This year’s midterm elections brought a striking reality into clearer view: The Republican Party seems increasingly disinclined to accept that sometimes Democrats will win elections — and that voters have the right to choose their elected officials, whether those leaders reflect Republicans’ desires or not.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted this reality on Monday, writing that Republicans no longer appear to believe that a “basic principle of democracy is that parties have to accept that their opponents are sometimes going to win.”
In the wake of a midterm election where the Republicans lost 40 House seats, Republicans were willing to call perfectly legitimate election results into question simply because they didn’t like the outcome. President Trump spread wild conspiracy theories about “forged” ballots in the Florida Senate race and of undocumented immigrants voting en masse for Democrats in California House contests. We heard similar sentiments from establishment figures like Lindsey Graham, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio.
Some state Republicans have even decided to nullify the results of this year’s elections. Last Friday, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill that seizes key powers from Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers, who defeated Walker in November. Michigan Republicans are currently weighing a similar bill, and both are following in the footsteps of North Carolina Republicans, who passed a power-stripping bill after a Democratic victory in the 2016 governor’s race.
The GOP has reached a point where it is comfortable shirking democratic norms and principles. Republicans have shown “they care more about power than they do about basic democratic principles and are willing to run roughshod over the latter if it helps them win the former.”
Beauchamp argues that this trend predates the rise of Trump but surely is not helped along by his rhetoric and antics, placing American democracy in danger as “the institutionalized Republican Party is unwilling to check Trump and in fact backs his play”.
Why? “[B]ecause he’s on their team against the Democrats.”
The result is a mutually reinforcing cycle. Republicans’ indifference to democracy allows Trump to behave in a wild and dangerous fashion; in turn, Republicans defend Trump and further weaken the fundamentals of the democratic system.
This a recipe for a crisis, and 2018 showed us what the most likely flashpoint would be: a Trump defeat in the 2020 presidential election.
In Florida, several Republicans attempted to cast counting all the votes as election fraud:
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who was running for Senate, accused Nelson of “clearly trying to commit voter fraud to win this election.” Sen. Rubio accused “Democrat lawyers” of trying “to change the results of the election.” President Trump claimed Democrats were committing “election theft.” Even after the two races were eventually called in the GOP’s favor, some national Republicans — like Sen. Graham — continued to suggest that the Democratic gains in the state were somehow ill-gotten.
Republicans in California, where Democrats flipped traditionally-red Orange County to blue, insisted there was shady business going on with late-counted votes.
Trump was, of course, the bluntest: “The Republicans don’t win, and that’s because of potentially illegal votes,” he claimed without evidence in a mid-November Daily Caller interview.
But he wasn’t alone among leading Republicans. In late November, outgoing House Speaker Ryan claimed that “there are a lot of races there we should have won,” blaming the GOP defeats on allegedly “bizarre” voting and vote-counting procedures in the state.
These incidents, and others, paint a picture not of sore losers but of Republicans’ “willingness to call into question the very legitimacy of America’s electoral process”, Beauchamp writes.
“These shenanigans will almost certainly undermine trust in our electoral institutions, at least among Republicans,” Steven Levitsky, a government professor at Harvard and co-author (with Daniel Ziblatt) of How Democracies Die, told me. “When politicians and parties are unwilling to accept defeat, democracy is clearly imperiled.”
The threat stems from a root cause identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their book: political polarization. In the contemporary United States, being a member of a political party is about more than just what policies you’d like to see implemented. It’s a core part of people’s identity, shaping everything from who they like to spend time with to their sense of self and place in the world. This makes Americans more likely to believe virtually anything that favors their partisan team.
Looking forward to 2020, it is now conceivable that a Trump loss will be perceived not only by the president and his supporters as the result of a rigged system but potentially by the Republican Party as a whole.
“If [Trump] loses a close race, he’ll promote false claims of election fraud, and he’ll still be commander in chief for ten weeks,” writes Seth Masket, a scholar of American politics at the University of Denver.
Beauchamp goes on to discuss how Republicans laid the groundwork for just this type of crisis by taking numerous actions focused on “unfairly tilting the electoral system in their favor” — from voter ID laws to voter roll purges to gerrymandered election maps.
Over the past decade and a half, Republicans have shown disdain for procedural fairness and a willingness to put the pursuit of power over democratic principle. They have implemented measures that make it harder for racial minorities to vote, render votes from Democratic-leaning constituencies irrelevant, and even overturn the results of elections wholesale. There hasn’t been a systematic Republican plan to undermine democracy, but rather a series of decision points at which Republicans have made the wrong choice without any real backlash from inside the party.
“This isn’t just about President Trump,” says Ziblatt. “There’s really an assault on electoral fairness, I would say, in Republican-governed states. And it’s really only in Republican-governed states where this has taken place.”