Collage of civic engagement and discord.

A Trump supporter demonstrating against 2020 election results clashes with a counter protester (clockwise from top left); election workers recount ballots; Democratic candidates in several key Pennsylvania races hold a rally last month ahead of midterms; chamber of the House of Representatives.


Nation & World

Where are we going, America?

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Days before the midterms, we sat down with three scholars for a conversation about U.S. democracy. The mood was anxious.

Americans will head to the polls Tuesday for midterm elections with high stakes for the future of U.S. democracy. In a conversation with the Gazette, three scholars of government and politics — Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology; Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at the Kennedy School and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation; and Erica Chenoweth, Frank Stanton Professor of the First Amendment at the Kennedy School and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute — shared their concerns about the U.S. political landscape, including patterns of division and hardening extremism, and the likelihood of rising violence in the months and years after the vote. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Theda Skocpol, Archon Fung, Erica Chenoweth

GAZETTE: What are the biggest threats to U.S. democracy as we head into the midterm elections?

SKOCPOL: The United States has never been a pure democracy. We’re a federated republic, with strong democratic components that have developed in the last century. We’re in a very serious crisis, in my opinion, the most serious since the coming of the Civil War. The reason for that is there are a lot of levers that, if pulled together and combined with violence and threats of violence, make it possible for minority authoritarians who feel threatened to change the regime — really change the system — in de facto and quasi-legal ways. I point to the fact that a minority of the country — particularly those living outside of metropolitan and more racially and ethnically diverse areas — do feel profoundly threatened by the changes that have occurred in American society. They can obstruct things or even control court appointments through the Senate with a third or less of the American population. Gerrymandering is now an art and, combined with the Republican sweeps of state legislatures in 2010, allows anti-majoritarianism there, and the federal courts have really bowed out of defending any kind of voting rights and access, and, probably worse than that, may be on the verge of strengthening the hand of minority authoritarians. Combine all that with the fact that people are now threatening violence at the local election workers that most Americans take for granted and that most Americans, I think, choose between two parties according to current economic conditions. They don’t perceive the threat, and they won’t perceive it until it’s too late.

GAZETTE: Erica and Archon, do you agree with that? Are there pieces that you want to pick out or emphasize?

CHENOWETH: I agree with everything that Theda has said and would only elaborate on a couple of points. One is that our colleagues Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky often say that in order to have democracy, all major political players in that democracy — in this case, all political parties — have to agree on some fundamental norms. The first is that they accept the results of elections. The second is that they reject the use of violence as a legitimate part of the political process, especially in establishing who is going to govern. In the situation we’re in now, the majority of candidates who won primaries in the Republican Party explicitly accept the so-called Big Lie, which is that the 2020 election result, as it’s been certified, was illegitimate. They have embraced the lie that there’s widespread election fraud in the United States, and further perpetuated it such that significant proportions of their party don’t believe that American elections are legitimate in the cases where their preferred candidates don’t win. On top of that, we have major political figures — candidates and people sitting in federal office and in state and local office — who explicitly endorsed or even participated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol that was meant to keep the incumbent president in power, despite the fact that he had lost the election. On Jan. 6, these were actually pro-government militias. Donald Trump was the incumbent president, he was in office, he had command of the major arms of government, and in my view, he incited a pro-government militia to try to complete the coup — or autogolpe, to be precise — that he was attempting. That has become not just an extraordinary, but obvious conclusion to the type of politics that had been waged over the previous 10 years in this country. The fact that it’s now normal and standard, such that every election is a crisis, means that our democracy is in — like Theda said — potentially the worst political and constitutional crisis in over 150 years.

“[After the midterms] the extremists among the GOP’s constituency are either going to be emboldened or enraged, and both of those are terrible outcomes, potentially, for our democracy.”

— Erica Chenoweth

Erica Chenoweth.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

FUNG: For me, probably the most concerning thing is that three or four out of every 10 Americans don’t believe that Joe Biden won the election, according to surveys. A lot of us, in the run-up to the 2020 election, did think that there was a possibility that there would be some turbulence around the transfer of power and, in particular, that Donald Trump might not leave easily or quickly. But I did not anticipate sitting here, toward the end of 2022, and three or four out of 10 Americans would disagree about who got more votes. That’s a different condition, and it may set the background for the kind of revolutionary slide that Theda is concerned about — the regime change.

But I would like to ask what we can expect in the backsliding scenarios. This is to echo Theda’s point that American democracy has fallen short of the ideal — always — and sometimes more severely than others; African Americans in the South couldn’t vote until after 1964, really. That’s a pretty serious shortcoming in a democracy. Jan. 6 is a big one. Gerrymandering in many states — many of them contested swing states — is a serious deficit in a democracy. The Electoral College and the Senate enable a kind of minority rule, which is a serious shortcoming in a democracy.

