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No, Democracy Isn’t About to Die

Yes, the GOP is trying to rig elections in its favor. No, we aren’t going to let it.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

We’re fast approaching the point where a subscription to The Atlantic is a risk factor for suicide. “January 6 Was Practice,” announces the cover of the current issue, flagging a story by Barton Gellman headlined, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” The cover is yellow lettering against a pitch-black background, a design scheme that would appear at first glance to announce the assassination of an American president.

It was the fourth pitch-black Atlantic cover in two years. The previous one (“We Mourn for All We Do Not Know,” March 2021) flagged, among other stories, one whose headline announced that American democracy was “hanging by a thread.” An earlier pitch-black Atlantic cover (“How to Destroy a Government,” April 2020) flagged a George Packer doom-’n’-gloomer headlined, “The President Is Winning His War on American Institutions.” (Packer meant Donald Trump.)

I’m not the only one to notice The Atlantic’s depressive new cast. At Commentary (“The Atlantic’s Nervous Breakdown”), Christine Rosen describes the magazine’s “Eeyore-Meets-Nietzsche” vibe and suggests that just as The New Yorker’s mascot is a monocled Eustace Tilly, so perhaps The Atlantic’s should be Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Unlike Rosen, I yield to none in my outrage against the anti-democratic depredations of an ever-less-principled Republican Party. But this fetish for crêpe-hanging, of which The Atlantic is the most notable but hardly the sole practitioner, is overwrought, unhelpful, and all too typical of liberalism. I’m a dedicated liberal myself, but let’s face it. We get this way from time to time.

Let’s run a reality check. Trump did not win his war on American institutions; he lost reelection. He went to truly appalling lengths to try to overturn the results, but he never got close. He and his allies filed 62 lawsuits. They won exactly one, a minor scuffle in Pennsylvania over whether voters could provide necessary identification after, rather than before, they mailed in their ballots. Not a single electoral ballot was changed. Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution tallied pro-Trump votes among individual Republican-affiliated judges in state courts and found they numbered 26, against 49 anti-Trump votes. None of these few pro-Trump votes prevailed. That’s why Trump resorted to supporting a violent insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021. Trump’s irresponsible incitement before the riot and his refusal to stop it after it began remains a scandal for which he must be held accountable. Seven people died, including three police officers, and 150 police were injured. It was horrific. But nobody for a moment believed the attack would prevent the proper counting of electoral ballots, and as I wrote in November, the January 6 defendants, now babbling to judges about how sorry they are and how they were duped, are an insult to the very idea of revolution.

Since then, Trump’s been up to considerable mischief, prompting a Politico headline that names him (with an excess of tact) “The Most Consequential Former President Ever.” He’s targeting state election officials who failed to support his false election claims and has gotten some removed. According to NPR, at least 15 Republican candidates for secretary of state in 2022 question the legitimacy of Biden’s presidential victory. As Gellman notes, 16 states have introduced bills that would shift authority over elections from the executive to the legislative branch, potentially enabling state legislatures to substitute their own favored slates of electors in a presidential election. And last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states enacted 33 laws that limit ballot access, targeted typically at African Americans and other Democratic constituencies.

But all these assaults against democracy are a sign of Republican weakness, not Republican strength, and they’re mostly being waged in inhospitable venues: the courts and the ballot box. Rather than wring your hands about democracy’s imminent demise, I advise you to write a check to the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, which raised a record $4.5 million last year and is looking to raise at least $15 million this year. Here’s the web page for donations. While you’re at it, consider donating to the Brennan Center, which does excellent work to fight voter restrictions. Here’s the relevant web page for Brennan.

I’ll wait.

There. Doesn’t that feel better than keening and whingeing? It wouldn’t kill you, either, to go door to door for some Democratic candidates for state legislature, especially if you live in one of the 30 states where Republicans have legislative majorities. That’s way too many.

Like you, I’m disappointed that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are able to block Senate Democrats from passing the For the People bill and the Freedom to Vote bill. But a compromise is available, and if Democrats don’t accept one, it will be because they have more to gain from campaigning in November against Republican intransigence on this issue. The liberal political scientist Ruy Teixeira pointed out recently that the efficacy of Republican efforts to limit the franchise, or Democratic efforts to expand it, does not appear to be great. A 2021 study, for instance, showed that between 2008 and 2018, voter ID laws had “no negative effect on registration or turnout, overall or for any group defined by race, gender, age, or party affiliation.”

One reason voter suppression is a weak partisan tool may be that Republican state laws that enact it often backfire by provoking higher turnout from the very pissed-off targeted groups. Or they miss the intended target. There’s some evidence that Trump’s vocal opposition in 2020 to mail-in ballots actually cost him the election, given the greater propensity of elderly voters, who were likelier to support Trump, to mail in their ballots.

As for Trump himself, his election prospects for 2024 are not, let’s face it, persuasive. He got booed last month at his own rally when he said he’d received the Covid-19 vaccine booster. “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” Trump pleaded to the Dallas crowd, sounding like a whinier King Lear. Trump protégé Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (admittedly, no improvement) is defying Trump by refusing to say he won’t run for president in 2024 if Trump does, and a recent NBC poll found Republicans pledging more fealty to the GOP (56 percent) than to Trump (36 percent), a reversal of earlier findings. “There has never been a better moment for the mice to bell the Trump cat than there is today,” wrote Jack Shafer last week in Politico.

None of this argues for complacency. Republicans, troubled by unfavorable long-term demographic trends, have been trying to rig elections in their favor for two decades through gerrymandering and preposterous claims of voter fraud. (Trump and George W. Bush both appointed panels that were supposed to demonstrate voter fraud was a problem; both came to grief.) In 2024, Republicans will try again, more shamelessly than before. But they won’t win, because we aren’t going to let them. So stop hanging crêpe, liberals, and show you’ve got some fight in you. As ever, democracy’s fate lies in democracy’s hands.