It was a rainy November day in Washington, DC, when I arrived at the campus of Howard University, the oldest historically Black university in the nation, for the inaugural Democracy Summit hosted by the Center for Journalism & Democracy. Dozens of journalists, scholars, and activists had gathered for a series of candid discussions regarding the fragile state of our democratic system—and what we can do to defend it. By some ironic twist of fate, the summit just happened to fall on the same day that former President Donald Trump—a wannabe strongman who sought to stay in power by inspiring a deadly riot in an effort to overturn the 2020 election, and who has cultivated a significant following among white nationalists—announced his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election. The timing was, admittedly, a bit on the nose for those of us attending the Democracy Summit, but it also underscored the sinister nature of the threat we face with Trump and his ilk: As counterintuitive as it may seem, because electoral democracy feels like the antidote to authoritarian, anti-democratic rule, there is, in fact, an electoral path to authoritarianism.
“By any standard political science definition of democracy, America became a democracy in 1965,” said Steven Levitsky, co-author of How Democracies Die, during his speech at the Democracy Summit. He was, of course, referring to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a milestone for the American project that we reached not that long ago and that still remains under constant threat of being undone. “Our country today stands at a crossroads,” Levitsky continued. “America will either be a multiracial democracy in the 21st century, or it will not be a democracy. Both roads lie open before us today and there’s no turning back.”
Indeed, prior to the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the United States was effectively an “ethnic democracy”—one that excluded most non-white citizens from the political arena. “Democracy for white people,” Livitsky said. “Which means it wasn’t a democracy.”
Now, nearly 60 years later, the adolescent foundations of our multiracial, inclusive democracy are under threat. As federal oversight of redistricting has been chipped away, minority-majority districts that safeguard electoral representation are in the crosshairs of political partisans always looking to gerrymander their way to permanent power. Innocuous seeming phrases like “election integrity” have been hijacked by conspiracy-peddling conservatives who frame their electoral losses as fraudulent scandals and seek to restrict access to the voting booth. Meanwhile, the culture of bipartisanship so central to the flawed American two-party system has been steadily eroded ever since the rise of the New Democrats, who absorbed the support of many “moderate” Republicans and created a void in the GOP to be filled by the illiberal right. Now, the anti-democrat MAGA movement, whose fascistic leader has openly expressed his desire to suspend the constitution and become “president for life,” has blown up any semblance of a shared commitment to bipartisanship under the guise of “protecting” democracy from those they see as undeserving of it—threatening to throw us backward into the selective ethnic non-democracy we once were.
The 2022 midterm elections were the latest skirmish in the broader battle for American multiracial democracy. After months of backward looking dead-end election fraud investigations, the MAGA movement started looking ahead as the “Stop the Steal” rallying cry gave way to another: “Watch the Polls.” Election denier candidates and influencers spent months in the lead-up to the midterms priming right-wing voters to believe that our electoral system is rife with fraud, that only God-fearing patriots can prevent it, and that if their candidates lost it must have been because they were cheated.
Far from empty bluster, election denial rhetoric has incited a wave of anti-democratic activism. Groups of masked and sometimes armed men conducted “ballot tailgate parties” near ballot drop boxes in Arizona, sparking concerns of voter intimidation, primarily across southern states. Election deniers barnstormed while far-right groups in Texas conducted trainings across the state, promoting conspiracy theories and encouraging activists to get involved as election workers. All of this is done under the banner of “election integrity,” which historian of fascism Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes as a “kind of Orwellian doublespeak.”
“It’s very effective,” Ben-Ghiat said to the audience during a panel at the Democracy Summit. “The point of election integrity [as a buzzword] is to prevent free and fair elections. But the right has been able to find these buzzwords that get repeated.”
Cloaked in the armor of pro-democracy language, efforts to deny the results of the midterm elections kicked into motion before the votes had even been certified. In Arizona, failed gubernatorial candidate and infamous election denier Kari Lake filed a suit challenging the results of her election. In Texas, election mishaps in the Democratic stronghold of Harris County have been assigned unusual urgency by right-wing activists, even as voter suppression claims have not received the same attention. In Dallas, another Democratic stronghold, rumors of midterm election fraud swirled among right-wing circles—rumors based on a video obtained by an organization led by a man who pleaded guilty to voyeurism charges after secretly filming people in his home bathroom. Local and state election authorities have batted down the claims, but the incident still fueled calls for the election to be decertified. It also revealed a concerning reality: an activist election worker broke the law by filming inside a polling place and shared the video with conspiracy-peddling activists who are working to undermine trust in our democracy.
