American democracy may end not with a bang, but a whimper

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President Biden will speak on Thursday evening from outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia — a location overstuffed with significance. Biden plans to discuss the threat posed to American democracy from the birthplace of the nation. He’ll speak within earshot of the Liberty Bell, and, one might predict, will mention that the bell endures despite its crack.

There are not many things that Americans agree upon these days, but the risk to our democracy is one of them. A poll from Quinnipiac University released Wednesday demonstrates this vividly. Ask Democrats and Republicans how they feel about Biden or Donald Trump, the election, the economy or you-name-it, and views diverge widely.

Ask them how they feel about the danger our democracy is in, though, and views line up neatly.

That Americans agree on the danger posed democracy does not, of course, mean they agree on the reason for that danger. Prior polling has shown that Republicans are far more likely to cite the results of the 2020 presidential election — results many Republicans have come to believe were a function of fraud — as a reason for pessimism about the future of the country. Democrats, for their part, are more likely to point to things like Donald Trump’s successful effort to convince Republicans that the results of the 2020 election were a function of fraud.

Much of the conversation on this subject centers on the most direct form of danger: the threat of political violence. Two in 5 Americans think it’s at least somewhat likely that the country will collapse into civil war within the nest decade, with half of Trump voters holding that position. Many experts on the subject, though, think that political violence may emerge less formally, in spasms like the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But, as we were reminded this week, violence is not the only risk democracy faces. It’s probably not even the most immediate one.

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A few weeks ago, organizers in Michigan triumphantly presented more than 750,000 signatures to the state in support of a petition that would put a measure protecting access to abortion on the November ballot. The number exceeded the required number of signatures by hundreds of thousands.

On Wednesday night, though, the initiative was blocked by Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers. A majority of the four-person board had to agree to put the initiative on the ballot for it to advance, but only two members did. As it happens, those were the board’s two Democrats. The board’s two Republicans opposed doing so.

The central argument against allowing the measure was typographical. Copies of the petition signed by voters lacked visible spaces between words, yielding phrases like “THEREISASIGNIFICANTLIKELIHOOD.” Proponents of the measure expect that the state Supreme Court will respond positively to the idea that this drafting error should not prohibit the measure from being presented to voters. Which, of course, is the issue at hand: not whether abortion access should be protected but whether voters should be allowed to decide if it is.

This was not the only ballot measure rejected after the board reached a deadlock. Another measure that would have allowed voters to choose to expand voting access was also blocked thanks to opposition from the Republican canvassers.

It seems safe to assume that perhaps politics played a role in the decisions here. Two measures that align with Democratic policy preferences were blocked from appearing on the ballot by Republican board members. Or, to put it more bluntly: two Republicans used their political power to impede an effort that would allow Michiganders to reach their own democratic determinations on contentious issues.

Situations like this — quiet erosions of self-governance — are the easier-to-overlook manifestation of democratic waning. The post-2020 environment has been rife with them, like scaling back access to voting and the elevation of candidates who reject election results. But the trend is older than that. Analysis of party positions over multiple decades shows that the GOP has been moving toward illiberalism for some time. Trump, as is so often the case, is leveraging and amplifying an existing pattern, not creating one.

What blocked Trump’s effort to retain power in 2021, you’ll recall, was just enough people in just enough places standing in his way. At the local and state level, key officials proved unwilling to accede to his false claims about the election outcome. They allowed democracy to hobble forward.

One of them was a Republican named Aaron Van Langevelde. In one of the post-election period’s more dramatic flourishes, he not only refused to help Trump block the results of the election in his state but did so while invoking the limits of his own power.

“We have no authority to request an audit, to delay or block certification, to review inaccuracies that happened at the local level,” he said during a hearing in late November 2020. “Those results have been certified. Our duty is to look at those certified results, look at the math, and then certify. The statute couldn’t be more clear.”

The body on which Van Langevelde served voted to do exactly that. He was joined by the two Democrats on Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers; the other Republican, unwilling to similarly stand in Trump’s way, abstained. When Van Langevelde’s term ended at the end of January 2021, the state party chose not to renominate him.

It’s not just that Van Langevelde could have decided differently. It’s that so many people in positions like Van Langevelde’s have the power to do so, to choose, as that other Republican did, to go along with the erosion. There was a flash of violence in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 results, but it was a lot of quiet decisions that made the difference. Democracy depends on those quiet decisions, too.



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