Jacobson is a consultant who advises elected officials on foreign and economic policy. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank.
Jan. 6. was not the end of the threat to our democracy. It was the moment the undeniable threat could no longer be denied.
The knowledge that ours is the world's rarest form of government, an understanding of the forces now fully unleashed in our country, and the choices Republican leaders have made in the last month — all should leave us with the sober realization that the battle for democracy has only just begun. The Senate impeachment trial won't change a thing.
In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol insurrection, it was tempting to believe American democracy would be just fine. Widespread condemnation of Donald Trump's actions, and the swift transfer of power, has created a potentially false sense of security. But if we set aside partisan considerations, and focus only on preserving a democratic form of government, history shows we shouldn't be so naive.
Examining successful autocratic breakthroughs in the last century, and democratic resilience to such anti-democratic insurgencies, reveals the current direction of the Republican Party. Rather than ending the threat to our democracy, it is actually keeping the threat alive.
In moments when democracy has prevailed over right-wing insurgencies — movements that blend fascist, ethnic nationalist and anti-democratic energy — the center-right has isolated and pushed out extremist forces. Or, it has formed a coalition with the left to prevent the insurgents from gaining control. The GOP has done neither of these so far.
More than half of Republicans in Congress (147 of 261) voted to overturn the election hours after the storming of the Capitol. Rather than distance himself from the disgraced former president, who spent months attacking the bedrock of our republic, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy went to Trump's home in Florida two weeks ago to smooth things over. The day before, 45 of the 50 Republican senators voted against even having an impeachment trial, arguing it's unconstitutional to try a president after he leaves office — an incredibly dangerous precedent for the rule of law.
Rather than denouncing radical elements in the party, those in the GOP who voted to impeach Trump now face political peril while those pushing wild anti-semitic conspiracy theories have been protected. Republicans at the state level, citing concerns around election integrity built on lies about voter fraud, have introduced more than 100 bills to make it harder to vote — including efforts to severely limit voting by mail.
These are naked attempts to shrink the opposition's electorate.
What has not happened to restore trust in our elections, though, is the party's leaders standing up to tell their voters the truth. Consequently, the vast majority of Republicans still believe the election was stolen, providing future fuel to the fire that led to the insurrection. Autocratic breakthroughs are enabled by the flawed view that such movements can be contained.
Eventually, dissenting voices get removed and the extreme elements take over the power structure. This gives insurgents the opportunity to capture the government and pursue anti-democratic aims they justified as necessary to right a previous injustice. Add in an intentional disinformation campaign — amplified by expansive communication networks and an ethnic nationalist call for a return to glory, which defines opposing voices as a threat to the real nation itself — and you have a recipe for disaster. In other words, what the GOP and its support apparatus are doing now is exactly the wrong thing for democracy.
Two paths stand before the rest of us. One allows us the chance to strengthen our republic. The other risks the destruction of the American experiment and a future that looks more like Hungary, Turkey, Russia or Venezuela. These illiberal regimes maintain a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy while the rules of the game are fixed in their favor and the levers of power are weaponized to weaken all opposition, thus curtailing civil rights.
The right path demands sustained civic engagement for many years from the vast majority of our people. The wrong path offers the seductive lure of a return to normalcy.
The right path demands accountability and substantial systemic reforms to our political system. The wrong path calls upon us to sweep this under the rug in pursuit of a shallow unity.
The right path requires us to restore a foundation of shared facts in a choose-your-own-truth world. The wrong path asks people to compromise with delusion to restore harmony.
The right path requires us to fully confront white supremacy and systemic racism. The wrong path allows us to dismiss sedition as the actions of a rogue, unrepresentative mob.
The right path requires us to acknowledge that we only have one political party committed to democracy, governing and the rule of law. The wrong path allows us to treat Trump as an aberration, rather than a reflection of what the modern GOP has become.
The long-term fate of our republic may just lie in whether or not Republicans do what is necessary to purge themselves of a cancer much deeper than Donald Trump. If not, to ensure we go down the right path, every American committed to the preservation of our democratic republic must form a broad pro-democracy coalition that rejects the current GOP path. History shows that average voters struggle to win these fights, though.
We should never forget that a failed attempt to overthrow the government often precedes a successful attempt down the road. The Nazis had a failed coup a decade before they came to power in Germany in the 1930s, for example, and Hugo Chavez failed in 1992 in his first attempt to capture control of Venezuela.
A day after his supporters stormed the Capitol, this is how Trump concluded his video address acknowledging his presidency was ending: "To all of my wonderful supporters, I know you are disappointed, but I also want you to know that our incredible journey is only just beginning."
We should take Trump's words seriously and literally. If this is just the beginning, they may come for the republic again.
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Jacobson is the founder of Men4Choice, an Illinois abortion rights advocacy group, an independent business consultant and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a progressive defense and foreign policy think tank.
