The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

GOP efforts to overturn election may do lasting harm to democracy, political scientists warn

Republicans’ embrace of a baseless Texas lawsuit suggests the ‘threat to democratic norms is not Trump-specific,’ experts say, and not likely go away after he leaves office

Protesters gathered in front of the Clark County Election Department in Las Vegas on Nov. 4, the day after the election, to demand that all votes be counted. (John Locher/AP)

The U.S. Supreme Court last week dismissed a Texas election lawsuit that, while widely regarded by election experts as frivolous, nevertheless attracted the support of nearly two-thirds of House Republicans, a majority of Republican state attorneys general and the current president of the United States.

The attempt to overturn results in four states won by Democrat Joe Biden represented a stunning escalation of a trend toward Republican authoritarianism, according to political scientists. Although the case is over, experts and good-government watchdogs warn the damage to American democracy may be long-lasting.

“Democracy really depends on a shared sense of fairness and legitimacy,” said Lee Drutman, a political scientist at New America and author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop.” “You can’t have a system of self-governance if half of the people believe that the only fair rules are the rules in which their side comes out on top.”

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In filing the lawsuit, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) alleged, without evidence, that “Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin destroyed that trust and compromised the security and integrity of the 2020 election.”

But Democratic and Republican election officials across the country reported minimal irregularities during the 2020 vote, and the results have been certified by every state. According to Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project, independent expert observers also gave the election high marks for the quality of its administration. Trump and his allies’ baseless claims of electoral fraud have been repeatedly debunked by experts and the courts, in some cases via searing rebukes issued by Trump-appointed judges. Yet Trump signaled Sunday on Fox News that he will continue to challenge the election results even after the electoral college meets Monday. Electors are poised to cast 306 electoral votes for Biden and 232 for Trump.

While many Republican lawmakers privately admit the president lost and understand the fraud allegations and lawsuits have no merit, polls indicate many Trump voters are accepting the campaign’s specious arguments.

“To some extent the GOP lawsuit is merely ‘political theatre,' a cynical game, since almost no one believes that the case will get anywhere,” Pippa Norris, director of the Electoral Integrity Project, said in an email. “But words matter for damaging popular legitimacy by those MAGA supporters who don’t regard this as theatre.”

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Throughout the campaign, Biden predicted Republicans would have an “epiphany” once Trump lost and return to bipartisan business-as-usual. He made similar statements in 2012 about the GOP’s oppositional “fever” breaking after President Obama won reelection. Experts interviewed for this report believe Biden’s 2020 predictions will prove just as wrong those he made in 2012.

“The idea that the ‘fever would break’ was never plausible,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College and co-director of Bright Line Watch, an academic group monitoring the health of American democracy. House Republicans’ widespread embrace of the shambolic Texas lawsuit “provides more evidence that the threat to democratic norms is not Trump-specific and will not go away once he leaves the scene.

“The fact that Trump will continue to wield power over the party as a potential 2024 candidate only exacerbates the pressure on Republicans to deny the legitimacy of the results.”

Staffan Lindberg, director of V-Dem, a Swedish project monitoring global democracy, pointed to the experience of post-World War II Germany and said, “History shows that these wounds take decades to heal, if at all.” His research shows that 8 in 10 countries that backslide from democratic ideals the way the United States has end up becoming full-blown autocracies.

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Trump’s voters aren’t going away either. Numerous studies in recent years have demonstrated links between support for Trump and authoritarian beliefs. “Even if Donald Trump disappeared tomorrow,” Bob Altemeyer and John W. Dean write in their book “Authoritarian Nightmare,” “the millions of people who made him president would be ready to make someone else similar president instead.”

Other experts look at the state of the modern GOP and see not a grievous threat to democracy, but rather a bungling display of incompetence and self-interest. “The media should frame actions like this as ridiculous and pathetic rather than dangerous and scary,” said Andrew Little, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

That the Texas lawsuit was nearly guaranteed to fail was part of the appeal for Republican lawmakers looking ahead to 2022, Little contends. “They get to signal that they are doing what Trump wants without risking becoming complicit in actually overturning an election,” he said.

But Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution and George Washington University says given the high stakes for American democracy, Republicans efforts to overturn the election should be taken seriously either way. “Elected Republicans’ willingness to signal their support for [Trump’s] effort is, really, for lack a better word, beyond the pale — EVEN if it were to reflect just political positioning and not sincere beliefs,” she said via email.

After Supreme Court dismisses Texas case, Trump says his efforts to challenge election results are ‘not over’

The odds of the Republican Party reforming itself may depend, in part, on the Biden administration’s performance in office and the parties’ resulting electoral fates in 2022. Policy victories that translate into bigger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate may prompt Republican lawmakers to change tack, for instance. “Excellent outcomes under Biden — end of the pandemic, economic revival, real attention to police reforms, and the like — would help,” said Susan Stokes, director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago.

But, Stokes notes, “the actors who will be most effective at changing the minds of some GOP voters are Republican leaders” — elected officials like Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) who have been critical of the president’s efforts.

New America’s Drutman believes it’s unlikely we’ll see any change in the current two-party dynamic unless we adopt electoral reforms, such as ranked-choice voting and multimember congressional districts, that make third parties politically viable. But given the difficulties of implementing such overhauls, he’s not optimistic.

“Sometimes you don’t recover from the fever,” he said. “Sometimes the fever breaks you.”