As America emerges from the pandemic like a tornado survivor nervously climbing out of a storm cellar, full attention has turned to another once-in-a-century crisis — the shaky status of American democracy.
In his Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, Joe Biden warned, “Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world.” Since the 1930s when fascism was on the march in Europe, presidential warnings about imperiled democracy have always pointed to other nations without adding the chilling phrase, “here at home.”
In the last few days, it seems like every columnist and pundit who is not auditioning for a prime-time slot on Fox News has weighed in with dire commentary under such headlines as, “The Republican plot to steal the 2024 election” and “Is America’s Democracy Slipping Away?”
One hundred academics — including most of the nation’s leading democracy theorists — have just published an open letter warning about “the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy.” They stressed, “When democracy breaks down, it typically takes many years, often decades, to reverse the downward spiral.”
Somehow, I haven’t yet joined these journalistic Paul Reveres, shouting, “The autocrats are coming.” And I am trying to grapple with the question of why I remain hopeful about America, despite it all.
Maybe I’m simply naive like the long-term residents of Hong Kong who couldn’t believe that Beijing would crack down on them the way it did. Maybe I took the platitudes in my high school civics class a little too literally. Maybe I come from a generation that remembers how the nation rallied together after the Kennedy assassination and, even more dramatically, after the 9/11 attacks.
After Biden unequivocally won the election, I innocently assumed that the false and hyperbolic claims of vote fraud were just a way for ardent Donald Trump supporters to work through their disappointment. Even the Trump team’s judicial maneuvers — almost all of them laughed out of court — seemed more like fundraising hustles rather than a well-grounded legal strategy.
In December, 126 House Republicans, including leaders Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, joined a federal lawsuit attempting to overturn Biden’s victory in four pivotal states. I tried to convince myself that this was just a group of GOP legislators panicked over potential primary challenges in their districts.
As Confederate-flag-waving zealots, threatening to hang Mike Pence, invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6, I kept repeating the mantra that they were only a tiny, crazed fraction of the 74 million Trump voters.
In fact, when Mitch McConnell delivered a stirring speech denouncing the insurrection, I took comfort in the near certainty that this was the moment when the GOP establishment finally turned on Trump.
As polls showed that roughly 70 percent of Republican voters mistakenly believed that Biden’s election was illegitimate, I anticipated that this conspiracy theory thinking would fade as Fox News and the dethroned president at Mar-a-Lago turned their attention to new issues.
In similar fashion, every time Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert or Matt Gaetz made a comment that was unhinged even by Trumpian standards, I recalled that both parties in Congress have always had their extremists and hotheads. The only difference is that before the era of social media, these attention-seeking firebrands could mostly be ignored.
When the House Republicans ousted born-to-be-conservative Liz Cheney for disloyalty to the Trump government in exile, I kept reminding myself that the chair of the Republican Conference is only a steppingstone post without real power.
I even had ready answers when a recent poll, which made the front page of the New York Times, found that nearly a quarter of all Republicans agreed with the statement that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.”
I told myself that there couldn’t be nearly that many deranged QAnon believers. Some of those who agreed with the statement, I figured, would answer “yes” to any polling question — and others calculated there must be some truth to the worries about “Satan-worshipping pedophiles” if a major polling organization was asking about it.
Even the disheartening Senate vote to filibuster into oblivion a Jan. 6 commission might have a rational explanation. McConnell might really believe that the Democrats would weaponize the commission to attack Republicans in the 2022 elections. And with the Biden administration running the Justice Department and Nancy Pelosi able to launch a probe on her own, the government has other ways to get at any conspiracy behind the worst attack on the Capitol in two centuries.
Even the concerted Republican war on voting rights at the state level can be exaggerated. The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page pointed out that Texas — even if the new hyper-restrictive legislation eventually passes — would still have more days of early voting than Biden’s home state of Delaware.
Yes, that is an impressive list of excuses for the way that Republicans appear to be strip-mining the heart of the American democracy.
But, still, I cling to the stubborn belief that American democracy will be saved by an outpouring of voters, in 2022 and beyond, who understand that the nation’s freedoms are on the ballot.
The cynical wiles of McConnell, McCarthy and other congressional Republicans who know better will only work if elections are close.
In an ideal world, Never Trump Republicans will vote Democratic in the short run because preserving democracy is infinitely more important than honest differences over taxes, government regulation and foreign policy. In an ideal world, GOP efforts to restrict the franchise will inspire record turnout from Black and other minority voters.
That’s my dream — that democracy as expressed by voting will save democracy.
But, oh Lord, sometimes it is so hard to keep the faith.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.