While we can repeat over and over again that Joe Biden was elected president of the United States and will be sworn into this highest office in our land next January 20, for many Americans and even media pundits, it is difficult to say the verdict is in. Nervousness persists, and it is intensely palpable. Just watch the media tracing every little movement Trump and his lawyers make in this drama; and listen as the talking heads insist Biden’s inauguration is a foregone conclusion while within the same breath often posing the question, with a slight tone of worry, “Is there anything Trump can actually do to steal the election?”
While that anxiety-ridden question is of the moment, to be sure, we also need to hear in it a larger question that probes just how invulnerable are our democratic processes and structures to subversion. This moment, in which we see a sitting president overtly, shamelessly, and brutally challenging democracy in refusing to acknowledge the choice of eighty million Americans, hopefully, if nothing else, will push Americans to learn more about and also engage in a kind of S.W.O.T (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis of U.S. democratic institutions.
In many ways, we have witnessed the strengths of both our democratic processes and institutions and a supporting culture. For example, take Georgia. Both the Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Republican Governor Brian Kemp certified Biden’s win in Georgia against what we know to be tremendous pressure from the Trump team and state Republicans. Republican Senate candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loefffler had called for Raffensperger’s resignation earlier this month.
Raffensperger, just like Republicans in Michigan, simply insisted on following processes as dictated by their state laws and by the U.S. Constitution.
And we saw this same attitude state by state, for the most part. In the most crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania, Secretary of State Josh Shapiro, albeit a Democrat, consistently held a firm stance that all the votes would be accounted in accordance with Pennsylvania election laws. He was clear, stating in a NPR interview:
Donald Trump can get out there and say whatever the hell he wants on election night. But the only thing that matters is when we’ve counted up all the legal eligible votes here in Pennsylvania. And as the attorney general of Pennsylvania, I will protect the will of the people.
So far, these laws and processes seem to be withstanding Trump’s assault.
Or are they?
The silence from congressional Republicans is deafening, suggesting the likelihood that a good number of our elected officials, maybe even a majority of the Republican party, do not share a commitment to democracy but simply want to hold on to power by any means necessary.
And despite the fact, as I wrote about last week in the pages of PoliticusUsa, that the media has finally been realizing its role in democracy and stopped giving air time to Trump’s mendacious rants about election fraud, still 77% of Republican voters believe election fraud played some role in Biden’s victory.
And here we see the biggest and very real threat to democracy in America: people’s actions and beliefs.
Some time ago I saw Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting under President Barack Obama, speaking on a cable news show. He said something rather striking to me: that our founders, in crafting the Constitution, never quite imagined someone like Donald Trump or the scenarios that have occurred in the past four years.
Think about it. Our founders did imagine a corrupt president who might fall under the influence of foreign powers. So they developed a system of checks and balances and an impeachment process. But they didn’t imagine a whole party or a whole branch of Congress would abdicate its role as a check and balance and aid and abet the undermining of democracy to cling to party rule. Or that a supposedly independent Attorney General would do the same. The Republican Senate and William Barr did just this during the impeachment proceedings against Trump.
And take the Republican mission, under Trump, of packing the U.S. courts. Mitch McConnell’s Senate has appointed over 200 judges to federal benches, many of whom hold ideologically extreme views and many of whom are white men. Both demographically and ideologically, these appointments are at odds with the American majority; and many have deemed simply unqualified, making clear they were appointed for ideological reasons primarily—to impose and enforce views at odds with the majority. As The Brennan Center for Justice opines, “Those judges are still going to be fouling up the law when your children and grandchildren care about the courts.”
And who could have imagined a caravan of Trump supporters trying to drive a Biden campaign bus off the highway, as happened in Texas as the election approached?
That is, who could have imagined a complete lack of reverence for, interest in, commitment to the basic elements of democracy?
Well, ok, this nation’s historical commitments to and practices of racism, sexism, and labor exploitation certainly demonstrate a penchant for undemocratic behavior.
And this is the threat.
Sure, there are structural threats, too, of which we need to be aware. In a recent Politico piece titled “Could GOP states ignore voters and send Trump delegates to the Electoral College?” Zach Montellaro lays out the “unlikely” scenarios by which this could happen. No matter how remote, there are possibilities, cracks and loopholes we should address and be cognizant of.
But, as Rick Hasen, a prominent election law professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote in The Atlantic, the real worry lies elsewhere: “The danger, then, is less about whether Biden takes office in January and more about whether the American people will keep believing that this is a country that can settle its disagreements peacefully and through a legal process.”
Will people’s love of power prevail over a commitment to fair play and democracy?
This American drama is still unfolding.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.