Democracy Wasn’t On The Ballot, Extremism Was

Authored by Michael Shellenberger,

Democracy was on the ballot, argued Democrats in the run-up to yesterday’s elections. If voters elected Republican governors and a Republican majority in Congress, Democrats and media pundits warned, we could soon see the end of the American system of republican democracy. Those Republicans who denied the outcome of the 2020 election would use their position to help Donald Trump steal the 2024 election, tear up the Constitution, and install himself as dictator-for-life. Or something.

But many Democratic candidates have themselves denied the results of past elections. In November 2002, Al Gore said he “would have won” the presidency had all the votes in Florida been counted, even though in 2001 The New York Times conducted a comprehensive review of all uncounted Florida ballots and found that George W. Bush would have won even had the United States Supreme Court allowed a manual recount of the votes to go forward. In 2005, Democratic Senate and House members objected to the certification of Ohio’s electoral college votes for George W. Bush claiming “numerous, serious election irregularities,” while the losing Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, claimed that voters were “denied their right to vote; too many who tried to vote were intimidated.” In 2017, House Democrats objected to the 2016 electoral votes, 67 Democrats boycotted the inauguration claiming his election was “illegitimate” and in 2019, Hillary Clinton said the election was “stolen” from her and that Trump “knows” he stole the election and was “an illegitimate president.”

It’s true that election denialism is much more widespread among Republicans than it is among Democrats. Where seven Democratic House members objected to the certification of their states’ votes for Trump in 2017, 139 Republican House members and eight Republican senators objected to the certification of their states’ votes for Biden in 2021, notes Cathy Young at The Bulwark. At the state level, 19 Republican attorneys general coordinated with Trump’s legal team to invalidate the results of the vote and involved fraudulent electors sending phony certificates to Washington depicting Trump as the winner. And Trump encouraged a mob of his supporters to storm the Capitol Building on January 6 in an effort to stop the certification of Biden’s election.

But if Democrats were really so worried that America’s democracy was on the brink of collapse, then why did they help Trump-backed election-denying Republicans defeat their moderate Republican opponents during the primaries? To be sure, it proved to be effective. “All eight Democratic candidates who benefited from the strategy,” notes Reuters, “were projected to win their races as of Wednesday morning.” But if it was a smart strategy in the short term it also undermines the credibility of the claim that Democrats care more about democracy than Republicans. If they did, why would they risk electing election deniers? Why would they put a risky political strategy above protecting American democracy?

And if Democrats are so concerned about protecting democratic norms, then why did they spend 2016 to 2019 arguing that Trump stole the 2016 election with the help of Vladamir Putin? Not only Democrats but the mainstream news media for nearly three years prosecuted the notion that Trump was a foreign agent. They even awarded themselves Pulitzer Prizes for their misleading reporting. As a result, many Democrats, including most if not all of my progressive friends, still believe that Trump stole the 2016 election with the help of the Russians. They argue that just because Mueller didn’t find conclusive proof that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians didn’t prove that Trump didn’t conspire with the Russians.

The most ridiculous element of Democratic election denialism isn’t the notion that Trump accepted help from Russia but rather that the things Russia did to interfere in the 2016 election changed the outcome. Democrats are right to suspect that Trump and his campaign team would have accepted Russian help to become president. Everything about Trump’s past behavior suggests that he would have, and indeed may have, if he felt that doing so would help him and that he would get away with it. Far less plausible is the notion that the things the Russians did, namely spreading fake news articles on social media, and hacking John Podesta’s emails, had much if any impact on voters. The Mueller Report found that the Russians spent $100,000 for 3,500 Facebook advertisements from June 2015 to May 2017, an utterly insignificant sum compared to the $81 million Clinton and Trump spent on Facebook ads. Even most liberal analystsincluding Hillary Clinton herselfcrediting many factors other than Russian interference for Trump’s 2016 victory.

