Hughes: Democracy erodes in a thousand unseen ways

Now that a full year has passed since the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, the 2020 election and the republic, it’s evident that the attack never really ended. Instead, it spread out to other, less visible, more vulnerable targets.

Donald Trump had hoped to reverse his election loss in a single, decisive, dramatic confrontation between his supporters and the republic’s, broadcast live around the world.

His plan backfired, filling our screens with vivid illustrations of authoritarianism’s most repugnant ills: chaos, lawlessness, violence, racism, fascism and all manner of hatred run amok. The blatancy of the subversion provoked an immediate backlash, even among some Republicans.

Had he studied democratic erosion before becoming a practitioner, Trump would know that effective authoritarians tighten their grips on government gradually, stealthily undermining courts, legislatures, election officials, news organizations, political opposition and other institutions strong enough to check them. The coup by a thousand cuts is the stuff of nightmares for democracy’s defenders and the dream of authoritarian politicians.

Brendan Nyhan, who holds a chair in political science at Dartmouth and serves as co-director of Bright Line Watch, a group of political scientists who “monitor democratic practices, their resilience, and potential threats,” explained it this way in an interview with The New Yorker: “The story of democratic erosion in other countries is that it happens invisibly; you don’t have this tanks-in-the-streets moment.”

Democratic erosion in America depends on the conspiracy theory, destructive and demonstrably false, that the 2020 election was stolen. As the author of books on Richard Nixon — before Trump, the biggest conspiracy theorist to inhabit the White House that we know of — I see conspiracy theories less as failures of rationality and more as triumphs of rationalization.

When Nixon muttered to White House aides that he was the victim of a conspiracy of Jews, intellectuals and Ivy Leaguers, “arrogant” people who placed themselves above the law, he did so to justify arrogantly placing himself above the law. Nixon launched a real conspiracy against an imaginary one, plotting real crimes — breaking into the Brookings Institution, leaking grand jury information damaging to Democrats, etc. — against those he falsely deemed criminals.

Likewise, when conspiracy theorists falsely claim the last election was stolen, they’re putting the pieces in place for themselves to steal the next one. Not by anything as blatant as pressuring a vice president to publicly shirk his duty to certify the vote, but by subtler means, such as taking over the offices that handle vote certification at the state level.

Rep. Jody Hice, a Republican who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s victory, is running to unseat Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who would not bow to pressure from Trump to “find” enough votes to reverse the election result. Fifteen election-denying Republicans are running for secretary of state, according to NPR, raising the risk that people who refuse to accept the results of the last presidential election will decide whether to certify the results of the next one.

Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature revealed who controls the party by stripping Raffensperger of his vote on the state election board, which sets election rules and investigates allegations of fraud. They have also passed new election laws targeting local boards.

“The laws allow Republicans to remove local officials they don’t like,” The New York Times reported. And most of those removed initially were Democrats, at least half of them people of color.

Georgia’s not alone.

In at least eight other states, Republican-controlled legislatures took power from those who kept the last election honest, such as secretaries of state and local election officials, and handed it to partisan entities, ABC News reported. Many, if not all, of those secretaries of state were partisan officials, though they largely behaved in nonpartisan ways.

Much reporting has focused rightly on the most prominent result of lies about voter fraud, “voting integrity” legislation. Those stories have focused on how little such legislation does to solve the already-minuscule problem of voter fraud in America, and on how much the legislation does to create problems for people who want to vote, especially if those people tend to vote Democratic.

Less attention has focused on the influx of conspiracy theorists at the local level of election administration, where they could warp elections in several ways. They could discriminate in enforcing voter-ID laws, make people cast provisional ballots that are subject to challenge, set up polling places in ways that create long lines, and more, said Scott Seeborg, Pennsylvania state director of All Voting Is Local, a nonpartisan group fighting to “remove discriminatory barriers to the ballot.”

