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The Assault on Democracy Didn’t Start Last Week

Wednesday’s failed coup was just the climax of a years-long effort to weaken our democratic system, which we urgently need to strengthen.

January 13, 2021
Pro-Trump rioters storm the Capitol.
Pacific Press/Getty

Since last Wednes­day’s failed insur­rec­tion, it’s been tempt­ing to divide Repub­lic­ans into two loose categor­ies.

On one side are the open enemies of demo­cracy: Pres­id­ent Trump and the GOP lawmakers who tried to chal­lenge the elect­oral vote count on his behalf, as well as the far-right figures involved in the deadly inva­sion of the Capitol. These people are already paying at least some kind of price: prom­in­ent rioters are being arres­ted, albeit belatedly, Sens. Josh Hawley (MO) and Ted Cruz (TX) are being appro­pri­ately canceled by the wider culture, and impeach­ment is under­way.

On the other side are the more prag­matic conser­vat­ives — Repub­lican lead­ers like Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, Sens. Mitch McCon­nell (KY) and Lind­sey Graham (SC), who got off the Trump Train just before its final, viol­ent crash. These people face a complic­ated polit­ical situ­ation, to put it mildly, but they remain in basic­ally good stand­ing with the civil­ized world.

But we’re in danger of draw­ing the line in the wrong place. It’s not just that GOP lead­ers contin­ued to back Trump long after his author­it­ari­an­ism, racism, and personal corrup­tion were impossible to deny. More import­ant, Wednes­day’s cata­strophe was just the final doomed cavalry charge in an anti-demo­cratic campaign in which these same lead­ers played star­ring roles. You don’t get to the point where you’re storm­ing the Capitol to over­turn elec­tion results — with at least 16(!) Repub­lican state lawmakers as part of the mob — if you haven’t already spent years under­min­ing demo­cracy. You don’t get there if you haven’t already encour­aged your support­ers to believe that things like free elec­tions and proced­ural fair­ness can be dispensed with if they’re obstacles to your agenda.

It starts with voting. For about a decade and a half — since Donald Trump was a real­ity TV star who most of us could safely ignore — the GOP has been aggress­ively promot­ing the lie that drove the inva­sion of the Capitol, that illegal voting is rampant. For almost as long, Repub­lican-controlled states have used this lie to justify voter suppres­sion laws that disen­fran­chise many more legit­im­ate than ille­git­im­ate voters, and usually target racial minor­it­ies. In fact, even now, GOP lawmakers are using Trump’s bogus voter fraud claims to prepare new restrict­ive meas­ures, espe­cially target­ing mail voting, which skewed heav­ily Demo­cratic. McCon­nell et al haven’t lifted a finger in response to this poten­tial new wave of suppres­sion (in fact, Graham advoc­ated for it in order to, he has said, ensure that Repub­lic­ans can continue to win elec­tions.)

But the party also has fully embraced plenty of other posi­tions that mock demo­cratic prin­ciples: That the rich should be permit­ted a louder voice in elec­tion campaigns than the rest of us. That politi­cians should be in charge of draw­ing their own districts, the will of voters be damned. That it’s OK to prevent a sitting pres­id­ent from filling a Supreme Court vacancy based on noth­ing other than the power prin­ciple. That it’s also fine for a pres­id­ent to use his power to pres­sure a foreign govern­ment to weaken a polit­ical rival. That nonvi­ol­ent protests need to be reined in. That govern­ment offi­cials includ­ing the pres­id­ent can use their offices to enrich them­selves and there’s noth­ing people can do about it.

All of this has sent the message — some­times stated outright — that full demo­cracy isn’t just incon­veni­ent, but a threat to conser­vat­ive goals. Last Wednes­day would­n’t have happened without that ideo­lo­gical ground­work being laid.

Two points follow from this real­ity. First, that no bright line separ­ates the Trump/Cruz/Hawley contin­gent on one side from the Pence/McCon­nell/Graham faction on the other. They all were fully signed on to the assault on demo­cracy that brought us to the point of an armed insur­rec­tion. In a better world, it would­n’t just be the former group that was being writ­ten out of polite soci­ety, stripped of book deals and golf tour­na­ments, and invit­a­tions to come on Meet the Press. It would be all of them.

More import­ant, the only appro­pri­ate way to respond to this crisis is not just by hold­ing the perpet­rat­ors account­able, but also by actively strength­en­ing our demo­cracy, so that it’s freer, fairer, and more access­ible than before. In the For the People Act (H.R. 1), Congress has the chance to pass legis­la­tion that would make voting easier, require fair elec­tion maps, demo­crat­ize campaign fund­ing, and ensure that govern­ment offi­cials do the people’s busi­ness, not their own. After all, what better way is there to fight back against those who tried to suppress demo­cracy than to finally make our system more respons­ive to the will of voters?

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.