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Democracy in Peril

A TNR editorial

Never let it be forgotten that the world’s oldest democracy was one man’s wobbly conscience away from losing that claim in 2021. Vice President Mike Pence did the right thing in the end on January 6 of last year, but by all accounts, he spent days, if not weeks, considering doing Donald Trump’s bidding and refusing to certify the electoral certificates affirming Joe Biden’s election as president. In his conversation with Dan Quayle, whom he called for advice, Pence listened as Quayle told him that the vice president had no such authority and then responded: “You don’t know the position I’m in.” So he was looking for ways. The election could have been tossed to the House of Representatives, which would have voted—because the vote is by state delegation, and Republicans controlled 27 of those—to hand the White House to the candidate who lost the Electoral College and the popular vote by over seven million ballots nationally, as well as every recount and some 60 legal challenges to those results.

This country has confronted, and survived, many crises. But this is something we’ve never faced before. One of our two major political parties is—and gleefully, right in front of our noses—taking steps to ensure that it can succeed in 2024 at what it failed to pull off in 2020. This is without precedent. Even in the 1850s, our political parties agreed on the rules. The states that seceded to form the Confederacy didn’t try to argue that John Breckinridge really won the 1860 election. They accepted the reality of Abraham Lincoln’s victory. They left the Union over it, but they never tried to argue that his victory was legally illegitimate or pressure secretaries of state to find a few thousand votes.

This special issue of The New Republic examines the current condition of democracy in the United States and around the world, fingering the culprits and asking what can be done to save it. Every article in this issue, from this editorial into the front of the book and then the feature well and right through to the book reviews, takes on some aspect of our democracy problem. With essays by some of our leading thinkers on these matters and reported pieces by our staffers, as well as our exclusive democracy poll that asked respondents some questions that pollsters never ask Americans, this issue boldly lays out the nature of the challenge we face.

Today, the Republican Party has aimed a bullet at democracy’s heart. And it is made possible not just by Trump and his lies, but by broader assaults on democracy that extend back years. The gerrymandering that enables Republicans to hold legislative majorities even when their candidates don’t win a majority of votes. The many forms of vote suppression. The aggressive packing of the courts with hard-right judges and justices. The alternative reality described for audiences on a daily basis by their media outlets (not just Fox News, by a long shot—dozens or hundreds of websites, local radio stations, and more). The lies peddled relentlessly on social media, enabled by algorithms that reward rage and anger. None of these developments happened overnight. All were plotted and planned over years—financed by right-wing billionaires, executed by ideologues who had contempt for the rules and norms that had kept our democracy, flawed as it has always been, functioning.

So, no, we haven’t been here before. And while some of what has happened here is unique to the United States, the authoritarian-minded ethno-nationalism that we see on the American right is part of a grim, worldwide trend. We have only to look to Moscow to see the tragic consequences of where this kind of thinking leads. As David Rieff writes in these pages, there is an “autocratic tsunami sweeping the world” that democracies have so far proved unable to arrest.

There is to all this an undeniable economic element, as the global regime of neoliberalism that has ruled so much economic policymaking since the late 1970s has worsened inequality and strafed social safety nets and public investment, leaving millions of citizens of many nations feeling that the system is not working for them. It has also—and this connection is not often enough made—damaged democracy. Our nation’s Founders, though far from perfect, knew well that excessive economic inequality was incompatible with democracy. This is a big part of what gave us President Trump. Republicans are chiefly to blame here, with their endless tax cuts for the superrich, but Democrats certainly shoulder some of the fault as well.

There are many important issues in our time, but none is more important than this: If we lose our democracy to Trumpism, progress on all other issues is impossible, and the United States becomes a quasi-authoritarian semi-democracy. If nothing else, we want future generations to see that we tried to do our part.