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Is American democracy really in peril? A debate with Ross Douthat.

Two writers clash over their very different views on the future of American democracy.

Trump Supporters Hold “Stop The Steal” Rally In DC Amid Ratification Of Presidential Election
A scene outside the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The 2020 election was a stress test for the American political system. How well it fared is a matter of dispute: Where some see strong political institutions that successfully repulsed Donald Trump’s anti-democratic onslaught, others see rickety ones that could very well buckle and collapse in the coming years.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, takes the former view. He sees what happened in 2020 as a problem created by the combination of Trump’s unique disregard for democratic norms and a flawed set of laws governing presidential elections — but, more importantly, a threat that the American system successfully fended off. The immediate challenges for democracy could be addressed by a patch to the Electoral Count Act, currently under discussion by a bipartisan group of senators; the longer-term prognosis for American democracy is brighter than many think.

My view is far less rosy. I see a Republican Party still dominated by Trump and his allies, where believers in election fraud fantasies are working across the country to seize control over the nuts and bolts of election administrations (so-called “election subversion”). These post-2020 developments are combining with deep-seated anti-democratic impulses in the GOP to put us on a path toward stolen elections and a system rigged in the GOP’s favor.

Ross and I have disagreed on this point for some time in print, so we decided it might be helpful to talk it out: to discuss the reasons we have profoundly different views on where American democracy is headed and why we disagree so strongly.

What follows is a transcript of our debate, edited for length and clarity. The full discussion, which also covers issues like the risk of political violence in America, is featured on the Vox Conversations podcast. (Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.)

Zack Beauchamp

You describe what happened in 2020 as a kind of freak one-off. But when mainstream Republicans push a narrative of illegitimacy surrounding the federal government and the nature of election administration itself, you create the conditions for people to reject the outcome if they don’t like it. The wave of efforts to undermine the nonpartisan structures that have traditionally governed our election administration system since 2020 are, I think, truly breathtaking.

If there’s a real crisis in 2024 or 2028, you can imagine all sorts of bad outcomes — up to and including an actual stolen election.

Ross Douthat

What are the breathtaking acts of subversion? Because it seems to me that the United States has this sort of weird, one-neat-trick problem where it’s like, “Oh, you want to overturn an election? Well, guess what? If it comes down to one state and we can just find one governor who sends a rival slate of electors to Congress, then because of the vagaries of this weird 19th-century law, we can get an overturned election.”

I agree that that’s something worth worrying about. But it’s something that you could probably fix just by reforming the Electoral Count Act in various ways. If the biggest threat of electoral subversion could be undone by a bipartisan bill that Mitch McConnell might support, then I’m less inclined to say, “Well, this is a sign that, structurally, the US is headed toward authoritarianism.” It’s more like this particular demagogue and this particular flaw in our system could [cause] an 1876- or whatever-style constitutional crisis.

Yeah, that would be bad, but it’s different from saying “here are the 17 structural forces that are going to turn the United States into Viktor Orbán’s Hungary,” which is not — as far as I can see — going to happen.

Zack Beauchamp

But over the course of the next 10, 20 years or something like that, it is not crazy to imagine that scenario happening. Not an exact carbon copy, for many reasons — the controls on the press in Hungary, for example, are not conceivable in the United States.

But we have a long history of sub-national authoritarianism in the United States. We kind of modeled that in the Jim Crow South states, which were typically remembered as domains of racial apartheid but also were places where the Republican Party couldn’t win by virtue of the way the law was structured. And there are lots of different ways and reasons to believe that we are moving in a more autocratic direction today.

For starters, we have electoral institutions — the big-picture ones like the Senate and Electoral College — that enable white, rural conservative Christian voters who are inclined to believe their status is declining to have outsize influence over the political system.

Badges saying “Stop the Steal” are seen for sale outside the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

We have one party that’s much more willing to engage in gerrymandering and suppression targeting the other party’s voter base than the other one. We can debate how effective voter suppression tactics are; it’s a complicated story. But gerrymandering’s not, right? It is clearly a very effective way of cementing control over legislatures — though Democrats haven’t been doing as badly as many feared in the current House redistricting.

