Democracy is fragile.
History is clear on this point. Whether through a violent coup or a slow slide to autocracy, world history is replete with examples of democracy's demise. Although historical parallels with today certainly exist, I argue that those democratic governments were victims to a specific time and place with a distinct set of circumstances that brought those countries to the brink.
Therefore, I will focus on America's history.
The Election of 1800
The presidential election of 1800 was a crucial moment in American politics for a myriad of reasons. Although George Washington had warned against the practice, in the eleven years since his inauguration, two political parties had formed — the Federalists, led by President John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans.
The parties represented diametrically opposed ideologies and promised very different visions for the country, resulting in a highly contentious campaign leading up to the election. Following this rancorous and uniquely modern debate, as if adding insult to injury, Jefferson and Aaron Burr received the same number of electoral votes.
This forced the election into the House of Representatives, and after multiple failed attempts to elect a president, Alexander Hamilton’s persuasion handed Jefferson the presidency and laid the groundwork for his fatal duel with Burr. Often referred to as the “Revolution of 1800”, this monumental election inherently changed the political leadership of the country for a generation.
Perhaps most significant, however, was the aftermath of the election, which is largely regarded as an extremely consequential test for the young republic. Jefferson’s election resulted in the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties in American history and established a fundamental principle of our democracy.
For over two centuries, even in times of political or social upheaval, this bedrock principle has proven unbreakable when the party in power concedes that power after an election. It is well understood that a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ must listen when the people have spoken.
The Election of 2020
That all changed in 2020. For the first time in 220 years, a president was unwilling to adhere to this principle of American democracy. Not accepting the will of the people and then fermenting anger among his supporters with lies about a stolen election was an inflection point in United States history and plunged this country into an uncertain future.
Trump’s willingness throughout his presidency to violate democratic and presidential norms on a whim had already signaled that this tenet of a peaceful transition would not stand in his way. It was nearly unthinkable that a president and his party would choose their present position of power over the future of the republic, but alas, that is what they chose.
The January 6th House Select Committee taught us in their hearings that what followed was a deliberate and calculated scheme to overturn the election, culminating in the violent insurrection at the US Capitol as lawmakers were attempting to certify the election results. It was a coup attempt that had failed, but the damage had already been done.
The "Big Lie" continued to permeate right-wing and conservative media, politicians lamented the stolen election, and sitting members of Congress refused to publicly recognize Joe Biden as our legitimate president. The horror of January 6th faded from memory as Republicans began to spin the events as merely a political protest and conspiracy theories abounded on far-right websites.
According to a study from the Washington Post, 291 Republican nominees on the ballot for the House, Senate and key statewide offices have denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election. Candidates who have challenged or refused to accept Joe Biden’s victory — 51 percent of the 569 analyzed by The Washington Post — are running in every region of the country and in nearly every state.
Nearly 300 people are running for office in the United States as election deniers, and there is no significant evidence of voter fraud whatsoever. The lies were spread for a multitude of reasons: hold onto power, gain favor with the Republican base, make money off of supporters, etc. but the reasons don't matter as much as the effect. Millions of people now believe the 2020 election was stolen.
Democracy is predicated on that fact that citizens have faith in its institutions. Democracy is fragile because if that trust is eroded, the confidence that has been built up over the centuries begins to fracture, and that loss in stability allows bad actors and corrupt politicians to seize control in the fissures. Of the many disturbing moments during his presidency, Trump's most devastating legacy will be his relentless assaults on our institutions.
Diminishing people's belief in America's principles continues to tear at the fabric of our society today.
I taught early American history to sixth graders about 20 years ago near the beginning of my career. We would study the Constitutional Convention, and then I would always enjoy telling the students a story about Benjamin Franklin. Whether fact or legend, its truth still rings true today.
At the conclusion of the convention, as the story goes, when the delegates were presenting this new form of government to the people, an elderly lady tugged on Franklin's coat and asked him a simple question. "What have you given us?"
His response was equally direct. "We've given you a republic. If you can keep it."
I've always loved the second part of his answer. Franklin was saying that the people had been given a representative democracy, and they were going to be responsible for electing their leaders. But the choice of those leaders was in their hands, and if they didn't choose correctly, they could lose their republic as quickly as it had been gained. It was a dire warning and one that resonates with us today now more than ever.
Individual states conduct elections. Governors, state representatives, and secretaries of state certify the election results within their state. With so many election deniers now running for office, the power to overturn the will of the people in any given state may soon be granted to officials in those states.
Trump's coup attempt failed because a handful of politicians at the local, state, and national level would not go along with the plan. This critical safeguard, however, is now at risk as many of the people who questioned the results of the 2020 election are favored to win their districts. What this means for America's future elections is anyone's guess, but we can be assured some element of chaos and corruption moving forward.
It's also safe to assume that a notable number of candidates will contest their 2022 election losses. It was widely reported that meetings were already underway to dispute Pennsylvania's election results. The state legislature does not allow for officials to begin counting mail-in ballots until election day, which causes delays and frequent count changes, lending credence to the stolen election conspiracies.
Regardless of the specific challenges in the days and weeks following these midterm elections, it is clear that the scourge of election denial is here for the foreseeable future. And if Americans don't choose wisely, this may be the last election in which our votes matter.
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