If election workers reject false accusations of election fraud, they may face death threats. The news service Reuters documented over 800 hostile, threatening messages to election workers related to the conspiracy theories, including, “We’re coming after you and every other mother----er that stole this election”; “Everyone with a gun is going to be at your house”; and “We are now watching your children and loved ones.”

These threats aren’t being screamed on television before the eyes of the outraged majority; they appear without warning, Reuters reports, often anonymously, in individual voicemail and email boxes, inspiring fear without provoking backlash.

By these means and more, authoritarians are seizing the power to win elections without winning a majority of the vote. This is something Nixon never dared try.

In every race he ran — for House, Senate, vice president and president — Nixon faced an electorate where Democrats held a numerical advantage. This forced him to moderate his politics and policies, to broaden their appeals to the majority.

Today, Republicans can win not only the White House, but the Congress and gerrymandered state legislatures, without winning a majority.

“We are witnessing a minority takeover of our democracy,” constitutional law scholar Kermit Roosevelt wrote in TIME. And it’s taking place not just nationally, but at the state and local level.

This is why democracy’s defenders — Republicans, Democrats, and all people of goodwill — must not make Trump’s mistake, thinking that the nation’s future will be decided in a single, public, climactic showdown. It depends on a thousand little struggles with enormous stakes, on unsung efforts of unknown heroes.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us . Used with permission.



> a Republican who would not bow to pressure from Trump to “find” enough votes to reverse the election result.

This allegation has been debunked after the release of an audio recording of the discussion. Yet another false story by our sloppy modern press, this one relying on a single anonymous source to smear political a opponent. At least the Wash Post retains the integrity to later fix the error, as they did with many of their false Russia Collusion Delusion stories (see link). Maybe the NYT will one day do the same. I am surprised a professor wasn't aware of the correction.




You lost me there Rob...In his phone conversation with Raffensperger that is exactly what trump asked for....to find 11780 votes.....the call was recorded, it’s not a false story......are you referring to a different call to Raffensperger’s lead investigator (Francis Watson)?


No it isn't. See the Washington Post correction below.

- Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator. The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to “find the fraud” or say she would be “a national hero” if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find “dishonesty” there. He also told her that she had “the most important job in the country right now.”


Apologies. It appears that we are talking about two different phone calls. The issue with the first is that the media characterized it repeatedly as if Trump wanted the Sec. of State to find 11,780 Trump votes. Trump believed fraud dwarfed the difference between him and Joe. Below is the exact excerpt. I got confused by the author of this editorial's lack of specificity of "find". The stories regarding the call to lead investigator were definitely incorrect and relied on a single anonymous source. They were debunked after the audio recording of the call was found and released to the public. Below is what Trump said to the Secretary of State.


But we have a number of things. We have at least 2 or 3 — anywhere from 250-300,000 ballots were dropped mysteriously into the rolls. Much of that had to do with Fulton County, which hasn't been checked. We think that if you check the signatures — a real check of the signatures going back in Fulton County you'll find at least a couple of hundred thousand of forged signatures of people who have been forged. And we are quite sure that's going to happen.
Another tremendous number. We're going to have an accurate number over the next two days with certified accountants. But an accurate number but its in the 50s of thousands— and that's people that went to vote and they were told they can't vote because they've already been voted for. And it's a very sad thing. They walked out complaining. But the number's large. We'll have it for you. But it's much more than the number of 11,779 that's — The current margin is only 11,779. Brad, I think you agree with that, right? That's something I think everyone — at least that's' a number that everyone agrees on.


Rob, the conversation between trump and Raffensperger (and others)was an hour long....
From the transcript trump said: “ so look, all I want to do is this.I just want to find 11780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state”
So, the author/ professor is correct in the passage in his article....
And, Regarding the other information you provided from trump were true.....why can’t it be proved in court?


**If it were true**


I don't think asking to investigate alleged voter fraud or illegal/ineligible votes is technically illegal. You are requesting they do something they already should be doing. I'm not a lawyer though. On the side note, I don't think a president should ever make this kind of call - that is what lawyers are for as they can navigate the nuances of the law. I (incorrectly) assumed 'find' meant the 'find the fraud' false story/call that must have come after this call though I am unsure the exact timeline.