Then add to all of that comprehensive efforts at elections subversion from top to bottom. You have a precinct strategy that Steve Bannon has pioneered that’s led to Republicans — not really just ordinary Republicans, but people who deeply believe the Trump lies — flooding local election administration possessions.

Ross Douthat

What do you think these people are going to do? Do you think that they are going to throw out votes?

Zack Beauchamp

It depends on what position they’re in. Some people — let’s say a judge in charge of election supervision at a local level — I think that’s possible.

Do I think it’s going to happen? Maybe, maybe not. But I don’t think it’s inconceivable that you could get some precinct-level voter activist challenging a bunch of voters and then a judge who’s sympathetic to the Stop the Steal cause saying, “Oh, yeah, that challenge is right.”

Ross Douthat

How many ballots does he throw out? He’s throwing out, like, 30 percent of the ballots, or like 0.0001 percent?

Zack Beauchamp

I’m not sure what the value of speculating like that is.

Ross Douthat

Well, because you are creating a speculative scenario where literally the United States is turning into an autocracy. In order to actually make the US an autocracy, you need something more than a county supervisor rules out an extra 20 votes because the signature match is blurry or something. You need an actual shift in the way elections are run that permanently makes it impossible for Democrats to win.

The stuff that a county supervisor could get away with under our current laws — which I assume will remain in force and be adjudicated by a court system that is filled with Republicans who showed very little appetite for the Stop the Steal stuff — the stuff you could get away with is not autocracy-making stuff. It just is not, right?

Zack Beauchamp

You’re describing an isolated situation where it’s one person acting independently. What we’re actually seeing is large masses of people, on the order of thousands, right, trying to get involved in the system.

Ross Douthat

Because it’s a democracy. People are allowed to run for office.

Zack Beauchamp

I don’t think it’s bad to run for office, but I do think it’s bad to run for office in order to use power in nefarious ways.

Ross Douthat

Right. But these people think that the existing county supervisors were cheating in some big way. They think they were busing in fake ballots.

And you think that’s bullshit, right? So when these people take over, do you think they’re going to bus in fake ballots? It just seems to me that what the actual Republicans running for office believe about the system is that the Democrats are cheating, and they need to be in charge so that cheating won’t happen. Okay, so then they’re in charge. Are they going to cheat on a massive scale?

Zack Beauchamp

But their understanding of “cheating” is highly politicized and made up. When you listen to someone like Steve Bannon talk, they take there to be massive evidence of fraud in a variety of different cases. And often, that “evidence” of fraud is they come up with some weird, totally made up, ridiculous statistical model that says it’s impossible that Democrats could have gotten X votes.

So, in their view, those Democratic ballots are illegitimate — because they’re Democratic ballots that are cast in an area where you believe that should be impossible, right? So you come up with some pretext — maybe it’s signature matches, maybe it’s something else — that causes people in a variety of different places to do this over and over and over again, to the point where you do end up getting a lot of ballots thrown out.

Then take a state like Wisconsin, where you have a Republican legislative majority that has gerrymandered itself into near-permanent control. Now you have a Democratic governor, but that won’t last forever. You can imagine, as they’ve done, pushing the boundaries of anti-democratic legislation on the state level [to enable election subversion].

Ross Douthat

So, in a few American states, you have extreme gerrymandering that right now makes the state legislatures uncompetitive. I agree that that’s a problem. I’m just going to say, again, that that is not a situation that gives you an American autocracy.

Let me just offer a different interpretation.

The Republican Party currently has a set of structural advantages in the Senate, and more recently in the Electoral College. It didn’t have those advantages with the political coalitions just eight years ago. Obama had a slight Electoral College advantage.

Those kinds of advantages are a very normal feature of American political history. If you go back and look at Democratic House majorities in the 1950s through the 1970s, they were usually much larger than their actual share of the vote. It was just less of an issue because the country was less evenly divided, so it was harder to get an area where the Democrats could have a House majority without winning an outright majority as the Republicans have had a couple times.

That’s sort of the underlying reality. That reality, though, is being overstated by Democrats who are convinced that they actually command majority support from the American public, when in fact they do not.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency with a minority of the popular vote. However, the majority of Americans did not vote for Hillary Clinton in that election. If you look at the House, the national House popular vote, [a plurality] of Americans voted for Republican candidates.

