How worried should we be about the fate of U.S. democracy? The party that might gain control of Congress after this week’s election has nominated hundreds of candidates in state, local and national races who falsely claim the 2020 election was fraudulent; uses extreme rhetoric that inspires violence; and has a de facto leader who doesn’t hesitate to undermine the rule of law. The threat to the republic from the Republican Party is very real.

Political scientists say the U.S. is confronting events abnormal in a democracy. While the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol was an especially prominent and terrifying example, there are myriad disturbing gestures every day.

Consider, for example, statements such as those made last week by Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, who asserted that if he wins, the party will “never lose another election.” That kind of rhetoric is especially alarming coming from a candidate who has pledged to change how elections are run. It is also not the way candidates in healthy democracies talk. Indeed, a definition of democracy is that there is occasional rotation of parties in office. Too often, it appears that Republicans consider any election won by a Democrat to be inherently fraudulent.

So what will determine whether democracy withstands these assaults, both small and large? If the rule of law is to survive, it will almost certainly take action from Republicans themselves.

The group with the most leverage are Republicans who are largely committed to the values in the Constitution and who have at times stood up to others in their party. That includes everyone from former Vice President Mike Pence to about half the Republicans currently in the Senate to quite a few Republican judges.

After this week’s election and in 2024 and beyond, they will need to strongly oppose any efforts to undermine elections in which Republicans fall short and cry fraud. The more Republicans unify around supporting democracy, the more likely they are to succeed in defeating attempts to undermine it.


And then there are the candidates currently running under the false banner of election fraud. It might turn out that while they were willing to push things very far, they, too, have lines they won’t cross.

That was the case when former President Donald Trump attempted to overturn the 2020 election and discovered that Republicans such as Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as well as U.S. Attorney General William Barr and a host of state legislators and Republican judges weren’t willing to go along. Many of them weren’t exactly friends of a robust democracy before November 2020, but when push came to shove they weren’t going to support a coup. Their decisions left Trump with mostly a collection of oddballs and outcasts to help him pursue his quest to remain in office despite the election results.

Unfortunately, some of Trump’s enablers are members of Congress and federal judges, and more will be in elective office next year. It’s possible that they will seek to subvert elections and undermine the rule of law. On the other hand, some new officials may find it less appealing to label as fraudulent elections that they themselves administered. We don’t know. Some of them may not know.

Not all the signals are grim. Political scientist Sean Westwood observes that both Democrats and Republicans “dramatically overestimate the extent to which the other side support(s) democratic norms violations.” A report by Bright Line Watch, a group that monitors democratic practices, found that political scientists who are experts on democracy actually had more confidence in the future of U.S. democracy than did ordinary voters of either party.

While no one should take the threats to the republic lightly, panic is the wrong response.

Indeed, while a more successful version of Trump’s attempted coup can’t be ruled out, another possibility is democratic erosion that never progresses to full-on authoritarianism. Instead, democratic principles get chipped away at: Barriers to voting grow in certain places; political violence and the threat of violence dissuade more people from participating in politics or civic life; more states experience extreme gerrymanders; a Supreme Court majority that isn’t reflective of the electorate becomes even more willing to exercise partisan preferences.

Republicans would have nothing close to absolute rule, but they might acquire substantial, enduring advantages not at all compatible with a robust republic. For real democracy to survive more Republicans will have to go beyond just drawing a line short of an armed coup. If they do, there is every possibility that they — and the nation — will succeed.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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