The United States has survived the 2020 election and its seemingly never-ending and increasingly bizarre aftermath. Efforts by Donald Trump to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the courts met abject failure at almost every turn even as a number of Republican elected officials and Republican voters embraced them. The most apocalyptic scenarios that some scholars worried about before the election did not come to pass. But nothing that happened after November 3 can be considered normal — not the threats to election officials, not the concerted legal effort to invalidate millions of votes, and certainly not Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
Some prominent academic figures who study how countries fall into dictatorships are deeply concerned about what would come next.
Daniel Ziblatt, a political science professor at Harvard and the co-author of How Democracies Die, told Intelligencer, “I think it’s pretty clear that there was a somewhat serious effort to steal this election. It’s not going to succeed. In that sense, the acute normative crisis has passed. It doesn’t mean our checks and balances have worked.” He pointed to what he described as “a chronic slow burning problem” within the American electorate, the “radicalization” within the Republican Party. “One can’t have a democracy [in a two party system] where one of the two parties is not fully committed to democratic norms.” Ziblatt described the current situation as an escalation of constitutional hardball, where political actors “sniff out weakness in constitutional structure,” violating long-standing norms if not technically the law. He pointed to the Trump-led effort in 2020 to have Republican-controlled state legislatures pick their own electors to throw victory to the president, regardless of how their states voted.
The possibility of a step like this was always embedded within the constitutional structure, but no one, until now, had been willing to explicitly overturn the results of a presidential election that already had a clear and decisive winner.
“I worry that this whole post-election process has been the dress rehearsal,” said Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, the other co-author of How Democracies Die, citing Vladimir Lenin’s quote that the Russian Revolution of 1905 was the “dress rehearsal” for the October Revolution of 1917, which put the Bolsheviks in power. Levitsky noted that not only have Republicans found that “their base won’t punish this sort of behavior, they’ll likely applaud it.” He added, “none of this stuff can be unlearned.”
Experts weren’t comforted by the slapstick nature of Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election, ranging from farcical conspiratorial claims to the hair dye dripping down Rudy Giuliani’s cheeks. “I think we do make a mistake that authoritarians are always as competent at the time as they appear in retrospect,” said Ziblatt. “Mussolini was a clown. Hitler was very lazy. It’s not as if they are always paragons of self-discipline and organization.”
These two scholars both expressed real concerns about what they see as structural flaws in our current system — flaws that allow a political party, in this case, the Republican Party, to consistently win power despite failing to win a plurality of the vote (as Trump did in 2016). This undercuts the idea of a self-correcting two-party system where, as Ziblatt put it, “If one party goes off the rails, it will be punished at the ballot box.” [Continue reading…]