The scenario I want to sketch is that Donald Trump, or whoever the Republican candidate is in 2024, loses the popular vote, loses sufficient votes to lose the Electoral College, but becomes the legal — institutionally legal — president of the United States. There are all sorts of ways that this could happen in particular swing states, and with alternate slates of electors. It goes through the court system, the court system ends up ruling for Trump, as it ruled for Bush in Bush v. Gore. So that’s a situation in which your commitments as an institutionalist — to follow the rule of law — come apart from your commitments as a democrat. How much of a backslide would that be? I think it would be a pretty serious backslide. But George Bush and Donald Trump became president despite losing the popular vote by a lot, so how much of a departure would it be from several elections that have happened in the past? It would be noticeably worse, but far short of the negative regime change that Theda imagines. We’d still have institutions, we’d have elections, they would just be substantially more tilted than they were two years ago or four years ago.

CHENOWETH: The scenario that you described sounds a lot like electoral autocracy, which is to say that this wouldn’t even be a democracy anymore. It would be an electoral autocracy, which means that elections happen but they’re not really competitive and the opposition is intimidated, harassed, bullied, attacked, and there’s no accountability around things like protecting journalists, establishing what the baseline truth is. Dissent is crushed and minority groups are sidelined, marginalized, neglected, or outright brutalized. That’s the most dominant form of authoritarianism around the world today. Archon, you referred to what the United States was before the Voting Rights Act, and there were parts of the United States that were ethno-nationalist authoritarian enclaves. And there are parts of the United States now that are ethno-nationalist authoritarian enclaves. This isn’t just happening at the federal level, we already have states that arguably qualify as electoral autocracies. So, the backsliding is already happening. It’s happening in different places around the country. But for sure, people like Jake Grumbach [at the University of Washington], who do subnational research on the U.S., I think would already say that authoritarianism is consolidating in key parts of the country.

“In 2020, we were fortunate to see a number of Republican election officials … call the balls and strikes. That is a very important line of defense for democracy.”

— Archon Fung

Archon Fung.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

GAZETTE: Let’s talk about the midterms. How important are these elections in the scenarios that we’re talking about here?

SKOCPOL: Very important.

FUNG: Very important.

CHENOWETH: They’re very important, in part because we are talking about the fate of Congress, and we’re also talking about down-ballot races all over the country that are going to decide whether election deniers and Big Lie advocates get more platform, power, and legitimacy — and an emboldened constituency — than they already have.

We already have 23 states that have the so-called trifecta, which means that Republicans are in control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature, and, in some cases, the courts. We have another 13 states that are divided and there are some really tough gubernatorial races going on in places that were sites of experimentation with autocratic politics — Michigan, for example, and Pennsylvania and Arizona. The fate of those states is also going to set the stage for either an emboldened, antidemocratic electorate in the election’s aftermath or an enraged one. This is our fundamental crisis: The extremists among the GOP’s constituency are either going to be emboldened or enraged, and both of those are terrible outcomes, potentially, for our democracy. And the party’s leadership has completely, cynically, embraced either of those responses to maintain power in a way that is going to affect our democracy for a long time.

FUNG: I’ll be keeping my eye on at least three things. One is what Theda and Erica have mentioned already: Violence and intimidation against election officials and whether we will see more of that than we did in 2020 and its aftermath. I was in Madison, Wisconsin, a few months ago and a friend of mine arranged a meeting with the city clerks. In Wisconsin, it’s the local clerks who run the elections every other year. My friend who set up the meeting said, “It’s going to be really interesting. You’re going to learn a lot about the election. But do not ask about political violence, because these people and their families have suffered so many threats through social media, through phone calls, through the mail, that they’re in a kind of post-traumatic stress situation.” These are not prominent officials. They signed up to get the garbage picked up and to collect your tax bill, and they happen to run elections. This is quite a marker of decline and, in my view, intolerable. Will we see more of that?

SKOCPOL: We already are.

FUNG: So I think the answer is probably yes. Number two: Will we see more election administration of a partisan kind? Will partisanship creep in at that county and state and local level more? In 2020, I think we were fortunate to see a number of Republican election officials who saw it as their professional responsibility to call the balls and strikes. That is a very important line of defense for democracy. A third question: How much will the deniers deny? We know that a bunch of people who are running for office at many levels endorse or at least are silent on the question of “Stop the Steal.” Will they question their own election? Or elections more broadly? A charitable interpretation may be that these people are staying quiet or endorsing Stop the Steal to satisfy some real or imagined demand from the base, but they really want to do the right thing. An uncharitable interpretation is that’s just not the case. They will use Stop the Steal in ’22 and maybe ’24 for their political and partisan advantage. I think that’s a third thing to keep your eye on.