The world has witnessed a shift from democracy toward autocratic rule over the last 30 years. As Donald Trump's presidency has rolled on, observers inside and outside the United States have wondered: Is America next?
Addressing this summer's Democratic National Convention, former President Barack Obama explicitly cautioned Americans that democracy was on the line in 2020. Despite his warning, awakening the nation to this threat has proved difficult because most misperceive how modern democracies die. In our collective imagination, the end comes through a high-profile singular moment, like a military coup. In reality, modern democracies die slowly.
The phenomenon is called "democratic backsliding." It's a process by which the incumbent party successfully consolidates power through intentional actions often legitimated within democratic institutions. These efforts curtail basic rights like voting and attack free speech, free press and the right to assemble. The goal is to substantially undermine opposition so the regime can maintain power. Elections still happen, but the party in power is incredibly difficult to defeat because it controls the rules of engagement. A thin veneer of democratic legitimacy remains, but the result is what political scientists call an illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarianism.
So are we at risk? To answer that, we have to understand how other democratic countries have slid into autocracy. Functionally, the ruling party has done three things to shift the balance of power and ensure control: Alter the rules of elections to make it harder for the opposition to vote, attempt to silence and weaken dissenting voices, and impair the independence of the judicial system.
There's strong evidence of all three occurring here now.
Republicans have aggressively purged voter rolls, changed registration rules, limited voting locations, redrawn election districts to their liking and added new burdens on elections, like attacking the Postal Service during the pandemic. These are all examples of suppression and manipulation designed to shrink the numbers who can vote.
What about silencing dissent? Overseas, perhaps the most aggressive form is the jailing of opposition leaders. This is what makes the "Lock her up!" chants Trump encourages at campaign rallies so dangerous, and his encouraging Justice Department prosecution of his political opponents. At worst, he wants to be taken literally. At best, he's having a chilling effect on some critics.
Dissent can also be silenced by tough libel or defamation laws, which Trump has advocated. And when he calls the press "the enemy of the people," he may be laying the ground for such efforts or simply working to negate contrary voices.
Dissent can also be stamped out from within a party when the leader aggressively attacks internal critics, like Trump has done so often — including taking on John McCain and Mitt Romney, his most recent predecessors as GOP national standard-bearer.
In democratic societies, politicians vie for the support of voters. In an autocratic society, politicians perform for the leader. When this happens, a major check on executive power is broken because the political cost for speaking out against the leader is too high. Increasingly, the GOP's political class is behaving like an autocratic party — lavishing praise on Trump, propagating his lies, refusing oversight and defending his autocratic impulses.
What about judicial independence of the judiciary? Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has spent the past four years packing federal appeals courts with Trump loyalists — capped by the vote, one week before Election Day, to shift the Supreme Court even more decisively to the right with the confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.
We should also consider the prosecutor's office. Regimes instal prosecutors to ignore wrongdoings by individuals close to the regime. And Attorney General Barr fired the prosecutor in New York who was overseeing investigations into Trump and his family. Trump's assault on inspectors general is yet another example meant to weaken independent oversight.
In countries that have experienced democratic backsliding, society splits into three basic groups. One backs the party in power. Another resists. Members of the third group are the most critical. They may be politically moderate and independent. They may be politically aligned with either group, but have distrust of political institutions or leaders. Or they may be disaffected or disengaged, simply refusing to participate.
Here's how democratic backsliding unfolds. The process is catalyzed when the incumbent power pursues a nationalist agenda activating the loyalists -- generally members of the country's dominant racial or ethinic group. Such ethnic nationalism, though, limits the ability to expand support beyond the base, driving the party toward anti-democratic strategies. A nationalist appeal creates an "us versus them" framework, with the out-group defined as a threat to those in the "real" nation. To protect their way of life from the perceived attack, the in-group is willing to tolerate undemocratic behavior.
When the resistance rallies to oppose the regime, it risks sounding hyperbolic to those less engaged. The warnings, while accurate, are too dire for many to grasp. So, as the nationalistic attacks increase, the resistance's reactions escalate, affirming the fears of party in power. This self-fulfilling prophecy polarizes the groups even further.
How the middle responds determines the fate of democracy. When the economy is strong, history shows the incumbent party tends to get rewarded, enabling its leader to pursue autocratic power consolidation. When it's weak, the fear and voter suppression are the best options he has left. If his party holds power with this strategy, democratic backsliding unfolds as the barriers to consolidation of power are removed.
This is where America finds itself days from the election. The Republican Party and Trump, who exhibits unprecedented autocratic tendencies among American presidents, have pursued all three strategies necessary to consolidate power. The only question now is what happens at the ballot box.
Our institutions have been badly damaged. The guardrails are almost gone. Democracy is fragile, and the hour is late. No country that has switched to an illiberal democracy has yet broken free of its authoritarian leaders. America could be next.
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