both goals, and all 50 Senate Democrats appear ready to support somewhat modified proposals to do so as well.
But with Republican filibusters blocking both measures, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is promising make-or-break votes toward the middle of this month that will determine whether Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona will agree to change the filibuster rules to pass the bills—or allow Republican opposition to kill them.
With Democrats facing an uphill battle to hold both congressional chambers after November’s midterm election, voting-rights advocates view the filibuster decision as an inflection point that could shape the character of American democracy for the next decade or longer. If Democrats let this opportunity pass without establishing national safeguards for voter access and election administration, it may be years before they again hold unified control of Congress and the presidency and get another chance. With the Republican-appointed majority on the U.S. Supreme Court showing little inclination to restrain state actions—and in fact encouraging them through landmark decisions in 2013 and 2021 that weakened the federal Voting Rights Act—the failure to pass new national standards this year could clear the path for years of escalating GOP restrictions.
“Democracy is at stake this month, and that is not hyperbole,” Fred Wertheimer, the president of the reform group Democracy 21, told me. “We face losing our democracy if we can’t counter the completely unjustified laws that have passed in state legislatures.”
Advocates also identify a second essential front: accountability for the efforts to overturn the 2020 election that culminated in the assault on the Capitol. While the Justice Department has systematically prosecuted the rioters who actually invaded the building, many observers have grown more and more frustrated at the lack of evidence that Attorney General Merrick Garland and his team are investigating any of the individuals who spurred the attack or participated in the broader maneuvering to undermine Biden’s victory—a list that extends up to Trump himself. Likewise, frustration is growing at the failure of state and federal law enforcement to prosecute the Trump supporters behind a rising tide of physical threats against state and local election officials. (Reuters has documented more than 800 such threats in 12 states.)
Benson, who faced a swarm of pro-Trump protesters outside her home in 2020, said that if those acts are not met with greater consequences at all levels, “then we must anticipate and accept that these things will continue unabated and perhaps at a greater intensity than before.”
In the hours immediately after the January 6 attack, Republican leaders such as Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham pointedly criticized Trump’s role in fomenting the attack. Business leaders announced they would cut off contributions to GOP members of Congress who voted against certifying Biden’s victory even after the riot.
But with polls showing Trump’s continued appeal to the party rank and file, leaders such as Graham and Representative Kevin McCarthy quickly pivoted to stress the importance of making peace with the former president. Business groups quietly resumed contributions to the objecting legislators. (One study released this morning found that corporations have now donated more than $18 million to congressional Republicans who voted to reject the election results last January.) House Republicans locked arms to defend Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar when Democrats censured them for violent rhetoric. After January 6, “there was a brief moment where it looked like it might be a post-Watergate moment, when the Republican Party joins with the Democrats and says, ‘What was that, and how do we prevent that from happening again?’” Ian Bassin, the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that analyzes threats to American elections, told me. “Then it became very clear that’s not what the base of the party wants … so that has shifted [to where] the entire incentive structure of the Republican Party is, if you bow down to these antidemocratic efforts, you are rewarded, and if you oppose them, you are punished and ostracized.”
Last year, 19 Republican-controlled states, including such key electoral battlegrounds as Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the latest roundup by the Brennan Center. Six Republican-controlled states launched politically motivated “audits” of the 2020 results. At least five more states are discussing audits for next year. Trump has endorsed a series of primary challengers to Republicans who resisted his false claims in 2020, including Representative Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Georgia’s Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, the governor and secretary of state, respectively. Candidates endorsing Trump’s Big Lie are running for secretary of state in 13 states, according to a recent NPR tabulation.
And the Brennan Center reports that dozens of restrictive voting bills have either been pre-filed for the 2022 legislative session or will carry over from last year. In Georgia, a powerful Republican state legislator is now proposing to eliminate all drop boxes. In Arizona, Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state, expects a push from Republicans to roll back mail voting and to explicitly grant the state legislature authority to reject the election results and appoint its own presidential electors. “I think what we saw last session was the tip of the iceberg in terms of really harmful legislation,” she told me.
Fueling all of this activity has been Trump’s success, with a big assist from conservative media, in unifying GOP voters behind his unfounded claims. In surveys, about three-fourths or more of Republican voters routinely say they believe that Biden won because of massive fraud. A similar, if not quite as lopsided, January 6 revisionist project is under way in the party: In a recent CBS News poll, nearly half of Republicans surveyed described what happened on January 6 as “patriotism” and more than half called it “defending freedom.”
Combined with the rising tide of physical threats against election officials, these intensifying and interlocked developments are routinely described by experts in democratic erosion as the gravest threat to American democracy since the Civil War. “In states across America it is unquestionable that we’ve seen an unprecedented, ongoing, and highly successful assault on our democracy and our electoral system,” Wendy Weiser, the vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, told me. “It is a multipronged, multi-tactic assault on our democracy. The whole is worse than the sum of the parts.”