There is no evidence of voter fraud in Georgia (or any other state ) .....multiple audits in multiple states come up with nothing.....The premise has been proven false....
That’s why trump can’t go through the courts...


As far as 'authoritarianism' goes this Independent is growing ever more concerned about what I see from the Biden administration. Trump was, well, Trump, but he and any other Republican will always be kept in check by the 4th estate. There are a lot of policies and actions from Biden this past year of concern.

It is the Biden administration using the DOJ against parents protesting CRT.


It is the Biden administration that used the FBI to raid a journalist's office over his daughter's diary - could you imagine if Trump did this to recover Ivanka's diary? At least the ACLU objected to this one. It's noteworthy, that information leaked to the NYT, involved in a lawsuit against Project Veritas, was then published by the NYT. A very serious violation of ethics in my opinion and one reason why I am currently appalled at their editors.


And it is the Biden administration attempting to use a government agency for private employer vaccine mandates until the supreme court shut it down. If we gave unelected bureaucrats that kind of power over our lives and livelihoods, where would it end? That type of precedent frightens heck out of what remains of the classic liberal in me.

There are other concerns - this is my top three. You may or may not have hears about these stories as some media outlets didn't cover them. I just hope our 4th estate, and what remains of academic liberals, step up to the plate and keep those in government authority in check - regardless of party.


Seems like promoting a false narrative of voter fraud and undermining the confidence in the election process in the US might be higher on your list of concerns.....from my perspective it’s the biggest risk to democracy since the civil war.....


Why is it RNR will not address the question of why can,t the claims of voter fraud be addressed in court. He claims a wealth of knowledge and great sources but avoids answering a simple question? Is it because the claims are so blatantly false?


In my opinion once the supreme court ruled in December it was over and everything Trump did after that was frankly; stupid. His actions after that likely ended his future political career. There is fraud in every election - the question is it enough to overturn the results - below is a good summary from Australia of the court cases. We are at a point in America where neither partisan side accepts the other's victory. We had three years Trump-Russia Collusion allegations and a significant portion of Democrats still believe Trump won 2016 because of Russia and after the 2020 election we had what we saw - many predicted that neither side would accept that outcome. See second link with ABC Powerhouse Roundtable. As a pluralistic society we'd better get our collective acts together - two more homogeneous authoritarian challengers (Russia/China) rise up on the world stage to replace what remains of democracy post-Covid. If you look closely at what each are doing (including Russian bot ads of 2016) - they are using divisive issues to divide us. Both believe the way to beat a pluralistic society is to divide her (e.g. a house divided).




Not sure I agree with your statement that neither side accepts the others victory.... Al Gore got hosed in 2000 after the Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida, but Gore accepted the results and didn’t spend the following year and a half complaining about the election. Gore put the welfare of the country above his own. I suspect that Gore’s military service helped him make the country a priority.... something trump has never done....


I should probably have added the word 'now' to that statement as it is something more recent. How much we've lost of our civility and decency in only twenty years. Maybe social media? I don't know.


The words "civility" and "decency" are inappropriate in any conversation connected with Trump. Sure--let's reinstate him on the forever throne, along with his thuggish Halloween Proud Boys--the same guy who re-introduced the comb-over, (as repulsive now as ever), and took an hour every morning to achieve it. He is mentally unfit for any position involving power. He transformed our country into a total joke, but nobody's laughing.


Lol, as if on cue, I can't believe what President Biden said yesterday about the upcoming 2022 election. Partisan talk like this will split our country in two. The CNN video clip from Twitter is in the article below, ..."Oh yeah, I think it easily could be illegitimate..."



That said, I didn't even read the whole article. I just grabbed the link for the clip. I am tired of all this partisan junk.


Seems like a sound observation when State election boards are being stacked with partisan leadership.....


I eagerly await the 'Stop the Steal 2022' signs.

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