Without a doubt, we should fight foreign interference in American elections, reject election denialism, and protect elections from fraud, but we should also recognize that those things aren’t determining factors in what wins or loses elections. Progressives have rightly noted for decades that election fraud is exceedingly rare and, to the extent it occurs, is almost always too small to change an election. But that same argument applies to Russian interference. Democrats can’t, on the one hand, dismiss concerns over election integrity when it comes to collecting ballots and, on the other, hype concerns over election integrity when it comes to $100,000 in Facebook ads.

The failure of U.S. Capitol Police to prevent January 6 protesters from entering the Capitol building was disturbing, but it hardly constituted a near-coup. There is little reason to believe a secretary of state could change an election’s result for the simple reason that voting is far too closely monitored and decentralized for it to be stolen. “It’s really hard to rig an election in America because it’s so decentralized,” confessed one advocate to The Washington Post.

It’s true that various means exist for someone to undermine our democratic system. The Electoral Count Act is, say, experts, too vague. A sitting vice president could point to voting irregularities, invoke the 12th Amendment, and let state delegations in the House vote on the manner. A sitting president could declare a national emergency, or the Insurrection Act, rule unilaterally, and deploy the military, without the authorization of Congress, to put down mass protests. And a secretary of state could simply refuse to sign off on election results that she doesn’t like.

But none of those constitute a significant threat. Even if a rogue secretary of state refused to certify election results, “there are nationwide, built-in protections to stop rogue actors from taking over,” admits The Post, which has done more to exaggerate the threat Trumpism poses to the republic than any other publication. Those protections are other elected officials, like the governor, and the courts. It might make sense to reform the Electoral Count Act, but even if that doesn’t happen, the Supreme Court still exists to play the role of interpreting vague and confusing laws in light of the constitution.

In truth, state governments are constantly making decisions about elections aimed at favoring one party or another, from 100% mail-in ballots in California, which allow for legal ballot harvesting, to the need to show identification before voting, such as in Georgia. One might argue that such rules undermine democracy, but there are legitimate differences of opinion about what the requirements should be to vote. There are always some barriers to voting if only the work of reading and filling out a ballot and stuffing it into an envelope. Whatever one thinks of such barriers, they are hardly the end of our republic.

When you read through various articles and reports raising the alarm about the threat to the American republic, most come down to vague concerns about things like “endless audits,” “distrust in results,” and “politicians hacking away at people’s confidence in democracy.” While I agree it’s important for the public to support our democratic system, there’s no evidence that such support is weakening. The widespread belief among many Republicans that the election was stolen from Trump expresses concern about the integrity of our electoral system, not a desire to get rid of it. And even were a president to declare an emergency, or an Insurrection Act that postponed an election, that would hardly constitute the end of the Republic, as new elections would simply be held later.

In the end, the main concerns most Democrats appear to have about election-denying Republicans center around the behavior of America’s last president. “Trump has never acknowledged defeat,” a friend of mine writes. “Yes — there has been a lot of bitching and moaning on the part of the Democrats, but most importantly, [Al] Gore not only conceded, but he, as vice-president, validated the results of the election, declaring that he lost.”

The problem, I responded, is that the First Amendment gives people, including former presidents, the right to say all sorts of stupid things. There’s nothing that we can or should do about it. It’s better to just argue over the evidence and, after it’s clear that nobody’s mind is changing, move on.

But what if a president refused to leave office? The answer is clear: the U.S. Supreme Court would order the U.S. military to remove him. There has been story after story of U.S. military leaders who allegedly refused to do what Trump asked them to do. Whether or not they are true, it’s clear that America’s military leaders continue to see themselves as serving the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, over this or that president. Could that change? Could there be a military officer in the future who, in effect, overthrows the government? Of course. But there’s no evidence that such officers exist in any significant number today, much less that their numbers are growing.

The mirrored obsession of the Right with election fraud and of the Left with election denialism are undermining America’s ability to confront the most important issues facing the country. Extremes on the Left and Right are using false, exaggerated, and hypocritical allegations of fraud and denialism to stoke anger and fear, in a shortsighted effort to attract attention, drive Internet clicks, and mobilize voters.

The good news is that voters have, as a collective, rejected the extremism of both the Right and Left, and elected a divided government.

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