And if you combine that with the fact that the Libertarian vote was larger than the Green Party vote, slightly more Americans voted for right-of-center presidential candidates than left-of-center presidential candidates. So the outcome of the 2016 election, which was basically power sharing between the Trump wing of the Republican Party and Mitch McConnell, actually tracked pretty well with what the American public cast its ballots for in 2016.

President Donald Trump Joins Senate Republicans For Their Weekly Policy Luncheon
Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell speak to the media in 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Then in 2020, Joe Biden could have lost the Electoral College, but he didn’t. And the Democrats have control of all three branches of government. And basically, what we’ve seen in every midterm election, or almost every midterm election going back 20 years, is strong swings against the incumbent party. So you have an evenly divided country where the Republicans have this slight advantage based on Senate apportionment and the Electoral College.

That’s a big problem for Democrats. It’s a problem that requires Democrats to make some tactical choices that they don’t particularly want to make, that they don’t think are fair, where they have to move slightly to the right of where the median voter is.

But it’s not autocracy. Talking about it like it’s a world where Democrats are unable to win elections and have these clear majorities and are living under minority rule is just false to the actual distribution of public opinion and what people are actually voting for.

Zack Beauchamp

But I’m not saying that the existence of the Senate and the Electoral College alone are what make a future of autocracy more likely, nor am I saying that we are currently in an autocracy. You’ve set up this strawman position that sounds like a Daily Kos commenter rather than my actual view.

Ross Douthat

You were the one who used the word autocracy first. I would never use it because it’s a terrible word that doesn’t actually describe what people are using it to describe.

Zack Beauchamp

So I’m talking about “competitive authoritarianism,” referring to a system where elections happen, they matter, and sometimes the opposition even wins them, especially at a local scale. But the opposition is not effectively capable of wielding power due to the way in which the incumbent party has set up the system to favor itself and give itself a hammerlock on institutions.

I don’t think we’re there yet. I actually don’t think we’re all that close, though we’re a lot closer than I kind of would’ve thought we were [a few years ago].

Ross Douthat

How can we be close to that kind of scenario when the Democratic Party controls every branch of government?

The issues that you get into with sort of authoritarian states also have everything to do with control over mass media, control over educational institutions. Liberal control over media, education, and related institutions in the United States has grown more powerful over the last 20 years, not less, which is itself a driver of populist backlash. But even the leadership of the military is more progressive and less right-wing than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

The scale of progressive power in the United States is simply too vast to make this kind of scenario that you are sketching, where changes to electoral rules lock in Republican power for 25 years. [By contrast], Donald Trump stealing an election is imaginable.

Zack Beauchamp

Yes, Democrats control institutions right now, but not so effectively. They couldn’t pass a fairly minimal voting rights revision [earlier this year] with unified control over government. That’s because of the filibuster, one of a series of things set up that make it difficult to change the direction institutions are trending toward given what the Republican Party is today.

Think about the degree to which the vast majority of Republican partisans accept that the 2020 election was stolen. The Republican legislators who criticize this are basically drummed out of the party leadership and ostracized. Local officials, too. [Republican] Aaron Van Langevelde in Michigan was the critical deciding vote in certifying the state’s election. Without him, there could have been an electoral crisis in Michigan. One guy, and he’s gone now.

That, to me, is all suggestive of a country that’s trending toward a serious democratic deficit and, in the long run, potentially, unified and consistent Republican control over democratic institutions.

Ross Douthat

My assumption is that if there was an insane scenario where the 2024 election came down to one state and Donald Trump managed to make himself president via the House of Representatives, what would happen in 2026 is a version of what happened in 2018, where the Democrats had swept back into control of the House of Representatives. Because that is what has happened in basically every similar scenario over the last 20 years.

I mean, [look at] the gerrymandering stuff this time around. Democrats actually seem like they’re going to come out doing slightly better, in part because Republicans are just not that ambitious — and in a bunch of states were too worried about going for the really strong gerrymander, because it would make a few of their seats vulnerable.

That doesn’t seem like a party that’s confident about its stranglehold on American democracy. It seems like a party operating, as both parties are, in a highly competitive, 50/50, polarized environment, which may disappear. But if it disappears, I think it’s more likely to be because one of our parties figures out how to actually govern the country than [because] Steve Bannon succeeds in rigging all of our elections.