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Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow at the New America Think Tank and one of the organizers of New America’s Statement of Concern, wrote by email:
A longstanding finding in political science is that it is elites who maintain democracy and elites who destroy democracy. Overwhelming majorities of voters support democracy in the abstract, but when they are told by elites that “the other party is trying to destroy democracy and these emergency measures are required to maintain democracy by keeping the other side in power” , are most partisan voters will follow their leaders and support anti-democratic change. This is especially the case in a highly polarized binary political system, where the thought of the opposing party seizing power appears particularly hideous and even existential.
Like many of the co-signers of the Statement of Concern, Drutman does not expect the Supreme Court to intervene to prevent states from upset the partisan balance by tinkering with electoral rules and procedures:
The conservative Supreme Court has given states ample leeway in changing electoral laws. I don’t see how a 6: 3 conservative court can go a long way to affecting the ability of states to choose their own electoral modalities. The conservative majority in the Court has clearly ruled that it is not the job of the Supreme Court to put reasonable limits on the ability of partisan lawmakers to stack elections in their favor.
Laura Gamboa, a political scientist at the University of Utah, is less harsh on the citizenry, but she, too, does not place much hope in the ability of American voters to protect democratic institutions from attack:
I don’t think Americans (or most other people) have a normative preference for dictatorship. Overall, people prefer democracy to authoritarianism. However, polarization and misinformation can lead people to support seizures of power. Research has shown that a society that is highly polarized and sees the outgroup (in this case the foreign party) as “enemies” (not as opponents) is ready to support anti-democratic movements in order to prevent them from seizing power. Even more so if they are misled that these rules were put in place to protect elections from fraud.
More importantly, Gamboa argued that the corrosion of political norms that protect democratic governance
can ultimately lead to a broader rejection of the rule of law. Institutions do not survive alone, they need people to stand by them. This type of manipulation of electoral law undermines the legitimacy of elections. Rules and norms that were once sacred are becoming part of the political game: things have to be changed if and when it serves the political ends of those in power. As soon as this happens, these standards lose their value. They become unreliable and therefore cannot serve as channels through which to resolve political differences, in this case to determine who will and who will not gain power.
The fact that public attention has been drawn to Trump’s allegation that the election was stolen, the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the Republican blockade against the establishment of a commission to investigate the attack on Congress add to the fact to disguise that the crucial action is taking place across the country in the state capitals, with only intermittent national coverage, particularly on network television.
These Republican-controlled state governments have become “Laboratories of Democratic Backsliding,” the title of his April article, according to Jacob Grumbach, a political scientist at the University of Washington.
Grumbach developed 61 indicators for compliance with democratic procedures and practices – what he called a “State Democracy Index” – and followed these measures in the federal states from 2000 to 2018. The indicators include mandatory registration and postal voting, restrictions on voter registration and gerrymandering practices.
Grumbach’s conclusion: “The republican control of the state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduced the state-democratic performance during this time.”
The results, he writes,
are remarkably clear: Republican control over the state government reduces democratic efficiency. The extent of the democratic contraction by Republican control is surprisingly large, about half a standard deviation. Much of this effect is caused by the elections and changes in electoral policy after Republicans won the 2010 election to state legislatures and governors.
In terms of individual federal states and regions, Grumbach found that “states on the west coast and in the northeast perform better in terms of democracy measures than states in the south,” which had lost ground in the 18 years of the study. At the same time, “States like North Carolina and Wisconsin were among the most democratic in 2000, but by 2018 they are almost down. Illinois and Vermont move from midfield in 2000 to Democratic front runners in 2018. “
Grumbach claims that there are two sets of motivational factors driving key elements of the Republican coalition to support anti-democratic policies:
The modern Republican Party, which at its elite level is a coalition of the very rich, has incentives to limit the expansion of the electorate by new voters with very different class interests. The GOP electorate, on the other hand, is far less interested in the Republican economic agenda with top-heavy tax cuts and cuts in government spending. However, their preferences for race and partisan identity give rise to the republican electoral base to oppose democracy in a diversifying country.
At one level, the Republicans’ anti-democratic drive is clearly a halt. A detailed Brookings study “America’s electoral future: The next generational transformation” by Rob Griffin, Ruy Teixeira, and Frey argues that Republicans have reason to fear the future:
Millennials and Generation Z seem far more democratic than their predecessors of the same age. While today’s youngest generations get more conservative as they age, it is by no means clear that they would end up becoming as conservative as the older generations are today.
Additionally, the three authors write: “America’s youngest generations are more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations.”
As a result, Griffin, Teixeira and Frey claim
The underlying demographic changes our country will see in the next elections generally favor the Democrats. The predicted growth of groups by race, age, education, gender and state tends to be more robust among democratically minded groups, giving the Republican Party a steady and growing headwind.
From 2020 to 2036, the authors predict that the proportion of eligible voters who identify themselves as non-white will increase from 50 to 60 percent in Texas, from 43 to 50 percent in Georgia, and from 38 to 48 percent in Arizona.