Author of 'How Democracies Die' reveals why the US is in worse shape than he thought

Author of 'How Democracies Die' reveals why the US is in worse shape than he thought
(Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

U.S. Senate and House members attend President Donald J. Trump address Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 in the East Room of the White House, where the President responded to being acquitted in the U.S. Senate Impeachment Trial.

During the 2020 presidential race, a wide range of Donald Trump critics — including arch-conservative columnist/author Mona Charen (who worked in the Reagan White House) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described "democratic socialist" — slammed Trump as dangerously authoritarian. They warned that U.S. democracy itself was on the line. Now-President Joe Biden won the election, but the threat of authoritarianism was evident when Trump tried to overturn the election results and a violent far-right mob attacked the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6. Four months into Biden's presidency, journalist Susan B. Glasser examines the state of American democracy this week in an article for The New Yorker — and she warns that there is a lot to be worried about.

"Far from embracing Biden's call for unity," Glasser explains, "Republicans remain in thrall to the divisive rants and election conspiracy theories of their defeated former president. As a result, Congress is at such a partisan impasse that it cannot even agree on a commission to investigate the January 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob on its own building."

Glasser notes that during Biden's 2020 campaign, he "carried around" a copy of the 2018 book "How Democracies Die" — which was written by Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and warned that authoritarianism was prevailing over liberal democracy in many countries. And Biden has stressed that the United States needs to set a positive example for the world by showing how well democracy can work. But many Republican Trump supporters, according to Glasser, are showing themselves to be overtly anti-democracy.

Glasser observes, "GOP-controlled state legislatures are passing measures that will make it harder for many Americans to vote…. Trump has been putting out the word that he plans to run for reelection in 2024 — and exulting in polls showing that a majority of Republicans continue to believe both his false claims of a fraudulent election and that nothing untoward happened on January 6. Needless to say, these are not the signs of a healthy democracy ready to combat the autocratic tyrants of the world."

Ziblatt, during a recent interview, told Glasser that he finds the political climate in the U.S. in 2021 to be "much more worrisome" than the warnings he gave when he wrote "How Democracies Die" with Levitsky three years ago. "Turns out, things are much worse than we expected," Ziblatt lamented.

Glasser continued:

He said he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months. How could he have? It's hard to imagine anyone in America, even when "How Democracies Die" was published, a year into Trump's term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill calling for a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, but that bill hit a brick wall in the U.S. Senate when most GOP senators — clearly afraid of offending Trump — refused to support it. The six Republican senators who did vote in favor of the bill were Maine's Susan Collins, Utah's Mitt Romney, Nebraska's Ben Sasse, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Louisiana's Bill Cassidy and Ohio's Rob Portman.

The state of U.S. democracy is also addressed this week in an editorial from the Washington Post's editorial board, which calls out Trump supporters in state legislatures who are trying to punish secretaries of state who refused to help him overturn the election results in their states — including Georgia's Brad Raffensperger, a conservative Republican who is facing a primary challenge from far-right Rep. Jody Hice.

"Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) is gunning to replace Mr. Raffensperger in Georgia, and he already has Mr. Trump's endorsement," the Post's editorial board explains. "Mr. Hice led House Republicans in voting against counting electoral votes from swing states that preferred Mr. Biden. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed a letter Mr. Hice sent to Georgia conservatives claiming that the 2020 vote was rife with 'systemic voting irregularities and fraud' and that the 'back-stabbing' Mr. Raffensperger worked 'arm and arm with Stacey Abrams to deliver the presidency and Senate to the radical left.' These are absurd lies; extensive investigation showed no fraud, and Mr. Raffensperger is a stern conservative who wanted Republicans to win — but simply refused to fix the system on behalf of Mr. Trump."

The Post's editorial board continues, "Mr. Hice is hardly the only threat to democracy. Politico points to candidates in Arizona, Nevada and Michigan running to take over the secretary of state's office in each key swing state…. Republicans of conscience must reject these extremists."

A theme in both Glasser's article and the Post's editorial is that the threat to U.S. democracy did not end when Trump lost the 2020 election and Biden was sworn into office in January.

Glasser writes, "Hopefully, we are not witnessing the slow-motion death of American democracy. At least, not yet." And the Post's editorial board warns, "It is seductive to imagine that the danger to U.S. democracy passed with Mr. Trump's departure. In fact, it may have only begun."

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