Schmidt is a syndicated columnist and Editorial Board member with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
When it comes to the state of our democracy, I have more questions than answers.
I was recently having a conversation with fellow centrist and attorney William Cooper, who is also the author of “Stress Test: How Donald Trump Threatens American Democracy.” We were discussing the degree of trouble our republic is in. Cooper shared that you first must define democracy before you can diagnose it. Cooper and I agreed that at the heart of any democracy, and part of that definition, is the premise that our elections must reflect the will of the people. Therefore, democracy depends on losing candidates accepting their losses. This is essential. Without it, the foundation of our democracy will fold like a house of cards.
In September, Yahoo News/YouGov published some survey results. After the constant flood of election fraud lies, their data should concern all of us but surprise none of us. When asked whether Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election went so far as to threaten American democracy, only 15 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement. Only 46 percent agreed that candidates should commit in advance to accepting the results; 35 percent were not sure and 19 percent said candidates should not commit in advance to accepting the results.
When breaking it down further by party identification, 64 percent of Democrats and 45 percent of independents said candidates should commit to accepting the results. Only 36 percent of Republicans agreed. And 81 percent of respondents said they were either very or somewhat worried about the future of U.S. democracy. The results were consistent across party: 83 percent of Democrats, 82 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independents are worried to some degree.
As the midterms quickly approach, the worrisome stats continue to roll in. According to a Washington Post analysis, election deniers will be on the ballot in 48 of 50 states in 2022 and they make up more than half of all Republicans running for congressional and state offices. Nearly 300 Republicans seeking those offices have denied or questioned the outcome of the last presidential election.
Republican Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union" last week. Dana Bash twice asked Lake, “If you lose, will you accept that?” Lake responded “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result." Despite Bash's best efforts, Lake would not say that she would concede if she loses.
These stats seem to illustrate something that Cooper wrote in his book back in November 2021. “American politics have been mired in endless controversy during the Trump era, much of which has been inaccurate and hyperbolic. But this problem — that Americans are losing trust in the outcomes of elections — is very real and very fundamental. Donald Trump’s campaign to undermine the American electoral process, if successful, wouldn’t just damage the American body politic; it would weaken the entire Western world of democratic nations. Trust in elections is an essential precondition to democracy.”
I would say the data proves Trump was quite successful in his attempts to undermine the American electoral system as well as erode other American institutions.
Cooper and I came to different conclusions about the path from here. He thinks Trump will fade and institutions which have held so far will continue to do so. The bear in me was much more pessimistic.
My cynicism comes from the realization that Republican voters are just fine with being lied to. If you believe like I do that the inmates are now running the asylum, and all the gatekeepers like Rep. Liz Cheney, who has tried to grab the keys back by telling the truth, have all been thrown out. How does one of our two major political parties ever get control back again? What pro-democracy Republicans will the base voters listen to and actually believe? I don’t see that hero on the horizon.
One step which might increase confidence in the outcome of future presidential elections is the Electoral Count Reform Act of 2022. The ECRA has already passed the House and there is a draft in the Senate. The Senate bill is led by Republican Susan Collins and Republican Joe Manchin. The ECRA would update the vague 1887 law governing the procedures for counting and certifying votes in a presidential election. There are currently 10 Republican cosponsors, which indicates there is enough support to pass the bill in the Senate. This would at least make it more difficult for presidential candidates to try to overturn an election. And that is not nothing.
But the greater challenge remains: How do we break the cycle of lies that is destroying us? That is the thing about lies – they break the bonds of trust and can do so quickly. Restoring it can take a very long time. Hopefully our institutions will hold while we figure out how to answer that question. If we can’t, I am afraid this experiment will come to an end.
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