What may well be the most important political election of our lifetimes is on the ballot this week. The principal subject isn’t inflation or the general state of the economy, heavily as they weigh on the minds of millions. It is not even larger issues such as mounting public violence, the legality of abortion, the rampant abuse of social media, the ever-widening income inequality that mocks the idea of our common welfare or the climate disaster that already enfolds us. Any of these concerns would be enough to fully occupy us. But we cannot hope to address any of them without the functioning democracy that undergirds our republic. It is this that is most nakedly at risk on the ballot.
The range of practical problems we face, and the world in general with us, is daunting. Over the long run, democracy—and the good faith of nations it represents—is the only way to address them. Democracy is slow and messy. On many days, it can seem frustratingly inadequate Yet, , if we keep it in good order, it can bring us together in ways no other system of government can and win consent for common solutions that often require patience, confidence and shared sacrifice. At no point in our history have we required these things more. The alternative to democracy at present, autocracy, can move more swiftly and apparently more efficiently. We can clearly see its defects at work. In China, we have already seen the effects of such a regime there in the COVID-19 policy that has repeatedly locked down tens of millions in urban prisons that have devastated the national economy and left them at the risk, and sometimes the reality, of mass hunger. In Russia, a dictator has plunged his country into a brutal war of aggression that threatens a continent with starvation and the world with the specter of nuclear conflict. Autocracy is, simply, a standing threat to humanity.
In contrast, what democracy requires to function is the broadest popular consent. That consent is conferred by elections. Elections require honesty, transparency,and above all else, the willingness to accept certified results. When power is transferred, it must be done peacefully.
In the United—and frequently disunited—States, this process is complicated by the fifty states and thousands of local jurisdictions, many corrupted by gerrymandering and, in national elections, subject to the antiquated and fundamentally anti-democratic institution of the Electoral College. These hurdles have caused a good deal of difficulty over time. They now place our entire system of government in jeopardy as one of our two major political parties has set about systematically challenging election results that deprive it of political power. As Republican voters go to the polls, two-thirds of them reportedly believe that the most recent presidential election was “stolen” from them by devices ranging from sheer theft of votes to electronic interference by space satellites despite the absence of any evidence and the formal certifications of all fifty states. Many Republican candidates have stated or implied that they reject in advance any unfavorable electoral outcome, not only for themselves but for others and consequently for their party as a whole. The logical implication is that only Republicans may rule: in short, autocracy. Donald Trump argued this for himself in his two previous presidential campaigns. After his loss in 2020, he took his case to more than sixty courts that rejected him and when that failed, orchestrated a violent insurrection that threatened the U.S. Congress, including its Republican caucus and the vice president.
This episode, unique in our nation’s history, has thus far not only failed to lead to Trump’s punishment by Congress or the courts, but has instead been met with the endorsement of his potential run for the presidency in 2024 by numerous Republican officeholders and seekers, including some of those whose lives were endangered by him on January 6. Not since the imperial purges of the Senate in ancient Rome has such a spectacle been witnessed. Plainly spoken, the Republican Party has ceased to exist as an instrument of the people. The likelihood that it will reclaim at least one house of Congress means that democracy will have crippled itself in the land of its modern rebirth. The consequences, both here and abroad, could be incalculable.
For some, the present situation represents the temporary capture of the Republican Party by a populist figure who rejects democratic norms. This is a mistaken reading. Donald Trump is not an aberration in our political system, but he is the logical, if unanticipated, result of a long-schemed campaign to make the Republican Party a permanent ruling instrument that goes back to an infamous 1971 memorandum by Lewis Powell that outlined how this might be achieved by gaining effective control of the presidency and the High Court while emasculating—and, in the January 6 insurrection, literally threatening—the national legislature.
Of course, not all in the Republican Party reject majoritarian, two-party government, and most of its prominent figures initially dismissed Donald Trump as a vanity candidate who actively campaigned against the Party’s agenda. A small minority still reject him, but those who have spoken out have almost without exception seen their political careers sidelined if not ruined. Even Democrats, while denouncing Trump’s crimes and abuses, tiptoe around holding him accountable. There are only two figures who have actively and effectively challenged Donald’s demagoguery, each from a different end of the political spectrum. One has been Nancy Pelosi, the liberal House Speaker who famously walked out on a meeting with Trump, tore up a State of the Union address as he delivered it and (ultimately) stage-managed two impeachments against him. The other is the arch-conservative Liz Cheney, who has steadily denounced Trump from her seat on the January 6 Committee and is forming a political movement to challenge him should he be renominated for president by what has been her life-long party.
Cheney’s case is at the moment the most interesting. Her father, Dick Cheney, gained the vice presidency in 2000 when the Republican-dominated Supreme Court overturned more than 100 million votes to install George W. Bush as president in what remains the single most notorious episode in American electoral history. Liz Cheney herself not only launched her own political career from this event, but has been consistently one of the most conservative, not to say reactionary, figures in Congress. But she has drawn the line at election denialism per se, and the refusal to accept the peaceful transfer of power on which democracy fundamentally depends.
This display of principle has already made her a permanent figure in American democracy, if it survives. Pelosi, who has already paid for her courage with her own near-assassination and that of her husband, will likely lose her speakership to one of Trump’s most despicable toadies if Republicans win the House of Representatives. Liz Cheney, if she does form a conservative third party that reaches across the aisle, might just garner enough votes to deny Trump a second (and perhaps a third and fourth) term. It’s a long shot, but if she does so I’ll decorate her statue myself. First, though, democracy has to survive the election of 2022.