In last year’s election, Americans did not punish Republicans for their radical, anti-democratic turn with a resounding electoral defeat. Now, more than a year later, we can clearly see horrible and potentially irreversible implications of that. Was Nov. 3, 2020, our last and best chance to save our democracy?
In the weeks before last year’s election, it seemed possible that Joe Biden would carry states such as Iowa, Ohio and Texas to win more than 400 electoral votes, Democrats would win substantial majorities in the House and Senate, and state-level Democrats would make major gains. Such a sweeping victory would have made it easier for Democrats to govern, certainly, but perhaps more significantly it would have forced Republican leaders to reconsider the party’s path. It would have also further cemented the reality that America has become, once and for all, a true multiracial democracy.
Instead, Biden won decisively but not overwhelmingly, Democrats lost seats in the House and barely won the Senate, and made few gains at the state level. That limited victory had three huge negative implications for American democracy.
First, the Republican Party felt no need to change course. In terms of following democratic norms and values, Donald Trump was one of the worst presidents ever, and the Republican Party defended him all along the way. Trump lost in 2020, but he received 11 million more votes than he had in 2016, including a higher percentage of the Latino vote. The narrow margin in a handful of swing states suggested that Trump would actually have prevailed if not for covid-19.
It’s easy to see what message the GOP took from that. The Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters may have embarrassed some Republicans, but it didn’t shift their political calculus. In fact, Republicans have gotten more radical since, having passed laws making it harder to vote while falsely arguing that Biden didn’t win the election fairly. They have tried to stop an investigation of the Jan 6 insurrection, defended GOP lawmakers who threaten colleagues and banned books that focus on racism. The Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court, who often take actions that support the party’s goals, also haven’t changed direction, issuing an opinion limiting the Voting Rights Act that all but invites GOP officials to enact more restrictions.
Second, maintaining control at the state level has allowed Republicans to lock in their power for years and perhaps decades, something that isn’t supposed to happen in democracies. In North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and other states, Republicans have adopted highly aggressive gerrymanders that make it almost impossible for Democrats to win control of those legislatures. This is one of the clearest signs of the decline of American democracy — because of gerrymandering, Democrats have basically no chance of winning the legislature in Wisconsin, a state Biden won in 2020. “Wherever Republicans are in charge, they are fully committed to erecting one-party-rule systems,” Georgetown University historian Thomas Zimmer told me.