The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A sobering, new report shows how much work is needed to protect democracy

Insurrectionists are seen during the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan group that has done yeoman’s work in litigating against the lawless Trump administration, devising software tools to enhance election integrity and battling election disinformation, is out with a comprehensive report of the status of democracy. It makes for a sobering read.

If nothing else, the report highlights that the danger of election subversion and the ensuing constitutional crisis is immediate and real. Republicans have pushed more than 200 bills around the country that would enable Republican legislatures to dislodge neutral election officials, challenge and overturn results and undermine confidence in election outcomes. For other elections they do not win, expect Republicans to try to delegitimize the results. (This playbook is already in use in New Jersey, where Republicans are fanning false claims of voting irregularities in the governor’s race. If devices were in place in the state for Republicans to politicize voting administration, election turmoil would no doubt persist.)

Protect Democracy notes that efforts at the federal level, including in the compromise Freedom to Vote Act, must be coupled with lobbying, legal challenges and public education at the state level.

The effort to prevent delegitimization of elections also requires the debunking and challenging of phony elections “audits,” such as the one conducted in Maricopa County, Ariz. (which turned out to confirm President Biden’s victory). These are the preseason warm-ups to anticipated GOP efforts in 2022 and 2024 to sabotage vote tabulation and certification.

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It is worth noting that such efforts must also include fixes to the Electoral Count Act to prevent a possible Republican House majority in January 2025 from accomplishing what the MAGA rioters could not: Overthrowing the will of voters by refusing to certify electoral college votes.

To combat the near-term threat, Protect Democracy also insists on accountability for attempted intimidation and manipulation of election officials in 2020 through civil and criminal litigation. The report warns that “if there is no accountability for past abuses, they will only repeat themselves more dangerously.”

Beyond the immediate danger of disrupted and stolen elections, Protect Democracy continues to highlight intermediate steps to shore up the guardrails of democracy including passage of a bill it helped formulate, the Protecting Our Democracy Act, reform of the War Powers Act and efforts to rebalance power between the “ever more imperial executive and a hollowed out and broken Congress.”

As essential as the short- and intermediate-term reforms may be, a more fundamental threat looms. Protect Democracy calls this the “structural and cultural factors that inflate the political power and appeal of authoritarianism.” The “socio-cultural drivers” of a mass movement seeking to challenge the foundations of a multiracial democracy demand solutions well beyond the political realm.

This entails confronting the White evangelical crusade to prioritize White power and Christian ideology over democracy. Right-wing pseudo-intellectuals, unabashed champions of nativism in right-wing media and cynical Republican politicians have heightened racial resentment and undermined the building blocks of democracy. In many instances, however, they are merely racing to catch up with the mob.

The prevalence of conspiracy theories, flight from science and fear of marginalization point to a greater crisis in rural, White and evangelical communities. White evangelicals’ Faustian bargain with Trump and his movement meant that these communities sacrificed their religious virtues and principles for power and the false sense of security that a ruthless warrior could push back the tide of secularism and racial diversification. As evangelical conservative and pro-democracy advocate David A. French writes, “[T]he pursuit of Christian power led to prominent Christian voices endorsing nation-cracking litigation and revolutionary efforts to overturn a lawful election — the Christian ‘deal’ looks bad indeed. When push came to shove, all too often the pursuit of justice yielded to the pursuit of power.”

Reinvigoration of democratic values, inculcation of tolerance, renewed respect for diversity and acceptance of science must come from authentic voices with credibility in those communities. The rest of Americans must recognize that excusing the plague of racist authoritarianism and unhinged — sometimes violent — rhetoric as the result of “economic dislocation” or “lack of respect from elites” misses the mark and infantilizes millions of Americans.

These Americans need to decide if they believe in the American creed or simply want to impose their will on a nation in which they no longer represent a majority. The answer to that fundamental question will in large part determine the fate of our democratic experiment.