To the relief of pro-democracy activists, election denier candidates lost in key races for state office in every 2020 battleground. An analysis by States United Action, an organization that tracks races with election deniers on the ballot, shows that in 94 races for statewide office in 2022, only five non-incumbent election deniers were elected to office. On the whole, it suggests voters have rebuked the election denial narrative, but upon closer examination it shows just how much of a toehold the anti-democratic movement has achieved. Election deniers have won elections for governor in five states, attorney general in six states, and elections for secretary of state in three states.
“My biggest concern is complacency,” said Rachel Orey, associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center Elections Project, during a panel at the Democracy Summit. “If we think that the fight is over for voting rights or for election administration policy, the next two years we could see further backsliding. What we really need to be doing right now is shoring up our resilience and the strength of our election system against potential subversion efforts in 2024.”
The signs of this backsliding are increasingly stark. A recently published poll in Reuters showed that two in five United States voters worry about intimidation at the polls, and understandably so—I myself was harassed while standing in line to vote by a media personality with Blaze TV who runs a conspiracy theory YouTube channel. In my home state of Texas, about one-third of election administrators have left their jobs in the past two years, according to surveys conducted by the secretary of state’s office. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center found that out of more than three dozen election administrators, 78% believe disinformation on social media makes their jobs harder; more than half say their jobs have become more dangerous.
“Democracies today do not die like they used to die,” Levitsky said at the Democracy Summit. “During the Cold War, three out of every four democratic breakdowns took the form of a military coup. Today, most democracies die in a much more subtle way. They die at the hands of elected leaders who use the very institutions of democracy to subvert it… What is so dangerous about this new electoral road to authoritarianism is that it happens behind a pretty credible facade of democracy.”
As we stand at the fork between multiracial democracy and the electoral road to authoritarianism, we cannot afford to take democracy for granted. All democracies are fragile by nature and require constant vigilance to maintain. Our young democracy in the United States is no exception. So what is to be done when more and more politicians trod the electoral path to authoritarianism?
From the perspective of voting citizens, Levitsky recommends demanding three key things from political parties who seek our votes. First, unambiguously accepting the results of elections. Second, unambiguously rejecting the use of political violence. And third, breaking completely and unambiguously with violent and anti-democratic extremists. Such a framework is helpful when considering a state like Texas, where the attorney general is an election denier and the GOP recently refused an opportunity to unambiguously disavow the presence of neo-Nazis outside a drag show that the official Texas GOP Twitter account had tweeted about to its tens of thousands of followers. In practical terms, citizens wanting to hold anti-democratic politicians accountable can look at the Candidate Principles for Trusted Elections developed by the Carter Center as one potential guide which asks political candidates to commit to uphold five core doctrines of democratic elections: integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight, and the peaceful transfer of power.
From the perspective of journalists, being unabashedly pro-democracy should be as much of a no-brainer as it is a call of duty. The entire tradition of independent journalism depends on the protections afforded to us by our democratic system—even from a purely selfish point of view, journalists should understand that their careers depend on them. Being a pro-democracy journalist doesn’t mean losing the rigor, fairness, and skepticism that makes journalism what it is. It simply means that when it comes to the question of democracy, we must have a set of values we adhere to, and those values must be made transparent. In practical terms, resources like the Democracy Toolkit offer tools like case studies and lists of organizations that provide support to pro-democracy journalists.
“To be pro-First Amendment is to take a political stance,” said journalist Wesley Lowery at the Democracy Summit. “That’s not neutral. There are people who would say the First Amendment shouldn’t exist.”
Indeed, anti-democratic forces have made their animosity for journalism clear, and pushback from journalists criticizing this animosity towards us and our work has all too often been framed as disqualifyingly partisan. It is long overdue that we shrug off the yoke of forced “balance” and false equivalence; if we are to avoid the electoral path to authoritarianism, we have to take a side on the question of democracy.
Consider the counterintuitive “paradox of tolerance” that philosopher Karl Popper formulated in the wake of the Holocaust: “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance,” Popper wrote in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”
“Our mandate as journalists must be to choose truth over power and to understand that truth is not partisan,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist and founder of the Center for Journalism & Democracy at Howard University during her opening speech at the inaugural Democracy Summit. Her comments were echoed later on by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU. “We are talking about having a single standard of supporting democracy and how it operates for both parties,” Rosen said. “And if, in the application of that standard, one of the two parties has turned anti-democratic, it is incumbent on journalists to report that fact.”
If we are clear-eyed about what we are observing, we journalists will report that one wing of one of our two major political parties has become radicalized against multiracial democracy, has sought to overturn a presidential election, and, despite losing big in the midterms, is offering no signs of slowing down their attempts to subvert democracy through the electoral process.
If reporting that truth makes us partisans for democracy, then so be it.