Nearly six months ago, a violent and deadly mob stormed the U.S. Capitol at the behest of an outgoing president in order to prevent Congress from certifying his successor’s victory. Following the attack, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie compared the attack to the Southern white supremacist coups that ushered in the end of Reconstruction and the most significant reversal of voting rights in our nation’s history. Since January, Republicans have doubled down on their mendacious claims of a stolen election, and they have used these falsehoods to justify introducing at least 389 bills restricting voting access, starkly echoing the tragic assault on democracy in the 1890s.
Beyond the collapse of Reconstruction, Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman note several other instances of American democratic backsliding in their book, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, such as the Federalist and Republican stand-offs in the 1790s, the Civil War-era tensions of the 1850s, the vast expansion of the federal government under FDR in the 1930s, and the Nixon administration’s executive overreach in the 1970s. Mettler and Lieberman also identify four key threats to democracy — polarization, disputes over who belongs in the political community, rising economic inequality, and the growth of executive power — and argue that the last half-decade marks the first time that all four threats have been present simultaneously.
These first two threats in particular were on display last week when Senate Republicans unanimously filibustered a motion to start debate on legislation to protect voting rights for all and to diminish the influence of dark money in our elections. This was particularly distressing because, as Mettler and Lieberman note, “democracy ceases if one party makes it impossible for another party to compete effectively or to govern when it wins elections.” Nevertheless, they also contend that “democracy necessitates the legitimacy of the opposition: those…with different political parties must recognize each other not as enemies or as an existential threat who must be stopped at any cost, but as fellow citizens with equal stakes in the contest and an equal right to participate.”
As the clock ticks down on Democrats’ chance to shore up voting rights and prevent the complete collapse of our democracy (especially as Republicans are likely to win control of the House of Representatives in the 2022 midterm elections), they face this essential question: With American democracy facing its most dangerous combination of threats ever, how should Democrats best protect it — and its need for a legitimate opposition — when that opposition is dead set on preventing, undermining, and overturning free and fair elections?
If forced to choose, Democrats must put democracy first, especially considering the Republican party’s broader embrace of fascist politics in recent years. Echoing many of the themes of Four Threats, Yale professor Jason Stanley writes in his book, How Facism Works: The Politics of Us and Them: “Fascist politics includes many distinct strategies: the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity.” This list will sound chillingly familiar to even casual observers of today’s Republican party.
We can see textbook examples of political propaganda, which Stanley argues “uses the language of virtuous ideals to unite people behind otherwise objectionable ends,” in Republican justifications for voting restrictions based on vague appeals to election integrity. Stanley also states that, through effective propaganda, “a fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence” — in this case told by a demagogic president and amplified by party members and right-wing media alike. Similarly, facism labels efforts towards ending genuine inequality as discrimination against those already in power, closely mirroring the conservative arguments that preserving universal voting rights will instead strip away the rights of Republican voters. Even the Republican fixation on cities as the source of voter fraud falls into the typical facistic playbook, which, according to Stanley, focuses “on traditional rural values of self-sufficiency supposedly put at risk by the success of liberal cities.”
Unfortunately, these views are not limited to elected officials — a recent poll found that the American center and right are substantially more sympathetic to right-wing authoritarianism than those in similar democracies. Furthermore, states seeking to limit voting rights found a powerful ally in the Supreme Court on Thursday when they voted 6-3 to make it nearly impossible to strike down discriminatory voting laws under Section Two of the Voting Rights Act — completing the anti-democratic crusade started in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which defanged Section Five, the VRA’s key enforcement mechanism.
Ultimately, the Republican party continues to exacerbate all four threats to democracy while increasingly employing the techniques of facist politics to achieve their goals. It is all the more concerning when they utilize these techniques in opposition to voting rights, the most essential foundation of a healthy democracy, meaning that Democrats have no choice but to stop treating them as a legitimate opposition who respects democracy and its norms.
Following the end of Reconstruction, it took over 70 years for the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren to affirm the supposedly sacred American principle of “One Person, One Vote” and — a few years later — for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finally establishing multiracial democracy in the United States. With our fragile democracy once again under attack from all sides, Democrats must heed the warnings of history and recognize the dire consequences of inaction. They must protect every American’s right to vote before it is too late.