GAZETTE: Let’s explore the down-ballot races a little more. It seems that once you’re talking about the people who handle the elections, you can cement in bias or party preferences in a way that even a sweeping victory in one of the two chambers of Congress might not. Is it secretaries of state that we should be concerned about, if election deniers take those particular seats? Or are there other offices that may not normally get a lot of attention that we should start paying attention to?

SKOCPOL: It varies state by state who the top official responsible for overseeing honest election administration is. But in my view, it’s the thousands of local communities where, basically, older women have been the volunteers who sit there, check off your ballot, and help you put it in, and make sure the ballots are sent to the right place to count. That’s all very taken for granted, and a large number of those people have quit because they have been threatened. In areas where Democrats prevail, armed militias are being sent in to harass those workers. Donald Trump has already called upon his army of followers — he still matters a lot in these processes because of his ability to inspire viciousness — to go into liberal areas and harass everyone. I think we’re going to see a chaotic situation. We’re already seeing it.

GAZETTE: Is there a way to encourage — Erica, jump in there.

CHENOWETH: I’m glad you asked about the down-ballot races, and I’m glad that Theda mentioned the armed militias that are showing up. I also want to raise one other really concerning trend and thing to watch: There have been lots of reports of an effort by Trump’s followers and the larger organs of the GOP to mobilize and “train” volunteers to go and watch polls, and to watch them with a very assertive tendency to challenge votes or voters.

We’ve already seen this around the country during early voting, but the idea is that during the 2020 election, when Trump’s legal team was losing all these lawsuits, the main response they were getting from the judiciary was “show me the paperwork.” They didn’t have any, because there wasn’t any substantiation behind their claims of fraud. What’s happening this time is they’re going to develop the paperwork. The reality is that very few of these challenges are actually going to be valid in the end, but they don’t care whether they’re valid. What they care about is establishing a paper record where they can then say this was happening and they can build this case, with their own supporters or a friendly judge, that there is widespread fraud.

Inserting obstructionist tactics into the organs of the democratic machine ultimately will slow down the process of counting votes and create the semblance of a paper trail. It’s a very deliberate tactic to win lawsuits that challenge elections or delay the certification long enough that it triggers a different process, where it goes to the House or back to the state legislatures to decide. This is like a double insurance policy that the GOP has been developing. The gerrymander is a major issue, the grassroots is a major issue. So is geography. The fact that people are recognizing this and sorting into places where they feel like they live among people that aren’t diametrically opposed to them creates this structural misrepresentation in our democracy in the way that districts are organized and in the way that we vote. It means that we don’t actually have a very representative democracy. That’s why a lot of colleagues, including myself, have been supporting this change to how we elect members of Congress to be mixed-member districts and proportional representation, which can mitigate against some of the more extremist tendencies that we’re going to be facing for a generation or longer, because of gerrymandering and geography.

GAZETTE: It seems that one feature of the last few years has been moderates on the Republican side dropping out and leaving the playing field for more extreme players. Is there a way to reverse this?

FUNG: It’s very unlikely that this Republican Party will incorporate the Liz Cheneys, Mitt Romneys, and the Jeff Flakes of the world anytime soon. Regardless of whether you think the Trump phenomenon is reproducible, it did happen and has transformed the Republican Party. So I think that’s not in the cards. Like Erica, I am in favor of moving the United States beyond the two-party system. We are an extreme outlier and only have two effective parties. I think that if we had more than two, then there would be a home for center-right Republicans. I think there should be a Jeff Flake-Liz Cheney party. There should be a Josh Hawley-Donald Trump party. There should be a Bernie-AOC party. And there should be a Joe Biden party, at least.

“We’re in a very serious crisis, the most serious since the coming of the Civil War.”

— Theda Skocpol

Theda Skocpol.

File photo by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

SKOCPOL: A much simpler reform is ranked-choice voting. These changes in the constitutional system being discussed will never happen. I’m confident in predicting that. What’s more likely to happen is a withdrawal down to regional and cross-state and cross-city ways of building healthy civic democracy. I’m about to assemble a small group of people to think about that.

There is one vulnerability to the minority, authoritarian way. They depend on the economic success and the vitality and the taxes of the areas that don’t want it that way. They want to collect our resources and impose their crabbed view of the world upon us. Here, I’m talking about the core. I don’t see this as popularly-driven. This is an elite thing, really. The way to go at that is not to pour into the streets. They want us to pour into the streets, and they’ll pour us into the jails and cemeteries if we do that. It’s to find a way to starve the beast, and that’s going to require liberals thinking in a way they have not thought for 75 years. It’s going to be a hard one because liberals in this country have been used to looking to the presidency and the courts. They’ve been used to sending money to Washington to redistribute, and when that fails, pouring into the streets. It’s going to be hard to overcome that, but none of these things are going to work in this situation that I think we’re headed into. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t levers. There are. There’s always a Plan B, C, and D. It’s just that it’s going to have to be found because I’m afraid we’re beyond the tipping point.

