But democracy didn’t win. It survived. And the danger to democratic governance remains high — not just in the final 70-plus days of the Trump administration, but in the coming years, as the Republican Party seeks to prevent the sort of mass turnout that carried Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to victory.
Fear of democracy — not of “mob rule,” but of people who vote — has been a hallmark of Republican politics for decades. But it became especially prominent in the years after Barack Obama won the presidency decisively
, bringing Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate with him. The prospect of a permanent Democratic majority, fanned by pundits who believed demography was destiny
, terrified Republican leadership. But rather than seeking new ways to woo more voters to their side, they sought new ways to keep the Obama coalition from voting.
The story of the GOP’s voter suppression campaign in the 2010s
is likely familiar to many readers: from mass poll closures in Democratic districts to voter roll purges to strict voter-ID laws (despite vanishingly little evidence
anywhere in the country of the type of in-person voter fraud such IDs would thwart; mail-in voting is equally fraud-free
). The GOP received a major assist from the Supreme Court in 2013, when it gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby Co. v. Holder. The decision, which held that historically discriminatory districts no longer had to run changes in voting laws by the Justice Department, fueled an even more intensive voter suppression campaign
in southern states. Though these efforts at voter suppression were partially overcome by an intense voter organization drive, their existence demonstrates that the right has placed as much emphasis on blocking votes as winning them.
Even before the 2020 election had been called, conservatives were lashing out at the expansion of voting access made possible by the pandemic. The widespread use of mail-in ballots and early voting sent turnout soaring, demonstrating that when it is easier for people to cast ballots, more people vote.
Despite the fact that this enhanced turnout helped Republicans as well — the massive expansion of the Trump vote kept Democrats from sweeping congressional races — Fox News anchors and guests were insisting something needed to be done to ensure that no future presidential election offered such easy access to the ballot box. On Friday night, Laura Ingraham told Fox viewers
, “We must ensure that state by state we work to overhaul any process that leads to what we’ve seen play out this week,” which, she clarified, meant “we must work to eliminate mass mail-in voting.”
But democracy is more than elections, and the assault on democracy goes much further than the ballot box. Efforts to overturn the results of elections have been a hallmark of GOP politics in certain states. In 2018, a majority of Floridians voted to re-enfranchise people who had been convicted of felonies and served their sentences. The governor of Florida could not stop the law from being enacted, but he did require the payment of a series of byzantine fines and fees — in essence, a poll tax
— for re-enfranchisement, meaning most of the disenfranchised remained that way. In North Carolina in 2017, after Democrat Roy Cooper won the governor’s race, Republican legislators quickly tried to strip the governorship of its power
The deeper anti-democratic strain in the party isn’t limited to state parties. In September, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska called for the end of direct election of senators
. Instead, he said, the US should revert to the process that existed before 1913, when the 17th Amendment was ratified: have state legislatures, not voters, choose senators. Part of a broader set of proposals aimed at making the Senate more functional, Sasse’s suggestion to end the direct election of senators, plus a call to make Senate terms 12 years instead of 6, make clear that he sees voters as one of the biggest obstacles to functional governance.
Given all that, it is perhaps no surprise that Republican officeholders, with a few notable exceptions, have had little to say about Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the electoral process throughout the campaign: slowing down the postal service to thwart mail-in ballots, insisting the election would be stolen, promising that the result would be decided by a Supreme Court that he had packed with loyalists. Little wonder that they now are equally tight-lipped about his refusal to concede the presidency, even though it is clear that Joe Biden won.
Well, most of them are tight-lipped. Some, like Ted Cruz, are happy to advance the assault on the legitimacy of the election
, popping up wherever there’s a camera to repeat the President’s unproven claims that the election was rife with fraud, something the campaign has been unable to show any evidence for. And others, like Sen. Lindsay Graham, have indicated they’re open to the idea of having state legislatures appoint new electors
to vote for Trump, even if the voters of the state chose Biden. Trump is, as Vox’s Ezra Klein rightly notes
, “attempting a coup in plain sight,” and most Republicans aren’t averting their eyes — they’re lending him a hand.
All these efforts to undermine the electoral will of the people, from voter suppression to power-stripping to false accusations of fraud, are evidence that the pro-democracy alliance is smaller than many people think. Widening that alliance and creating the institutions and norms necessary for a genuinely representative multiracial democracy in the US will be the work of a generation — work that has a better chance of success now that Trump has been defeated.