Democracy Challenged

Sep 19, 2022

This is an election year unlike any we’ve experienced in recent decades. Not only do candidates of both major parties in the United States have starkly different views on the pressing issues of the day, including climate change, war, taxes, abortion, education, gender and sexual identity, immigration, crime and the role of government in American life. They also disagree on democracy itself, especially one of its essential pillars — willingness to accept defeat at the polls.

All year, our staff has sought to balance what we think of as politics, the candidates, polling, policy positions, campaign strategies, and views of voters on important issues, with coverage of acute challenges to democracy. Those include a deterioration in the integrity of constitutional democracy, manipulation of state election laws to limit or overturn the will of voters, and a global trend toward autocracy in places where democratic institutions once seemed solid. While we may continue to witness robust political competition in this midterm election cycle in ways that appear in keeping with American history, threats to that electoral system have grown relentlessly at the same time. Our coverage must examine both.

So while we have a large staff dedicated to reporting on politics, a special team of some of our best journalists, nationally and internationally, has produced dozens of explanatory and investigative stories on the causes of our democratic decline. These include the rise in political violence, especially on the right, election denial and its hold on many Republicans, disinformation and the profiteers peddling falsehoods, the people and money behind the Jan. 6 insurrection, the origins and popularity of leading conspiracy theories, and the partisan political motives of some leading jurists.

It is our deep and ongoing commitment to expose the cancers eating away at democracy, as well as joining the search for solutions. We have been gathering our coverage in a collection called Democracy Challenged.

The latest piece in the collection, by David Leonhardt, covers the two biggest threats to American democracy: first, a movement within the Republican Party that refuses to accept election defeat; and, second, a growing disconnect between public opinion and government power. Below, we summarize the main points:

  • The Jan. 6 attack on Congress was only the most obvious manifestation of the movement that refuses to accept election defeat. Hundreds of elected Republican officials around the country falsely claim that the 2020 election was rigged, suggesting they may be willing to overturn a future election. “There is the possibility, for the first time in American history, that a legitimately elected president will not be able to take office,” Yascha Mounk, a political scientist, said.

  • Even many Republicans who do not repeat the election lies have chosen to support and campaign for those who do. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, has gone so far as to support colleagues who have used violent imagery in public comments, such as calling for the killing of Democrats.

  • But there are also many senior Republicans who have signaled they would be unlikely to participate in an effort to overturn an election, including Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. He recently said that the United States had “very little voter fraud.”

  • This combination suggests that the risk of an overturned election remains uncertain. But the chances are much higher than would have been fathomable until the past few years. Previous leaders of both parties consistently rejected talk of reversing an election outcome.

  • In addition to this acute threat, American democracy also faces a chronic threat: The power to set government policy is becoming increasingly disconnected from public opinion.

  • Two of the past four presidents have taken office despite losing the popular vote. Senators representing a majority of Americans are often unable to pass bills, partly because of the increasing use of the filibuster. And the Supreme Court is dominated by an ambitious Republican-appointed bloc even though Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections — an unprecedented run of popular-vote success in U.S. history.

  • Parties in previous eras that fared as well in the popular vote as the Democrats have fared in recent decades were able to run the government and pass policies they favored. Examples include the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson’s time, the New Deal Democrats and the Reagan Republicans.

  • The growing disconnect from federal power and public opinion generally springs from enduring features of American government, some written into the Constitution. But these features did not conflict with majority opinion to the same degree in past decades. One reason is that less populous and more populous states tended to have broadly similar political outlooks in the past.

  • A sorting of the population in recent decades has meant that the less-populated areas given outsize influence by the Constitution also tend to be conservative, while major metropolitan areas have become more liberal. In the past, “the system was still antidemocratic, but it didn’t have a partisan effect,” said Steven Levitsky, another political scientist. “Now it’s undemocratic and has a partisan effect.”

  • Over the sweep of history, the American government has tended to become more democratic, through women’s suffrage, civil rights laws, the direct election of senators and more. The current period is so striking partly because it is one of the rare exceptions: The connection between government power and popular opinion has become weaker in recent decades.

Here is the full story on democracy’s twin crises.

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