GAZETTE: Does anybody feel like there is a chance of widespread political violence, say in the next five years?

CHENOWETH: We’re already in a period of escalating political violence and I don’t expect that to stop anytime soon. The likeliest scenario is punctuated periods of localized episodes of communal violence. And things only get really dicey if there’s a scenario in which there’s large-scale popular mobilization that is suppressed openly and brutally by organized agents of the state. That’s how those types of things typically kick off. I don’t think that scenario is likely, in part because there’s effective organizing that’s starting to take shape in the United States to prepare for the type of cooperation that Theda was alluding to. A lot of the discourse is that we have a deeply polarized society. I think it’s not an issue of polarization because it’s totally asymmetrical. What we have is radicalization on the right and fragmentation on the center and left. What is needed in that type of environment is unprecedented levels of civic cooperation among those that have up until now have been pretty fragmented. We’re talking about much more sophisticated and deliberate modes of community organizing and cooperation across the pro-democratic civil society that we do have in the country but that hasn’t had to work those muscles in a really long time.

FUNG: I think there probably will be increasing political violence in the months and years ahead. What to do about that? There already are efforts at the state level between election administrators and attorneys general and prosecutors — which I think is very positive — to figure out how to use and/or create laws at the city or state level to deal with this increased political violence and, especially, intimidation of election officials. People, prosecutors, etc., haven’t really thought about how to enforce — or even whether they should enforce if it counts as free speech — those laws. So they’re working on those muscles. I think reporting is really important. As Americans, we’re not used to thinking about political violence here. But here we are, so let’s recognize the reality and talk about it — a lot. Let’s get on the same page about exactly what’s happening out there. I would also favor much more discussion of a social norm, whatever your politics are, even if you think the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden. Americans ought to be able to agree that one thing we don’t do is shoot one another and intimidate one another and one another’s families to advance our political ends.

SKOCPOL: Yeah, but that’s exactly what’s not happening. And let’s be clear, it’s not a bunch of uneducated, fearful people. It’s people like Elise Stefanik, who is a graduate of Harvard University. We have Harvard graduates and other Ivy League elites who are cynically encouraging all of this, to the point of violence, and are most certainly not stepping up to say that we don’t want political violence in American society egged on by Trumpists and elected politicians. I don’t think this started out with popular polarization, but it now is popular polarization. Threats of violence and actual violent incidents in a highly armed society feed on themselves. They feed on people’s fears, and their anger and their willingness to go out and get guns themselves. I don’t expect a period of increased violence, simply because one side is much more armed than the other. The Civil War happened because both sides were armed and both believed they could prevail. I don’t see that. But I do see a period of chaos, of obstruction, of bursts of violence of the kind we see every day — we just saw it in another school in St. Louis — and inevitable decline of a great country that had the capacity to renew itself. I hope it’s not too late, but I’m worried.

GAZETTE: Is there a savior on the horizon? We’ve talked about community organizers. Can voters do it? The courts? A new political leader?

FUNG: I would take any. It’s pretty hard to identify whose job it is to fight for democracy. Everybody’s fighting for their values, for their issues, whether it’s social justice, or health care, or environment, or pro-life or pro-choice. For a long time, we’ve taken the democratic structure for granted. I think the silver lining is a lot more people are not taking that structure for granted. I really appreciated President Biden’s speech about the importance of democracy, but a lot of people think he was a little slow on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. At the same time, Democratic contributors were supporting Stop the Steal candidates in Republican primaries in the hopes that Democrats will have a better chance in the general election. That is not a principled position that a savior of democracy would take.

SKOCPOL: Very little of that has happened, and in the places where it happened the most, the Democrats are going to win. Let’s not be naive.

FUNG: Well, it may be naive to hope for a savior of democracy.

SKOCPOL: It is; nobody’s going to ride in on a white horse.

CHENOWETH: Nobody’s going to ride in on a white horse, but it also is up to all of us to do what we can — organizing one’s neighborhood block to find out how people are doing, recommitting to caring for one another, developing those thick ties of social connection. That really is where democracy lives. One of the things that has been too easy for the Democratic Party in this country, and the people who vote Democratic, is to think that it’s all about the White House, it’s all about the national level. We’re going to come to a time when what we’re doing at home and in our communities and within the states is going to be really important in determining the type of lives that people are able to lead.

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