In Congress, Republicans have almost universally opposed measures from Democrats to respond to these state actions or to investigate the attack on the Capitol. The high point of cooperation came last May, when 35 House Republicans backed legislation that would create an independent commission to examine the January 6 attack (while 175 still voted no). But McConnell killed that idea with a Senate filibuster (which only six Senate Republicans voted to break). When House Democrats came back with a plan to create a special committee to investigate, only Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the two Republicans who eventually joined the panel, voted yes.
On the voting-rights debates, the GOP has been as impenetrable. Every House Republican voted against the sweeping H.R. 1 bill that Democrats passed last March to set national rules for voter access. After Manchin objected to that bill, Senate Democrats negotiated a new version with him and gave him weeks to pursue Republican support for it; no one in the GOP has endorsed it. Even more striking is the Republican resistance to reinvigorating the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of the civil-rights era. The core issue in the VRA debate is restoring the Justice Department’s authority to review or “preclear” election-law changes in states with a history of discrimination—the pillar of the law that Chief Justice John Roberts and four other GOP-appointed justices invalidated in the 2013 Shelby County decision. The last time Congress renewed the law, in 2006, it passed the Republican-controlled Senate unanimously (with the preclearance provisions included). But last November, every GOP senator except Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voted to filibuster new legislation restoring preclearance. Every House Republican voted against the legislation as well. Even Republicans such as Cheney and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who have criticized Trump as a threat to democracy, have defended the state laws restricting voting access and opposed the Democrats’ twin voting-rights bills as an excessive “federalization” of election administration.
Beyond the narrow band of “Never Trump” Republicans that existed before 2020, no significant element of the GOP coalition has resisted these actions. Conservative media have generally amplified Trump’s threats against Republicans who defended the integrity of the 2020 election and center-right columnists, most prominently The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, have relentlessly argued that Trump isn’t as great a threat to democracy as he seems. Business leaders in states such as Arizona and Texas helped block some of the most extreme voter-suppression measures, and a nationwide coalition called Business for Voting Rights, which includes prominent companies such as Target, Google, and Dell, has endorsed federal voting-rights legislation. But none of the biggest national umbrella trade-business associations closely allied with the GOP, such as the Business Roundtable or the National Association of Manufacturers, has joined that effort; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a statement opposing H.R. 1 and instead called for a national bipartisan commission to study voting rules. As Kristol notes, “All the notions there would be a solid front, the business community, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the national-security people, saying ‘This is it,’ this is the moment when they step up,” have failed to materialize.
Can Democrats overcome that lockstep opposition to pass either their omnibus floor of voting rights or a new Voting Rights Act restoring preclearance? In private, Biden has expressed that he delayed focusing on voting rights in the hope that he could pass his economic agenda first. In recent weeks, Biden has second-guessed that decision and grown more explicit about supporting an exception to the filibuster in order to pass voting rights. In a speech today, he delivered his strongest condemnation yet of the January 6 attack and the broader GOP campaign to limit voter access, and he’s traveling to Atlanta next week to make the case again. But his initial decision to sublimate the issue means he has generated little public awareness of the threat, and with his overall political position weakened by the persistence of the pandemic, the party might not have enough leverage to force Manchin and Sinema to retrench the filibuster. Trying to secure a commitment from either, says one lobbyist heavily involved in the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely, “is like trying to put mercury into a bottle.”
Like other democracy scholars, Bassin, of Protect Democracy, said, “It’s not sustainable long-term” to preserve a functioning system if only one political party is committed to playing by the rules. (In other countries, the center-right’s willingness to reject and isolate the autocratic far-right—what’s not happening among Republicans now—has proved an especially crucial variable, scholars say.) But in a crisis like the situation developing now, Bassin said, there may be no other choice. Like many democracy advocates, he pointed to the post–Civil War precedent, when the Lincoln-era congressional Republicans passed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as well as all the other civil-rights protections for freed slaves, on an entirely party-line basis, over the unified opposition of Democrats who were defending their partisan allies in the former Confederacy. The real choice for today’s congressional Democrats on voting rights and democracy protection is not whether to act alone or act with Republicans; it’s whether to act alone or not act at all.
Stokes said the best way to understand America’s current situation is to view the past year as a continuation of Trump’s effort to invalidate the election results and maintain power despite his defeat. “The big picture,” she said, is that this is “a slow-motion palace coup that began after the election in 2020.” Trump couldn’t stop Biden from taking office, she noted, but his success at solidifying support among Republican voters for his lies and silencing dissent from elected GOP officials has allowed him to continue working to rig the rules for the next presidential election. “We won’t know how the story is going to end until after 2024,” she said.