The 2020 Democratic National Convention was unlike any other political gathering in American history. But its distinctiveness is not just a matter of its virtual form and high-tech ingenuity.
What made it truly unusual was its intense and appropriate focus on the threats the presidency of Donald Trump poses to the survival of American democracy and its explicit appeal to voters to act as if the fate of democracy is on the November ballot. It now widely recognized that, as political scientist Jeff Colgan puts it, “Warning lights for democracy are flashing all over the dashboard. There are just multiple threats.”
The Democratic convention made it clear that this year’s election will be as crucial in determining the fate of our form of government as were the elections in 1932 and 1933 in determining the fate of the Weimar Republic in Germany.
Former President Obama’s convention speech was a particularly brilliant and chilling reminder of that fact. It provided a striking contrast, a kind of rhetorical bookend, to his January 2017 presidential farewell address.
In that speech he called on Americans to be “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy.” Democracy, he warned, was threatened by rising income inequality and racial injustice. Three and one-half years ago, President Obama urged his listeners to embrace what he called “the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
In contrast, the threats he identified on Wednesday night were cast in much less abstract terms and the task he named was anything but joyous. He praised the Democratic ticket for caring “deeply about this democracy” and named the right to vote, adherence to the rule of law, and a free press as cornerstones of democratic governance. He pointed out that “this president and those who enable him, have shown they don’t believe in these things.”
Continuing to name the enemies of democracy he argued that “this president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter.”
President Obama painted the Trump administration not only as venal and incompetent but as an enemy of America’s way of life and form of government. As he put it, “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.” He pleaded, “Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy.”
And, as anyone who follows the news would know, there is ample evidence to support Obama’s claim that President Trump “will tear our democracy down.”
In the last several weeks alone, the President has suggested that it might be wise to postpone the forthcoming presidential election, repeated his unsubstantiated claim that vote by mail will lead to massive voter fraud, had his press secretary refuse to say that he would abide by the results of the November election, and made the outrageous claim that the only way he could lose the election is if it is “rigged.”
But what Obama did not acknowledge is that the President is playing to a receptive audience when he attacks and undermines democratic norms and that the doubts he has sowed are taking hold among some segments of the American public, namely his partisan base.
As evidence of this fact, consider an August, 2017 survey that found that 52 percent of self-identified Republicans said that they would support postponing the 2020 election if the President wanted to do so. 56 percent said they would do so if both Trump and Republicans in Congress proposed this.
A Pew study conducted in February, 2017 reports that only 49% of Republicans believed that allowing news organizations to criticize political leaders is “very important” in a democratic political system. This contrasted with 76% of Democrats who agreed that it is.
In addition, 62% of Republicans believe that made-up news is a very big problem in the country today. Only 40% of Democrats share that view.
Turning to the rule of law and whether the President is above the law, 51% of Republicans agree with the statement that the President should be able to overturn court decisions with which he disagrees.
Such survey results suggest that a substantial number of Republicans have weak attachments to basic democratic norms.
As a CNN poll released this week found, they are much more concerned about the possibility of fraudulent votes being cast in 2020 than they are about easing barriers to voting so that more people could vote.
Putting all this together, recent research has shown that self-identified Republicans are much more likely to display authoritarian attitudes than are those who identify with the Democratic party. In fact, those attitudes have become a quite good predictor of how people vote in presidential elections. This association was quite strong in 2016, and I suspect will be even stronger in 2020.
All of this suggests that Americans will have a choice in November between two political parties favoring not only very different sets of policies, but also representing significantly different views of the way this nation should be governed.
Next week’s Republican National Convention likely will only sharpen the contrast. It is indeed unimaginable that Republicans will be spend much time, or much rhetorical energy, highlighting and praising democracy or discussing what needs to be done to preserve it.
Our precarious situation is one that some of America’s Founders anticipated. Right from the start of the republic they warned that democracy might not endure in the United States.
In 1814 former President John Adams put it starkly in a letter to John Taylor of Virginia who had served in the U.S. Senate, “Democracy,” Adams said, “never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is … less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true in fact and nowhere appears in history.”
So when Americans vote in November we will have the fate of democracy in our hands. It will be up to us to decide whether we allow it to waste and die.