More than 100 faculty members from universities across the United States have signed a statement warning that the threats to the electoral pillars of American democracy have become so serious that they require urgent corrective federal legislative action.
The “Statement of Concern” has generated attention within the United States and internationally. Eleven Harvard University scholars have signed the statement, including six from Harvard Kennedy School—among them some of the most prominent academic analysts in the country on issues involving democracy policy and practices.
We asked several of the signatories why they felt the moment had come to join such a national campaign, and how they assess the current challenges to democracy in the United States. Their replies follow:
- Archon Fung: The challenge of keeping our democracy
- Alexander Keyssar: Federal action is imperative
- Pippa Norris: Public trust in legitimacy of democracy is at stake
- Robert Putnam: U.S. democracy is facing a life-threatening emergency
Along with dozens of other scholars, I signed this “Statement of Concern” about threats to American democracy to draw attention to the possibility that our republic—or substantial parts of it—may soon give way to authoritarianism. The difference between democrats and authoritarians is that democrats believe that free and fair processes—like elections—should determine who holds power. To small-d democrats, the integrity of the process is more important than wielding power. Authoritarians, on the other hand, believe that they should wield power no matter what. Sometimes they insist they know best how to rule, sometimes they just want power; usually it’s both. In the crudest forms, authoritarians rule through force and violence—they defeat democracy through coups—as we are seeing in Myanmar today.
American democracy faces two marginally more subtle authoritarian threats. The first is the loser’s willful disregard about the truth of democratic outcomes. This is the “big lie” perpetrated by Donald Trump and others that Joe Biden did not legitimately win the election. One-third of Americans currently believe that we are already living under an illegitimate government with Joe Biden at the head of it. The hideous irony of the “big lie” is that it justifies overturning democracy for the sake of defending it.
The second authoritarian threat is perversion of democracy’s rules. Small-d democrats seek changes through voting and elections in order to expand free and fair processes of political competition, voter choice, and full participation. We think, as the slogan goes, that voters should pick the politicians and not the other way around. Authoritarians re-write the political rules in order to strengthen their grip on political power. I believe that legislators in many states—including Georgia and Texas—are enacting laws to make it more difficult to vote in order to consolidate their political positions.
Mendacity and manipulation have been part of our republic since its beginning. But threats to the integrity of our democracy are greater now than they have been in many decades. Without a free and fair electoral system, the power that politicians and parties exercise has no democratic legitimacy. In order to keep our democracy, Americans from all walks of life—educators, businessmen, public servants, Democrats and Republicans alike—should exercise their civic responsibility to support free and fair elections and to oppose the frighteningly widespread efforts to undermine them.
Archon Fung co-directs the Transparency Policy Project and leads democratic governance programs of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the Kennedy School.
My longstanding concerns about the health of American democracy were, unsurprisingly, deepened by four years of the Trump administration. But the alarm bells began to ring even more loudly, more insistently, in the aftermath of the 2020 election: not only did a former president refuse to accept the outcome of an election but he and his allies actively tried to subvert the process of certifying the election results at the state level and again in Congress.
Of equal (or greater) concern, a majority of Republicans continue to support the former president and to accept the patent falsehoods that he disseminates. In states that Republicans control, they are adopting measures to make it more difficult to vote and to undemocratically enhance their own power through gerrymanders; they are also seeking to delegitimize and intimidate those state and local officials who serve as umpires in elections (think Brad Raffensberger), and to permit partisan legislatures to overturn electoral outcomes. They are, in effect, trying to dismantle the very guardrails that prevented the 2020 election from descending into chaos. These are not routine procedural changes.
The logic of the statement that we signed flows directly from these facts. Our democracy is in peril and only the federal government (with mobilized popular support) can protect it. As was true in the 1960s, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, conservative, anti-democratic state governments cannot be counted on to reform themselves. Nor can gerrymandered state legislatures be counted on to undo their gerrymanders. Federal action is imperative.
But federal action is impeded, even blocked, by the filibuster rule in the Senate—an archaic rule, with a disturbing history that serves not to enhance the quality of senatorial debate but to permit partisan minorities to thwart the wishes of majorities. If one accepts the need for national legislation to shore up the threatened institutions of our democracy, then the filibuster has to go.
Alexander Keyssar specializes in the exploration of historical problems that have contemporary policy implications. His books include The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, and Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
The grave threats to American democracy and elections are not confined to the United States by any means. The long spread of 'third-wave' democracies across the globe from the mid-1970s stalled around 2005—since when scholars have noted accumulating indicators of democratic backsliding and rising authoritarianism in many countries.
Problems in American democracy are also far from new. Contrary to popular commentary, many signs of democratic deterioration were evident in America during the Obama years—such as persistent gridlock in Congress, deepening cultural polarization, and the corrupting role of dark money in politics. Backsliding accelerated during the last four years, however, with attacks on the news media, risks to the impartiality of the courts, and the weakening role of Congress as an effective check and balance on executive power.
The Electoral Integrity Project has used expert surveys to evaluate the quality of national elections around the world since 2012 and found that U.S. elections have persistently been graded poorly by EIP experts, scoring next to last among the world’s liberal democracies, and ranking around 45th out of 166 nations worldwide.
But it has become increasingly apparent that urgent actions needs to be taken before the 2022 midterm elections to counter recent developments. For months, the “big lie” claiming a “stolen election” has continued to be spread relentlessly by the former president, his close advisors, GOP lawmakers, and rightwing sympathizers on cable news and social media. According to many polls, two-thirds of Republicans continue to believe that Biden’s victory was fraudulent. This has damaged public trust in the legitimacy of the electoral process.
State lawmakers have taken steps beyond rhetoric. In Arizona, the Republican party hired a private firm to conduct an audit of the certified vote count. The Brennan Center reports that since January this year 22 new laws restricting voting rights have been enacted in 14 states. For the 2021 legislative session, almost 400 bills restricting voting rights have been tabled in 48 states.
If we don’t speak up now, if the Senate does not act to pass H.R.1 For the People Act and H.R.4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, then public trust in American democracy is likely to deteriorate further and free and fair elections will be threatened.
Today’s crisis of American democracy is the culmination of an illness that started slowly and almost imperceptibly but now imperils the American body politic, rather like a serious disease that festers in a patient’s body for years, but suddenly breaks out in a life-threatening emergency. In such a medical crisis, physicians propose therapies to save the patient, and that’s what our group of 100 has done, emphasizing institutional reforms on such issues as voting rights, electoral administration, and the filibuster. All of us agree that those reforms are urgent and essential. But as in the medical case, members of our group have different diagnoses of the underlying ailment. Mine is historical.
Our country is in a pickle—that’s about the only thing Americans agree on. On Inauguration Day 2021, 67 percent of us said that America was “on the wrong track,” as opposed to 23 percent who said we were headed “in the right direction.” As Shaylyn Romney Garrett and I have shown in our recent book The Upswing, many statistical indicators confirm that our politics gradually became more polarized over the last half century, now reaching levels of tribalism virtually unrivaled in our national history. Over this same period the gap between rich and poor has steadily widened, while social isolation and cultural self-centeredness have mushroomed.
Reversing this decades-long decline from a “we” society to an “I” society is possible—indeed, Americans have done so before, as we show in The Upswing. But that pivot, however fundamental for our future, could take many years. In the meantime, saving American democracy from its current crisis is a matter of months and even days. As my colleagues and I argue in our “Statement of Concern,” we have no time to lose.
Robert Putnam is a past president of the American Political Science Association. His 15 books include Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.
Faculty portraits by Martha Stewart; banner image by Steven Puetzer/Getty Images