It’s time to ask a really big question: is American-style democracy about to end?
I don’t mean whether America’s political system will evolve, grow, morph or change. I mean end. It’s a question I never thought I’d ask in my lifetime. My parents immigrated from Finland to the USA in the mid-1950s, and then lived for fifty years in the belief that the American way of life and values they’d adopted in their new homeland would be around for a long time for them and for me, their only son. That was a reasonable assumption back then.
In fact, it was self-evident. Is it still self-evident now? No. So what’s happened to make this into a question that needs to be asked in 2021? Here are a few key factors.
Outright falsehoods are rampant in America today
Former President Trump continues to call the 2020 vote “the most corrupt election in the history of our country.” He touts himself as “the true President” and continues to warn that American elections are “rigged, corrupt, and stolen.”
Dozens of U.S. courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, were ready and willing to see evidence of that widespread fraud, or evidence of any fraud at all. The evidence was never produced, even to some of the openly Trumpist judges who heard the cases and gave Trumps’ legal team every opportunity to show whatever evidence they might have had. They didn’t and couldn’t because the fraud didn’t exist.
Then some election audits were done, and they too showed a lack of fraud. In Arizona, a so-called audit was carried out by a company which had virtually no experience in elections and whose owner supported the “Stop the Steal” movement. But even their efforts resulted in a bigger win for President Biden than the official Arizona vote count.
The “stolen election” is a lie. It’s been proven to be a lie. But it’s a lie that’s believed by two-thirds of Republicans, or at least that’s what they say to pollsters. Perhaps, worse still, they don’t really believe it or don’t really care whether it’s true or not. Maybe they’re lying about believing the lies about the last election because what they really believe is that American society (and Washington in particular) has been captured by socialists, racial minorities and sexual predators.
What they really want is to abandon the idea of democracy and instead follow an avowedly autocratic leader. American democracy of the past will just be collateral damage for everyone but their own group. That’s reality in 2021 for a huge portion of America.
Political violence is becoming an accepted norm in America
Nearly a third of Republicans agree with the contention that American patriots may need to resort to actual violence against their political opponents to save the country.
They don’t mean mere rhetorical metaphors. They’re talking about specific acts of violence. A U.S. Senator was recently asked about the people chanting “hang Mike Pence” [Trump’s former Vice President] on January 6th in the U.S. Capitol, and Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to criticize the chants or the chanters. The Senator was asked directly if he can “tolerate a leader who defends murderous chants against his own vice president?" The Senator’s reply was that "the Republican Party is incredibly united right now" and "Trump brings lots of energy to the party." That’s a clear response; he said it would’ve been OK for Mr. Pence to be hung, literally, if that will help to unify and energize the party.
Another Republican congressman recently tweeted a cartoon showing him stabbing President Biden and killing his colleague in the U.S. Congress, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He explained that the cartoon was “symbolic”. This is the kind of stuff that in contemporary Germany would be incitements to violence that could get an entire political party banned. In Washington today, it’s just everyday politics-as-usual.
It originates in large part from the former President. He had tepidly criticized the January 6th violence at the U.S. Capitol, but in recent months he has transformed himself into the head cheerleader for the insurrectionists, calling them “great people”, a “loving crowd”, and lamenting that they are now being “persecuted so unfairly”. His followers in Congress have called them mere “tourists”. Mr. Trump has gone from being embarrassed about January 6th to treating it as one of the high points of his presidency. He has normalized political violence and exhorted his followers to carry out some supposed patriotic duty to make it happen again.
And they certainly will. Threats have already been made to bomb polling sites, kidnap officials and attack state capitols in future elections. The average level of extremism is rising rapidly among seemingly legitimate American politicians, in Washington and in many U.S. states, even though it’s increasingly hard to tell the true believers from the opportunists. Whatever the underlying reality may be, many newcomers in American politics are more conspiracy-minded, more jingoistic and more ready to portray people on the other side of the aisle as godless, evil and amoral.
Surely, they are more likely to engage in reckless acts of obstruction, conflict and validating violence as acceptable political expression (at least they’ll turn a blind eye to any more “tourists” they see). Real violence is a quick way to divide and conquer any country, especially when the instigator of violence is a key part of the country’s leadership in the country’s capitol. It’s naive to think that the United States would be immune to such destruction from within.
Republicans have effectively abandoned all principles except loyalty to Trump
It wasn’t so long ago that American conservatism was a strong and viable political philosophy. Many of us voted for Republican candidates who offered valid explanations for the positions and policies of the Republican party. Not anymore.
Now the party fashions its political doctrines to justify Trump’s return to power, filling in the gaps of Trumpism’s nonexistent ideology with an appeal to “conservative nationalism” and populism. Perhaps Republican conservatives were never very comfortable with the American experiment in liberal democracy, but since Mr. Trump took over their party, Republican leaders have revealed an open hostility to core American values. Let’s take just two straightforward examples.
Freedom of religion and the right to vote
Michael Flynn is a former national security adviser in the Trump administration who was fully pardoned by his friend Mr. Trump, despite Mr. Flynn having twice pled guilty to lying to the FBI. Mr. Flynn has now said that the United States should have a single religion. "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion," he said. "One nation under God and one religion under God." Well, so much for that freedom of religion stuff and those other troublesome Bill of Rights freedoms (except for the Second Amendment, of course…that one will probably stick around).
Then there’s voting. It’s complex to discuss in detail here, but efforts have exponentially increased to change how elections work in many American states. In the first six months of this year alone at least 30 new laws were enacted in 18 states making it harder for Americans to vote.
Voting districts are also being reorganized to undermine Democrat-leaning areas. In some places Americans have participated in such redistricting plans more than ever before, in attempts to stop gerrymandering (meaning lines between voting districts that are drawn in ways that make no sense except to maximize one party’s strength over another). But even in some places where citizens were more engaged than ever before, Republican officials ignored them and went ahead with their plans anyway. Lawsuits remain the only way to stop them, but the time and money required for an uncertain outcome is a major challenge.
Whether or not Americans are allowed to vote without barriers is only the tip of the iceberg. A larger concern is less visible: changes to how votes will be counted and who will be in charge of counting them. This year 216 bills have been introduced in 41 states that seek to change election administration in ways that would increase the power of Republican-controlled state legislatures over elections by stripping powers from impartial election officials and handing them to partisan lawmakers.
Even if voters are allowed to reach the ballot box, their votes are irrelevant if they are not fairly and objectively counted, but these new laws would drastically change the process. Some of them give legislatures and officials the power to disregard actual voting results if they simply don’t like them. Yes, this is really happening in America and not only in some banana republic. And it’s happening right now, in 2021, not only in the 1800s.
Simultaneously, Mr. Trump has endorsed Republican candidates for key state election positions who share a common purpose: they embrace the myth of the stolen election and the lie that Biden is an impostor in the White House. Trump’s efforts have concentrated on the battleground states; of the 15 Republican candidates running for secretary of state, 10 of them are avid “stop the stealers”.
The integrity of the last U.S. Presidential election hinged upon a few brave election officials who refused to bow to direct pressure from then-President Trump to change the legitimate results in their states. If those people are not around the next time, or if their powers are reduced or taken away, Republicans loyal to Trump will be poised to launch a far more sophisticated coup than Trump’s amateurish effort to hang on to power in 2020. Ironically, it seems that “stop the steal” has become a code word for real plans to steal the next election!
Such new election realities are already in place in key U.S. states like Arizona and Georgia. Meanwhile local election officials throughout the USA routinely receive death threats and face daily battles against politicians trying to undermine them. They worry about whether they or their children will be attacked. They understandably ask themselves if they’re willing to go on.
So what does this all mean for the question: is American democracy about to end? From what I can see, it sure looks like 2024 could turn out to be the final hour. Even the mid-term election in 2022 could already determine the outcome if, for example, the U.S. Congress is taken over by those who will then control the laws to make the outcome certain in 2024.
Has the current U.S. Administration recognized this concern? So far it seems like they are mired in usual pork barrel politics and infighting. They should instead be working on ways to prevent state legislatures from interfering with elections and creating trustworthy vote-counting and vote-auditing procedures for American elections that could keep the next election legitimate and defuse in advance any post-election circus. But nothing has happened yet, and the time remaining to do anything is very short.
Tom A. Lippo is a Finnish-speaking American lawyer. Educated at Yale, the University of Jyväskylä and Stanford Law School, he is the founder of FACT LAW, an international law firm established in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with offices in both Finland and the United States. Tom has been a lawyer in Washington, DC based on Capitol Hill for nearly 40 years.